COVID is just a catalyst

Science educators have been grappling with the challenges of remote instruction long before the pandemic. The virus has simply lowered the activation barrier to implementation.  The chemistry education community has yet to adopt a remote alternative to time and resource intensive laboratory instruction, and the result of this nonconcurrence is the messiness, fear and uncertainty you witness today.

There are plenty of alternatives to face-to-face laboratory instruction: virtual laboratory simulations; videos of faculty performing experiments; kits where students can perform experiments at home.  These solutions may have worked adequately this past semester, given that those of us who had a week to transition to on-line formats were considered “fortunate”, but they are not long-term solutions.  The reason being: we don’t really know what problem we are trying to solve.

Despite having a lecture/laboratory model for decades, there is still little agreement on the purpose of laboratory instruction in introductory chemistry.  The problem – in my mind – is threefold.  First, introductory chemistry has two very different audiences – majors and non-majors – who have vastly different learning trajectories and objectives.  Second, Chemistry is hard and involves a language, content, and skills that are unfamiliar to learners.  The third problem is resistance; learners are resistant to the idea that learning Chemistry may be useful or valuable to them, and instructors are resistant to the idea that the model that worked for them may be obsolete for today’s learners.

I am greatly interested in non-lecture-based instructional delivery and how technology can facilitate learning; however, I simply cannot find any passion for on-line learning.  I learned Chemistry through face-to-face interactions, and I cannot envision a world where students can learn Chemistry effectively in any other fashion.  Simply put, I’m part of the problem, and COVID has catalyzed my grappling with that fact.

Answering the question: how can laboratory instruction be performed in an on-line or remote environment, is impossible without answering the preceding question: what is the purpose of laboratory instruction.  The reason is simple.  The costs and management of resources is prohibitive, and no one is willing to take on the liability associated with distributed laboratory instruction.  Face-to-face laboratory experiences are simply not translatable to an on-line format.  Instead, one must identify what elements of a face-to-face laboratory experience are transferable to an on-line format, and doing so requires that we know what elements of that face-to-face lab are important.

For example, the copper cycle is a common laboratory experiment where students are exposed to the conservation of matter, chemical equations, and some synthetic techniques.  The experiment requires hazardous materials such as nitric and sulfuric acids, which would be cost prohibitive (and simply stupid) to ship to a class of remote-learning introductory chemistry students.  Even if the students were charged with procuring their own supplies from a local hardware store (which, in this case, would be possible), no sane faculty member would encourage students to perform reactions that generate noxious fumes without their direct supervision and proper ventilation.

So the copper cycle experiment is clearly not translatable to an on-line format.  Therefore, we must identify the aspects of the experiment that are transferable.  To do so, it is fruitful to think about what makes a scientific field, which in turn answers the question, why is learning a science so hard.

While I presume it is true for all disciplines, there are three pillars to Chemistry instruction: the language, the concepts and the skills.  Chemistry has symbols and equations that make up a unique language that must be understood by anyone exploring the discipline. One must understand how the periodic table (the alphabet) is used to create chemical formulas (words) and equations (sentences).  There are concepts such as stoichiometry which serve as chemical grammar.  One could not possibly understand the concepts of Chemistry without learning this language.  Developing the skills needed to explore chemical concepts or to even create new ones completes the triumvirate of chemical instruction.

Returning to the copper cycle, students performing this experiment learn some practical skills used in reaction chemistry.  They develop their understanding of chemical language by formulating equations based upon these reactions.  They are introduced to important (and in this case, fundamental) concepts through analyzing the data they collect and observations they make.  The question becomes: what aspects of this learning experience can be realized without the dangerous and resource-intensive parts.

By reducing a laboratory experiment to the three pillars, we begin to identify what aspects of the experiment could be transferred to a remote learning format.  Imagine the following: a student is tasked with the goal of creating Schweizer’s Reagent, a material needed for the production of semisynthetic fibers.  Schweizer’s Reagent is tetraamminecopper dihydroxide and may very well be created in some versions of the copper cycle experiment without the student’s knowledge.  Students would be guided through a shopping list consisting of root killer (impure copper sulfate), crystal drain cleaner (sodium hydroxide) and household ammonia.  With a few select components (perhaps the dean will permit shipping equipment kits without hazardous chemicals), students could be guided through the pillars (skill: purification by recrystallization, concept: conservation of matter, language: double displacement reactions) in a safer but not risk free experiment.

And it is in that last statement that we come to an as-yet unmentioned question.  How much risk is acceptable for science education?  We accept varying levels of risk in our daily lives.  I accepted the risk of a nasty grease-fire burn when I cooked a pound of bacon for my Memorial Day meal and I risked long-term health problems by eating it all (along with several all-beef patties, high-fat cheddar cheese and ultra-processed hamburger buns).  We appear to be increasingly risk-adverse when it comes to receiving (or providing) an education, and perhaps the COVID pandemic can serve as a catalyst for us to grapple with this meaty topic as well.

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