Engaging Students — Ideas from the School of Chemistry, University of Bristol

Sciblogs By Dr Michael Edmonds Jun 16,2010

A couple of weeks ago, I attended a fascinating talk by Dr Paul Wyatt from the University of Bristol entitled ’Teaching Innovations — Using Technology to Enrich the Traditional’. The talk described many of the innovative techniques used to teach practical chemistry at the University of Bristol as part of the School of Chemistry’s Chemistry Laboratory Sciences (ChemLabS) programme. The ChemLabS programme is one of England’s 74 Centres for Excellence in Teaching and Learning.

One of the problems experienced with traditional chemistry lab experiments is that many students come into the lab, follow the instructions like a recipe, go home with the results and try and make sense of them. This is hardly conducive to learning, nor does it correctly model how science really works.

Dr Wyatt and his colleagues have dealt with this problem through the use of a Dynamic Laboratory Manual (DLM) . This web based laboratory manual requires students to access it prior to attending the laboratory in order to carry out a number of activities. A safety quiz must be completed to demonstrate that students have read up on the hazards they might encounter. Low scoring students can sit the quiz a second time (which contains different questions to prevent rote learning). Student quiz scores are electronically available to the lab supervisor, and any students scoring below 80% in the safety quiz are red flagged and must report to the lab supervisor at the beginning of the lab session for safety instruction.

In addition to the safety quiz, the DLM also contains video clips demonstrating how to set up and use of different pieces of equipment. The DLM is accessible via computers situated in the laboratory, so students not only have the opportunity to study techniques at home, but can also look up techniques as they need them in the lab. I can imagine lab demonstrators must appreciate this reprieve from needing to answer the same questions over and over again.

Another innovation is the use of interactive animations in the DLM which illustrate the use of complex pieces of lab equipment. The interactive valves and buttons on the animated equipment allow students to practice equipment use, before being set loose on the real thing, where turning the wrong value or pushing the wrong button could be hazardous for either the student or the equipment.
As well as the development of the DLM, the School of Chemistry has incorporated other innovations, some more controversial than others. Laboratory experiments have been redesigned, with the focus now firmly placed on the skills that students need to develop. As such there is no need for experiments to be grouped into traditional categories such as organic, inorganic, physical chemistry etc. Some experiments are also delivered in an intensive two week programme of laboratory work.

All academic staff, from Heads of Departments to high flying researchers, are required to teach in the laboratories. While other universities allow staff to ’buy out’ their teaching time, Bristol wants students exposed to the enthusiasm and talents of all of the academic staff. I suspect that initially this would not have been a popular decision for some staff, but from Paul’s talk it sounds like most have found it to be an enjoyable experience.

Paul’s lecture has to have been one of the most interesting talks I have been to in a while, and something I consider worth sharing. More details on the chemistry department’s innovative approaches to teaching can be found here, and it is worth noting that some of the software developed at Bristol is commercially available.

Dr Michael Edmonds is an educator, researcher and manager at Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology. He has strong interests in the communication and promotion of science.