The first years’ chemistry laboratory courses have started again, mostly on campus ‘as usual’. But is a chemistry kit for home use not a better option? Delta gauged opinions.
Where else than in the lab do students learn about advanced instruments? (Photo: Michal Jarmoluk/Pixabay)

The first years’ chemistry laboratory courses have started again, mostly on campus ‘as usual’. But is a chemistry kit for home use not a better option? Delta gauged opinions.

Lees in het Nederlands

The first year chemistry basic principles laboratory courses for molecular science & technology (MST) started again at TU Delft on Thursday 17 September. Designing the laboratory courses for many degree programmes in corona times is a challenge. Still, not much has changed in terms of the content of the basic principles laboratory courses, says teacher and Professor Rienk Eelkema of the Chemical Engineering Department (AS). Only two small experiments have been added to the current laboratory course for the students. One is about flow and the other about viscosity. Eelkema says that “Anyone can do this at home as it uses tap water and things that everyone has in their kitchen cupboard.”

The number of hours that the students carry out laboratory experiments has also not changed. The difference is that the students do the data processing and report writing either at home or in a specially designated space.

What is new are the introduction lessons in Python that the students get this year. According to Eelkema, the programming language is very useful for chemical engineers. “Later on in their degree or career they will need to build numeric models and to analyse using numerical methodologies.” There has been a desire to include Python in the curriculum for a while, but it is now included as students can easily do the subject at home.

Do it yourself kit
It should not be assumed that the basic principles laboratory courses are largely unchanged from previous years. Dalhousie University in Canada has given much of the first year chemistry laboratory courses online because of corona. This was why the teachers have thought about learning aids. Three British researchers put together an article arguing for chemistry kits for home use, particularly for first years in all science subjects. What do teachers and students at TU Delft think? Would a kit be useful here if TU Delft would have to close again? What are the pros and cons?

‘Some students get bogged down in all the things they can do’

In itself, Rienk Eelkema likes the idea of a chemistry kit. “For a while we were considering letting students do experiments at home, using a small microscope that you could use at home. We just did not include it in the subject this year because we were under pressure to decide how we would deal with the problem of lab capacity.”

TU Delft chemistry didactician Ineke Henze-Rietveld has her reservations. She believes that a first year chemistry laboratory course at home would only work under close supervision as the creativity and the thought process of the students need to be stimulated. “Someone at TU Delft, say a teacher in training, should do a graduation research into this,” she suggests.

Cookbook laboratory courses
According to the British researchers, the chemistry kit could be an improvement on current chemistry laboratory courses. It would give more space for students outside the tight timetables of the laboratories at universities to try things themselves, work things out and collaborate. Instruction based laboratory courses, also known as ‘cookbook laboratory courses’, are less effective at bringing across the material than research laboratory courses under good supervision that draw on the students’ motivation, shows research (in Dutch) by Rutger van de Sande, teacher in Science Didactics at the Fontys University of Applied Sciences.

But for Eelkema, this is not quite what his laboratory course is meant to do. “That is instruction driven and is thus somewhat one dimensional in terms of a learning methodology. The objective is to learn the basic skills such as measuring, building configurations and getting to know advanced equipment that you will later need for research.” The MST course is now starting the basic principles, he says. There will be more space for students to demonstrate their motivation and ask questions at the end of the first year.

Time consuming
According to Henze-Rietveld, the chemistry kit is primarily intended to give students greater autonomy to experiment and improvise. She says “that may appear fun and stimulating, but some students get bogged down in all the things they can do and this can make them unsure and can be time consuming.”

‘We must be able to correct students’

Eelkema too sees objections to a home laboratory. “We have 190 first year MST students which means that, while it is conceivable to distribute 190 boxes of things, you can’t do it in one afternoon.” Apart from that, there is the issue of safety. “You can move a laboratory course to a home, but a major part of the first year laboratory course is learning to work safely. We must be able to correct students’ actions and behaviour, such as like wearing safety goggles for example.”

So the teachers see potential as well as problems. But what about the students? We asked third year MST student Yong Yong Li. She did the research laboratory course at home last year. She researched the ‘instant’ behaviour of powdered foodstuffs such as chocolate milk powders, instant tomato soup and pancake mix. She looked at how long a drop of water took to seep into the powder. The students had a weekly Zoom meeting with their supervisor and had to submit a report at the end. Li said that “it was easier than doing it in the lab, and I still learned a lot.”

Nevertheless, she thinks doing the entire basic principles laboratory course at home would be tricky. “We mostly did tests to learn to use the equipment and the glass in the lab. I’m not sure this would work at home. You can’t really operate a rotavap – an apparatus to evaporate solvable substances using a water bath – at home,” she laughs.