Bringing Research into the Course Laboratory: A True Story…

Perhaps you are excited about the possibility of bringing your research into the teaching lab, but you are looking for a testimonial of how it worked in a chemistry department? In this post, Dr. Robert Bachman tells his “course-based undergraduate research” story of implementation – and you don’t want to miss it. 


In a sense these thoughts are part repetition and part follow up to the excellent words that my friend and colleague Keri Colabroy shared with you a while ago - Do more with less - Teach AND do research!.

Good, you came back.

As Keri so wonderfully explains, there are myriad benefits to incorporating your own research agenda into your courses. Since she did such a great job documenting these benefits and highlighting much of the supporting literature, I want to take a more personal approach and talk about how my teaching evolved to embrace this approach and offer a few reflections on some of the perceived roadblocks I dealt with along the way. I say “perceived” because in many cases, once I took the leap, the problems I feared never really materialized. I think this is an important point to consider, as I suspect many positive changes are not attempted because of difficulties we perceive might occur. The way I finally conquered this fear was to re-conceptualize my pedagogy as inherently experimental; that is to say, I treat each edition of a course as an experiment where I try out some aspect of the ideal I am envisioning, all the time recognizing, that much like our scientific research, most of these innovations will not be wholly successful. Since my approach is inherently experimental and iterative, you might consider this dispatch a kind of “work in progress” report.

“I suspect many positive changes are not attempted because of difficulties we perceive might occur. The way I finally conquered this fear was to re-conceptualize my pedagogy as inherently experimental…”

A Walk down memory lane..

Where to begin this reflection? Several years ago, I became dissatisfied with what I call “the traditional laboratory,” consisting of weekly labs that typically involve students making something, doing simple characterizations to verify “successful” reproductions of a well-known result, and finally bottling everything up for disposal. It occurred to me that this approach to lab was developed not because it fostered the learning goals we hope for, but rather because it was predictable due to its known outcomes and hence conveniently monitored and assessed. With this realization, I was motivated to find a better way, but unsure where to begin.

I became dissatisfied with what I call “the traditional laboratory”…

My initial foray into this approach was to insert a short (two-week) project at the end of a “regular” lab sequence draw from my research lab. The project was an experimental failure but several of the students indicated that they still found it valuable. This feedback suggested I was onto something but I worried about the poor lab outcomes. So, I retreated a little from my original vision in the following year and instead tried an approach where students were asked to “replicate something from the literature” using a set of J. Chem. Ed. articles that spanned a variety of synthetic and analytical/physical aspects of inorganic chemistry as a basis for student selection. The benefit of this approach is that students were able to choose a topic of personal interest from among the 8 projects I provided and I had greater confidence that the experiments were likely to be successful. The choice aspect of the project provided a great deal of intellectual excitement for the students and helped create a positive energy in the lab. I also coupled this approach with a requirement that student teams would have to present their results as a poster at our on campus Scholarship Day (Scholarship Sewanee) to model the idea of communicating one’s results. While there were many positives to this approach, the downsides were obvious in hindsight: 1) None of this work advanced my own scholarship; 2) I was even busier than ever trying to guide 6 or more separate lab experiences; and 3) I had no idea of the outcomes of these projects. Ultimately, I decided this approach had value but was unsustainable. The experience did, however, give me greater confidence that I could find a way to embed small projects from my own scholarly effort into the course.

The key, I realized, was to carefully select small projects, often a minor variation or side project to my lab’s work, or in a few cases, a new direction that I had reasonable confidence could be fruitfully explored.

The key, I realized, was to carefully select small projects, often a minor variation or side project to my lab’s work, or in a few cases, a new direction that I had reasonable confidence could be fruitfully explored. My current course revolves around two projects of a very different nature. The first involves the use of organometallic coupling chemistry to construct new solar harvesting dyes, and the second focuses on the synthesis of derivatives of the ruthenium anti-cancer drug KP1019 that is the focus of the work being done by Laura Stultz and Pam Hanson at Birmingham Southern College. The latter project is in fact part of a nascent collaboration with that group, which we hope to develop into a linked network of courses that encompass a robust research program on metal-based medicines.

How’s it working now?

My current approach is to begin the semester with two or three somewhat traditional lab experiences that allow students to gain confidence with inorganic synthesis, improve their ability to interpret spectral data, and generate starting materials for the later project phase of the course. During this portion of the course, the students pick a project topic and develop an approach of their choosing through a proposal and feedback process. The proposal is approved by mid-semester and the students then have the remaining portion of the course to perform their research. The results are presented both as a manuscript formatted for submission to J. Am. Chem. Soc. (the course is part of our writing across the curriculum program) and a poster at Scholarship Sewanee.

Since the outcomes of the work are truly unknown, it is impossible to make a meaningful assessment of the students’ results. Rather you have to find creative ways to assess their process.

One key I have found to making this approach successful is to recast your assessment goals. Since the outcomes of the work are truly unknown, it is impossible to make a meaningful assessment of the students’ results. Rather you have to find creative ways to assess their process. The coupling of the course to our writing program offers a clear advantage in this regard as I can assess the process of their work as they write about it. In this way the focus of the assessment shifts seamlessly from the question of “did they get answer X” to “how do they explain what they have observed?” and “does their interpretation of the data they have make sense and support their claims?” These questions should seem familiar to anyone that has participated in peer review, they are the kinds of questions we use to assess our peers’ work all the time.

While this approach is still under refinement (what experiment isn’t?), I have seen much improved enthusiasm in lab; and I am more engaged as well. Moreover, I used David Lopatto’s CURE survey last year to assess the students’ self-reported learning gains. The results were quite positive with students indicating strong agreement with statements such as:

  • This course was a good way of learning about the process of scientific research
  • This course had a positive effect on my interest in science
  • I get personal satisfaction when I solve a scientific problem by figuring it out myself
  • The process of writing in science is helpful for understanding scientific ideas

Final thoughts…

“…the students now repeatedly express that they see a value in lab, it is no longer a place to simply get out of as fast as possible…

In conclusion, I don’t think I could ever go back to the traditional lab approach. There is no doubt that this approach feels like a chaotic whirlwind at times, as I try to keep up with as many as 8 separate projects. However, the students now repeatedly express that they see a value in lab, it is no longer a place to simply get out of as fast as possible. I am experimenting with a new wrinkle in my assessment strategy by using a grading contract for the lab writing, but that is a story for another day.

~Dr. Robert Bachman is the F.B. Williams Professor and Chair of Chemistry at University of the South – Sewanee. The Bachman research group  is focused on how intermolecular interactions self-organize and assemble inorganic molecules into macroscopic materials with interesting and potentially useful properties.  We are currently investigating three distinct systems–liquid crystalline platinum diimine complexes, liquid and liquid crystalline alkylammonium  halometalate salts, and metal-containing organogels.

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