The grand challenge – Remote chemistry labs for 1,000 students

Chemistry is an experimental science, which is best taught by doing. Chemical hazards and specialized equipment tether chemistry lab courses taught at the University of Maine to sophisticated teaching labs in highly supervised, well-ventilated environments. When COVID-19 hit last spring, it prompted a grand challenge: could the introductory general and organic chemistry lab courses be shifted online, in a cost effective, safe manner, while preserving an active, hands-on, experimental approach?

As planning began for a remote fall semester, Alice Bruce, chair of the Chemistry Department, met with Mitchell Bruce and Natalie Machamer, the faculty in charge of the general chemistry (CHY 123 and CHY 133) and organic chemistry (CHY 253) labs, respectively, to discuss the possibility of assembling take-home lab kits to provide hands-on activities, opportunities to build skills, and exposure to simple instrumentation and the scientific process.

The logistics of delivering a remote hands-on lab experience to 1,000 students sited as far away as Alaska and Canada were overwhelming at first. 

“We faced a number of challenges,” says Mitchell Bruce. “Identifying less expensive equipment that could be substituted for standard laboratory glassware and instruments, minimizing the hazards associated with chemical experiments, promoting student engagement and facilitating supervision in a remote setting all loomed as large problems.”

The team quickly realized to have any chance at success, they would need to bring more people on board. Eventually the remote chemistry lab team grew to include over 20 UMaine faculty, staff and graduate students who worked throughout the summer to develop and test experiments, order equipment, and pack lab kits. Key members of the team included Andrew Bergeron, chemical safety officer and chemical stores manager; Lee Bickerstaff, organic chemistry lab manager; and Sarah Bernard, general chemistry lab manager, who joined the department in August. The department even looked across campus for assistance: Tim Bruce, a graduate student in the School of Computing and Information Science, developed a visible spectrometer, consisting of an Arduino, a printed circuit board, and a 3D-printed cuvette holder that went into kits.

One of the primary challenges for both lab programs was to identify experiments that could be completed by using less hazardous chemicals and relatively inexpensive equipment. With financial support from the Davis Foundation (through the Division of Lifelong Learning), along with the resources of the chemistry department and InterChemNet, the department began ordering large quantities of equipment needed for each kit: small electronic balances, plasticware beakers, graduated cylinders, funnels and pipettes. At the same time, chemistry teaching assistants and faculty began developing at-home lab experiments that would meet learning objectives while making use of less hazardous chemicals. An additional goal was keeping costs low.

“Commercial lab kits for students do exist, but they cost several hundred dollars each,” says Alice Bruce. “It was important to us to keep the cost to the students low.” Preparing their own kits in-house also protected students from commercial kit shortages nationwide as other institutions scooped up supplies in anticipation of their own remote learning needs.

The cost of each kit prepared by the chemistry team comes in under $100; the kits, distributed through a system organized by Dean Graham, associate director of the University of Maine Bookstore along with bookstore staff, are also assembled with an eye toward reusability. At the end of the semester, students will return their lab kits and the chemistry team will clean equipment and repack about 200 kits for students in CHY 123, which will be offered remotely again in the spring semester.

For both general chemistry and organic chemistry, students who have obtained the lab kits meet synchronously on Zoom with their teaching assistant instructor during the regularly assigned lab time. Students prepare by completing activities prior to the start of lab. Teaching assistants present important information at the beginning of the lab session and provide opportunities for questions. Students are then encouraged to conduct experiments while they are on Zoom in case they encounter any problems, and they can ask questions of their TA.

Madeline Peyton, a first-year marine science major, says the lab kits provided this semester for CHY 123 made the lab “the most fun I took this fall.”

“Being able to have the hands-on experience of performing the labs with peers, even through Zoom, made the material more memorable,” Peyton says. “My lab TA was always ready to answer any of my questions inside and out of our lab period, and tried her best to make the labs as engaging and fun as possible. The Chemistry Department did a great job of making this difficult time much less stressful and more enjoyable.”

The at-home lab kits in general chemistry are supplemented by opportunities for students to earn “badges” by demonstrating their skills in measurement (mass and volume) and standard laboratory techniques (filtration, solution preparation). To earn badges, students create short videos demonstrating their skill and upload them for evaluation by their TA. At the end of the semester, students will have earned three badges in fundamental chemistry skills.

The kits also include a simple home-built device that is programmed to operate in two different modes, a visible spectrometer or an oximeter. “When the device is in the oximeter mode, students can explore the chemistry behind measuring the percent oxygen in the blood, which gives them a real world connection to the COVID-19 health crises,” explains Mitchell Bruce.

For the organic chemistry lab, some of the experiments conducted at home had students extracting caffeine from coffee, polymerizing superglue, and using red cabbage to test the pH of household liquids — an additional logistical challenge, says Machamer. “In addition to the original limitations on chemicals we could ship through the mail, we also found ourselves dealing with perishable goods that went out by ‘curbside pickup,’” she says.

Aldous Hofmann, a junior studying botany who is enrolled in Machamer’s organic chemistry lab, says that the contents “allowed some semblance of normalcy in these very unusual times, and getting to work with concepts like polarimetry (light bending) and extracting caffeine from coffee was really cool.”

The organic chemistry kits are augmented by videos developed by Machamer in 2019, with the support of CITL, to help students learn certain techniques that are not possible remotely — due to either specialized equipment or glassware requirements, or because of the more hazardous nature of chemicals involved.

They were professionally edited and complete with graphical layovers and intro music,” Hofmann says. “Machamer’s passion for teaching and care for her students’ academic experience really shined through. The entire experience really reiterated for me that the faculty are what make UMaine special.”

The Department of Chemistry is in the process of surveying students to gather feedback about the use of the kits, but initial response has been positive. Mitchell Bruce says. 

Graduate teaching assistants report very high levels of engagement with their students during lab sessions conducted over Zoom.” Machamer says. “The students wish they could be in the lab, though they completely understand why that wasn’t possible, so they appreciate being able to do something hands on.”