Why not start a Chemistry Education Research Group?

Michael Jansen wearing a lab coat in front of a fume hoodIn spite of everything that I don’t know about chemistry, which would fill a significant portion of the internet, I’m not a fan of being told how to teach. I’m all about ideas — mine or someone else’s — but I’ve gotta’ develop these ideas myself; I need to own what I teach.

The upside of this approach is that everything in my courses — and I mean everything — is my creation. I use no publisher- or colleague- or internet-produced anything.

Many of you will think I am a control freak skirting the edge of what normal people refer to as “sanity”. 

I understand. 

And it has taken years of control freak to get me to where I am.

Before you think that I am some kind of chemistry-teaching machine or that I don’t have a life, I’ll tell you the secret — my students do most of the work.

Every Wednesday afternoon for a little over an hour, I run a Chemistry Education Research Group (CERG). Students research, or beta-test or whatever you want to call it, ideas pertinent to chemistry education activities: labs, demonstrations, worksheets.

This is not a chemistry club. We don’t make vinegar-and-baking soda volcanoes or use liquid nitrogen to prepare ice cream. Sure, activities like these can be fun, but they add little to the development of a chemistry program. My team of “graduate students” is dedicated to the successful education outcome. And since this is experimental work, much of what we obtain is a successful failure. And that’s okay — it’s a learning experience. Most projects require several weeks. If a particular activity looks promising, but no longer interests the group, I’ll put it on the back burner. 
Sometimes a couple of still-interested students will volunteer to complete the project.

Successful examples include:

  • Activation energy of the reaction of Alka-Seltzer tablets with water as a function of temperature1
  • % O2 in air by reaction of iron (steel wool) with air
  • analysis of gas mixture2
  • rate law analysis of the reaction of Mg with HCl(aq)3
  • Identification of a mixture: NaHCO3, sucrose, 50-50 mix of NaHCO3 and sucrose4
  • isolation of bismuth from Pepto-Bismol tablets5
  • % purity of CaC26
  • average molar mass of coconut oil by freezing point depression7

This is a small sample of what our CERG has accomplished. Students take pride; their efforts enhance the chemistry curriculum. I make a point of telling my classes that all of their laboratory work has been developed by their peers — past and present.

Students in AP Chemistry guide grade 11s with unfamiliar topics, which is also chemistry education. One year, two boys from grade 7 were involved. Don’t get me wrong — we used them as cheap labour — but they were dedicated. And they learned something and had a great experience.

Four students in lab aprons gathered around a lab top making calculationsThe CERG is a textbook example of win-win: Students gain valuable lab experience in an open-ended environment. They become more confident; they understand the concepts better. And our chemistry program is better off.

If you are interested in running a CERG, start small. Two students will do. You could begin with a lab that works, or maybe one that you’d like to simplify or expand or turn micro- or maybe where you would like to incorporate household chemicals. Discuss the desired outcome with your students, listen to their suggestions or concerns, demonstrate any new techniques — and let them get their hands dirty. Students can also draft pre-and post-lab questions. 

And then take their work and turn it into your work — for everyone’s benefit. 

References and notes

  1.  I stole the idea from Chem 13 News, September 2017 page 6.
  2.  M.P. Jansen, J Chan, A good problem related to the gas laws, Chem 13 News, December 2017/January 2018, page 5.
  3. Second order in [HCl]; thanks to Leslie Barton for the idea.
  4. M.P. Jansen, Let’s get started: Analysis of a Mixture, Chem 13 News, November 2016, page 8.
  5. In progress; https://www.popsci.com/diy/article/2012-07/gray-matter-extracting-bismuth-pepto-bismol-tablets
  6. M.P. Jansen, Percentage purity of calcium carbide — a quick lab, Chem 13 News, September, 2017, page 6.
  7. In progress; looks good.