Context‐Based Learning in the Chemistry Laboratory: Addressing Problems Relevant to Local Communities

You may have heard about “service learning” or “context-based learning” on your campus, but thought…how could chemistry participate? In this post, Dr. Anna Cavinato talks about her experience integrating a research-based approach into her General Chemistry Laboratory that served the local community with useful data. The student engagement was worth the effort!


Community Collaboration as the foundation

When I started teaching laboratory courses almost twenty years ago, I inherited traditional curricula where experiments used, for the most part, a cookbook approach.  One of my first assignments was to redesign the third term of the General Chemistry lab which revolved around qualitative analysis.  I really wanted to get away from the canned experiments while offering the students the opportunity to engage in open-ended projects that would be more meaningful and would portray chemistry in a broader context.

I developed a brand new lab curriculum based on the collaboration with the local organization which included a field trip to the creek to conduct some onsite analyses and sampling water to bring back to the lab for further analysis.  The outcome was awesome!

The opportunity for change came when I was approached by staff members of the Grande Ronde Model Watershed (GRMW), a non-profit organization whose mission is to enhance the local natural resources. GRMW scientists were actively seeking potential collaborations with the university as a means to supplement their monitoring capabilities limited by scarce resources and lack of equipment.  Particularly, they were interested in assessing the impact of stream restoration on the quality of water at End 20180417_150051.jpgCreek, a local stream that had been turned into an irrigation ditch back in the 1930’s resulting in diminished fish habitat. I quickly identified key analytes such as nitrates and phosphates that would be of relevance for water quality purposes and would be easy for beginner students to analyze. I developed a brand new lab curriculum based on the collaboration with the local organization which included a field trip to the creek to conduct some onsite analyses and sampling water to bring back to the lab for further analysis.  The outcome was awesome!  The students rose to a completely different level of engagement not only in terms of lab experiments but also in their understanding of regulatory policies and how science can inform and shape those policies.  In their reflection paper, which I use to solicit feedback on their lab experience, students wrote:

“This investigation not only broadened my understanding of chemistry, it also helped me learn about federal and state agencies and the quality of water in the Grande Ronde Valley.”

“I was able to apply my knowledge of chemistry in way that benefited my community. By analyzing the water of Ladd Marsh, not only did we as a class contribute to the restoration project, but we also were able to apply chemistry that had previously held only classroom relevance.”

“I really enjoyed working with a partner and being able to give a small amount back to the community of Union County.”

The students rose to a completely different level of engagement not only in terms of lab experiments but also in their understanding of regulatory policies and how science can inform and shape those policies.

Phase Two – partnering throughout the curriculum

Encouraged by students’ positive feedback, I started looking into other potential partnerships and extended this approach to upper division courses, including analytical chemistry, instrumental analysis and environmental chemistry.  Some examples of such collaborations and research questions include:

  • 20180417_152440.jpgGrande Ronde Model Watershed/Native American Tribes – What water conditions provide a suitable habitat for the Columbia Spotted frogs?
  • US Forest Service – How do different grazing practices affect the ability of a local stream to support salmonids population?
  • Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife – Is the city wastewater treatment plant affecting the water quality of a protected marsh, home to endangered bird species?
  • Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife – Are there any residual antibiotics in hatchery raised fish?
  • Side A Brewery – How does the polyphenol content of beer change across the different fermentation stages?

Working with upper division students allows for an even higher degree of engagement and independence.  In the analytical chemistry and instrumental analysis labs students are asked to develop a proposal outlying the experimental procedures that best suit the research question and, once approved, they will assemble the required materials and supplies and execute the experiments.  When possible they will share their results with the local partner in the form of poster or oral presentations.

In the analytical chemistry and instrumental analysis labs students are asked to develop a proposal outlying the experimental procedures that best suit the research question and, once approved, they will assemble the required materials and supplies and execute the experiments.

Bringing community engagement and collaboration to your laboratory

20180418_102656.jpgLooking back at over 15 years of teaching labs using this collaborative approach, I think there is much to be gained by both sides.  By collaborating with a community partner, students are much more invested in the outcome of their lab work.  They develop a sense of pride and ownership for the project as they become more aware of local issues and use their knowledge to benefit the community.  In the meantime, they also develop the ability to operate more independently and troubleshoot what goes wrong.  My role is basically of an advisor that guides their work and helps direct it in the right direction. In turn, the partnering organization gains access to data that, otherwise, would not be available.  Of course, the organization needs to understand from day one that the data produced by the students need to be taken with a grain of salt, although results are validated by multiple groups of students independently analyzing the same samples.

By collaborating with a community partner, students are much more invested in the outcome of their lab work.  They develop a sense of pride and ownership for the project as they become more aware of local issues and use their knowledge to benefit the community.

20180418_111557So… if you wanted to change the way you teach your labs, how would you start? First piece of advice: start small! Look for local organizations, non-profits, small businesses that may benefit from yours and your students expertise.  State agencies (in my case the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife) typically lack funding for systematic monitoring (streams, air quality).  If you are close to a Native American reservation, usually tribes have a Natural Resource Management office that can benefit from access to more advanced equipment and analyses.  These are just some ideas and the possibilities are endless!

In spite of being more work for everybody, I would not change the way I teach my labs!

For more ideas…. In 2017 I published an article in Analytical and Bioanalytical Chemistry entitled “Challenges and successes in implementing active learning laboratory experiments for an undergraduate analytical chemistry course” (Anal. Bioanal. Chem. (2017), 409, 6, 1465–1470. http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00216-016-0092-x) which describes in more details some of the projects and includes a discussion of the benefits and challenges involved in conducting open-ended projects.

In spite of being more work for everybody, I would not change the way I teach my labs!  When I see my students interacting professionally with community partners, proudly displaying and explaining their work, I know I have contributed, even to a small extent, to their development as future scientists and professionals.


cavinato-2018-284x300~Dr. Anna Cavinato is a Professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Eastern Oregon University where she does research on aptamer-based colorimetric sensors for detecting biomarkers specific to different bacteria. She is an American Chemical Society Fellow and CUR Chemistry Councilor.

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