Chemistry, Creativity, & Curricular Experiments

Michelle D. Driessen

The following entry is written in the same format as our new project-based laboratories in general chemistry. The first two pages represent the information that student teams receive when first planning and executing an experiment. The remaining pages represent my approach to an educational problem and how I would answer these questions in the format a student would in our laboratories. Please note that technology plays a huge role in managing this curriculum and the TAs involved. Its usage and descriptions are italicized throughout this document.

Imagine that you are the instructor in charge of a very large general chemistry laboratory program that utilizes about 60 teaching assistants (TAs) to teach 4,000 students each year. Currently students use verification (cookbook) experiments to learn laboratory techniques and reinforce chemistry concepts. Unfortunately, they leave the course(s) with little practice in critical thinking, a belief that all questions in science have known answers, and that chemistry is prescriptive, stressful, and boring. In this project, you are to design and test a method to teach general chemistry students about the creativity and excitement of “doing” science on a large scale while still covering basic lab skills.

Criteria for completing project:

Safety notes:

Waste collection:

Equipment, techniques & concepts you may find useful:

Available chemicals/materials/support:

Attempt 1 Planning Questions:
Outline a plan for teaching experimental chemistry to general chemistry students. Your plan must meet the “criteria for completing the project” listed above. Keep the answers to the following questions in mind as you formulate your plan.
  1. Can you modify a verification lab to make it open-ended? How?
  2. How will you give students enough information to be successful, but not too much so as to inhibit their creativity?
  3. How will you fairly assess student work to assign a grade?
  4. How can you use technology to support or facilitate this work?
  5. How will you get the faculty and TAs invested in the success of the project?

Attempt 1 Summary Questions:
Summarize what you learned during your first attempt at this experiment. Make sure to include both successes and failures.

Attempt 2 Planning Questions:
Make sure to point out what you will do differently, and why, during your second attempt.

Attempt 2 Summary Questions:
Summarize what you now know about your lab course, and any changes that you would make if a third attempt were available.

Attempt 3 Planning Questions:
Make sure to point out what you will do differently, and why, during your third attempt.

Attempt 3 Summary Questions:
Summarize what you now know about your lab course, and any changes that you would make in your next attempt.

Michelle Driessen, Spring 2011 
Attempt 1 Plan:
The science education literature was searched for materials that support the development of lab technique and critical thinking skills in general chemistry students.  While it was first thought a new lab manual would have to be written from scratch to support these goals, a complete lab manual that supports the open-ended or guided-inquiry model of learning was identified [1]. “Cooperative Chemistry”, the lab manual used at Clemson University, was chosen for the summer 2011 pilot semester and full transition year.  In short, the lab manual reworked verification labs with well-understood chemistry, and shortened them to around 2 pages of information, as opposed to the 20 pages of instruction that students normally get.  These 2 pages of information are identical to the format shown in the first 2 pages of this document.  Students get a short list of goals for the project, a list of available chemicals, a list of concepts or techniques that they may find helpful, and several framing questions to get them started developing their own experiments.  An additional strength of this lab manual is that it requires students to work in permanent teams of four throughout the semester.  

Two days were spent talking with the Clemson lab director [3], and observing their students directly in the lab.  Clemson students commented that the strengths of the program were designing their own experiments (you can’t fake your way through an experiment that you had to design) and working in teams (you never feel completely lost or stupid when you are working with a group of your peers).  A small group of Clemson chemistry TAs served as a focus group to share the pros and cons of the lab curriculum from their point of view.  

Once observation of the Clemson program was completed and the lab manual chosen, a meeting with the department chair and curriculum committee was called.  The meeting was necessary to discuss the goals of the new lab curriculum, identify faculty concerns, and request committee approval to implement the new lab curriculum.  After a discussion of faculty concerns (lowered standards for learning chemical concepts, reduced lab technique coverage, student confusion, etc…), the committee approved a multi-year test of the new lab curriculum.

The first semester pilot of the new lab experience was slated for summer 2011. The student numbers were capped at 112 and required 4 teaching assistants (28 students per TA).  Several high-quality TAs6, committed to education, were recruited to assist with the planning and implementation of the new lab curriculum.  These TAs were willing to help plan the new labs in advance, provide feedback during the pilot, and available to mentor the 60 general chemistry TAs during the following fall and spring semesters.  The four “mentor” TAs participated in planning meetings every few weeks during the spring 2011 semester to think through and discuss all aspects of the upcoming lab curriculum implementation, including grading and pedagogy.

A lab WebVista site was created prior to the start of the semester and contained items such as the syllabus, lab safety information, MSDS (material safety data sheet) search function, and short tutorials on the use of lab equipment specific to our laboratories.

Michelle Driessen, Summer 2011
Attempt 1 Summary:
Overall, the summer pilot test was successful.  Students were told that they were participating in a pilot of a new lab curriculum.  This wasn’t done to scare them, but to prepare them for the inevitable glitches throughout the semester.  Students were assured that any issues encountered would be dealt with swiftly and fairly.  

Each TA collected student information such as gender, native language, class (freshman, sophomore, etc…), and willingness to bring a personal laptop, on index cards at the start of the first lab meeting. These cards were used to form permanent heterogeneous teams of four.  The lab teams were tasked with planning a short experiment to find the density of a plastic item.  This experiment was planned at the end of the first lab meeting in preparation for execution in the next lab period.  As most students are quite familiar with density when they come into this lab, it allowed them to see how the projects would work and experience the process involved with minimal stress.

Most of the remaining projects were two to three lab periods in length.  This allowed students to spend the first lab period discovering unforeseen issues and reformulating their experimental plans.  While some students struggled with the open-ended nature of these projects and lack of a “correct answer”, most acclimated quickly.  Each project culminated in a short presentation by each lab team that summarized their experimental approach, data, and conclusions.  In addition, each student turned in a carbon copy of their lab notebook entries for the project for grading.

Students were assigned a total of four projects in the lab manual during the semester. While the lab manual was a good starting point for us, we found many details that were not relevant to our institution.  It was also our experience that the wording in some of the projects caused our students confusion.  In response, each project and its framing questions were adjusted immediately using student and TA feedback.  The reworked projects and any supporting material that students needed were posted in the lab WebVista site as the semester progressed.

Graded peer evaluations were completed by each student to assess the contributions of their team members, following each of the 4 projects.  These were completed in lab using paper forms during the pilot semester.  We found that students didn’t feel they could honestly evaluate their team members while in their presence.  In addition, handling paper and grading the evaluations became tedious and time consuming for the TAs.

One area where students needed more detailed information involved the work that they handed in and how it was to be graded.  Students needed more concrete grading guidelines and a list of deadlines for specific assignments.  We considered posting detailed grading rubrics for each graded item, but did not implement these due to the short time scale.

The only other problem encountered during the pilot was student absences.  When each team of students is creating a unique experiment, it is impossible for a group member to miss a lab period and then somehow perform the “missed” experiment.  

The projects and how students complete them are heavily dependent on technology.  The planning process requires students to search for information online.  The collection of data often requires the use of computer-interfaced probes.  Groups are encouraged to utilize Google presentations to collaborate and prepare their presentations outside of lab.  This allows the group to work together without being in the same place, and allows the TA to see who contributed to the presentation if there are complaints about equitable workloads.  

The laboratories are outfitted with enough wireless hubs to support a large number of devices accessing the internet at the same time.  Students were encouraged to bring their own laptops, but have the opportunity to check out a departmental laptop if needed. We found that a majority of our students own laptops and were willing to use them, decreasing our need to stock and maintain departmental laptops.  Group presentations were given using permanently installed projectors and screens.  

Michelle Driessen, Summer/Fall 2011
Attempt 2 Plan:
Prior to the beginning of the first full-semester implementation of the new lab format, we:  1) modified lab projects for clarity and consistent formatting, and posted to the lab WebVista site, 2) created and posted more specific instructions describing University of Minnesota lab equipment and procedures, 3) posted additional external links to lab technique explanations and videos, 4) created and posted detailed grading rubrics for each graded item, 5) created digital peer evaluations using Google Forms, and 6) created TA training module information and posted it in a TA Google site to help prepare TAs to teach in this new format and to develop their coaching abilities.

Michelle Driessen, Fall 2011/Spring 2012
Attempt 2 Summary:
The modification and posting of all lab projects, detailed grading rubrics, and lab equipment instructions seemed to give students a much more consistent experience.  The fact that all of this information was posted in the same class website made it convenient as well.  The TA training prior to the start of the semester was helpful, but only a good start.  Weekly TA meetings throughout the semester proved invaluable in keeping the TAs consistent in their approach to teaching and keeping me informed as to where lab improvement was needed.  

Attempt 3 Plan:
Four new lab projects were created from “old” verification labs and posted to lab website for live trial testing during the spring 2012 semester.  Grading rubrics were modified by adding much more detail for both students and TAs.  Group discussions to wrap up each project were tested in place of standard oral presentations.

Detailed TA tips and suggestions for each project were created and posted in the TA Google site.  These tips included commonly encountered areas of student confusion and several possible methods for a TA to assist without giving away an answer.

Michelle Driessen, Spring 2012
Attempt 3 Summary:
While there will always be areas of the lab curriculum to improve and tweak, overall I believe the first-year implementation has been successful.  There aren’t any hard data to show this, but there is anecdotal evidence.  I was heartened by the scientific conversations I overheard while groups were planning, executing, and analyzing their experiments.  Rather than worrying about the right result, more students were concerned with finding the best way to perform an experiment and what their results meant.

It is worth emphasizing that without the use of technology, a program of this type and size would not be possible. The ability to rewrite a lab project and post digitally, or add student resources at the point of need to the lab website made this project successful.  Creating a digital repository of all of the information needed to teach the course using Google sites made managing the TAs a tractable task.  

You have just read through a curricular experiment, one possible solution, and the changes made during each subsequent trial.  This format is identical to the general chemistry projects that are presented to teams of students every few weeks in our laboratories.  As you can see from the format, there are many different ways to satisfactorily meet the requirements of the project, leaving room for students to be creative in how they explore and answer a given question or problem.  This format emphasizes the development of critical thinking and problem-solving skills [5]. The format also emphasizes the iterative and experimental nature of both chemistry AND teaching.

  1. Cooper, M. Cooperative Chemistry Laboratory Manual, 5th edition, McGraw-Hill, New York, 2012.
  2. Team-Based Learning:  A Transformative Use of Small Groups, Michaelson, L.K.; Knight, A.B.; and Fink, L.D., Eds. Praeger, Connecticut, 2002.
  3. Barbara Lewis, Clemson General Chemistry Lab Coordinator, allowed me to visit their program and watch student lab work firsthand.  She also facilitated the focus group with her TAs.  Her insight and guidance have been invaluable during this process.
  4. The author participated in the University of Minnesota, Office of Information Technology – Faculty Fellowship Program while transforming the University of Minnesota general chemistry laboratories.  The fellowship provided monetary support in addition providing access to a team of educational innovators as a sounding board.
  5. “Effect of cooperative problem-based lab instruction on metacognition and problem-solving skills”, Sandi-Urena, S.; Cooper, M.; and Stevens, R., J. Chem. Ed. 2012, 89, 700-706.
  6. The four TAs instrumental in making this transition successful were David Boyce, Amanda Maxwell, Kaustubh Mote, and Emily Pelton.


Michelle Driessen <>
Michelle Driessen is currently an assistant professor and director of the general chemistry program. She continues to innovate in both the classroom and teaching laboratories, with the goal of getting and keeping students interested in science while teaching basic scientific and laboratory skills.