Chemical Edutainment and Undergrad Labs

So it’s me, the writer of solidasarock, and well I’ve joined the chemistry forums blog team. Studying for qualifiers have been awful, so writing has been almost nonexistent, but with finishing off TAing and watching the first years teach lab and hearing their complains that were oh so similar to mine last year, I thought I’d tackle something that’s really prevalent in some chemistry departments, particularly, my department. And that would of course me chemical edutainment.

<insert 2 cents>

I had the privilege of teaching freshmen, juniors, seniors and graduate students in my TA load, and seeing how things were run here versus my undergrad alma mater is disappointing. Back in my alma mater, experiments were ‘boring’. We didnt go into the latest nanotechnology, but we did go over very valuable experimental techniques. Twenty-thirty titrations in the first semester lab alone was enough to drive one insane, and the qualitative analysis freshman lab of having to figure out what ions were in a mixture was difficult for us fishies. Then of course, there was our ‘reward’ lab where we synthesized YBCO and then did a iodometric titration to determine the oxygen content, and then lots of other random labs that, while ‘boring’ to the students, showed important concepts that helped us conceptualize concepts.

Let’s compare that to my new department. Freshmen here do not do multiple titrations till they die. They dont even determine the concentration of their titrant in a standardization. Here, they do one titration, and do it using a pH meter. We didnt use a pH meter in undergrad until junior year for our titrations since we had to get a feel for the end point before hand. From there, they move onto ‘ubersexy’ labs, such as the synthesis of CdSe nanoparticles, Au nanoparticles. Did they at least characterize these NPs? They did one UV-vis, didnt really get told what was the significance and then were told to move on. Then later they had experiments that had very little chemistry in it at all.

I remember asking why these labs were taught, and I was repeatedly told about the ‘educational value’ of them. They were short writeups with barely any real analysis for the students. I chagrined and did my duty as a TA and taught them the best I could, inserting concepts, that while tangentially related, would actually be covered on their exams. Needless to say, my students complained at the extra work I had ‘assigned’. So writing down a few questions and having them answer it as part of their lab report was making me into a tyrannical despot. My evaluations were crappy, and I had learned my lesson.

I then spoke with one of the lab coordinators who told me about the consumerism of undergrad. We, as the TAs, are the product, and of course, the customer is always right. Of course! They pay $$$$$ money to attend this fine institution, but if they arent getting actual quality and instead get frou frou labs that teach them little but keep them entertained where is the value?

Now this sounds like a rant. Where is your proof? Like I said, I also got to teach juniors and seniors later on in the year, and I, to my dismay would find my proof there. Here are a bunch of chemistry juniors and seniors. I was explaining the quantitative analysis lab, and asked if they had done serial dilutions before. Nope. No one had done it. Unless they were a lackey in a biochem lab and had to do serial dilutions all day for their grad/postdoc mentors. Come on, at the junior/senior level, serial dilutions should be a snap. I explained the concept, showed them how to do it, and in the end, I was still asked by juniors and seniors to whether they could get micropippeters to dilute 1000x in a 100 ml volumetric flask.

I was dumbfounded. I was aghast. I wanted to rant and rave, but I kept it in. I taught them what they needed to know and went over the concept again. I had asked if they had covered it in organic lab (since I didnt get to teach that), and they said no. I knew the freshman curriculum, and I know it wasnt covered there. There were these chemistry majors, almost ready to graduate, not knowing very basic experimental skills.

So I was on fire and wanted to teach hardcore again. I went into other concepts that tangentially related, were still useful, and that they could use the information. A lot of them were happy at the knowledge, some werent. Then fast forward to another lab. These were the same juniors and seniors. I had assigned all the questions in the lab, but some were deemed too difficult. They saw no point in those questions. Needless to say, they went to my lab coordinator and complained to their hearts content.

I had a serious talking to again. Once again, they were right, as the questions were too hard. Of course, I didnt say at this point that the lab coordinator had written the lab completely and we both deemed prior that the questions were of the right difficulty and should be good for juniors and seniors. Since I was no longer entertaining them, since I actually went from ‘nice guy TA’ to ‘no, you need to answer these questions’ I was evil. I was a bad TA.

I was distraught. I really felt like I didnt want to be a professor anymore if things were going to be like this. Then I got to teach grad students, who all went to undergrad elsewhere. Thank GOD for grad students. And now I want to be a professor again. Why? To change this system of edutainment in chemistry.

Chemistry should be fun, but to a certain extent. If you want kids to actually learn, you need to teach them important concepts, not just show them the latest and greatest sexy experiments that have little experimental value. Basic skills, especially critical thinking need to be taught. Students should be challenged in labs, cause if they’re easy, what’s the point?

</insert 2 cents>

That’s my two cents. What’s yours?


  1. Two thoughts come to mind:

    (1) The customer isn’t always right. I learned this the hard way when I was working for a department store. A customer argued with me about the price of a duvet (yes, I worked in bedding), then brought me to the generic price sign nearby. I changed the price and the next day was called by security to come in and explain why I gave a $150 comforter away for $29.99. Come to find out the woman (who’d been swindling the company for years as they supposedly built a case against her) switched the advertised price with a sign she’d stolen from a different store. The customer is never right.

    The customer comes first. That’s the stance I take with my undergrads so no one gets cheated. I work hard to make sure they learn the chemistry, and they work hard to write acceptable lab reports.

    (2) Captivate and the curiosity will follow. I make sure that I bring utility to the chemistry. Example: instead of calculating the energy of combustion for magnesium metal, light a small (preweighed) piece on fire, then calculate the energy (for example).

    The problem with professors is that they were (typically) the best of the best. Calculations might be stimulating, but to the average student it’s actually pointless. Proof? I was one of those students. It took a very good professor a lot of hardwork to explain chemistry with practicality. Most never do/will and students end up feeling cheated by the end of the semester.

    I’m rambling. This is an excellent topic for discussion.

    P.S. Welcome to the family!

  2. Part of the problem (not that you don’t have some good points) is that there simply isn’t a satifactory way to characterize NPs in an undergrad lab, not unless you have a TEM dedicated to each section. It would simply take way too long.

    Nanomaterials are definitely relevant to an undergrad chemistry experience, but I don’t know if anyone has come up with a good way to integrate them without losing some of the core hands-on skills that are indeed badly needed.

  3. Also, students will find a way to complain about anything. Don’t you think some of the responsibility lies on the institutions’ shoulders for the commercialization of education?

  4. I definitely think the institution is partially responsible for the commercialization of education. We have diploma mills here in the US! However, I think that students should realize that it is not all about being entertained and that to learn requires hard work and effort, and sometimes it just sucks, but in the long run it’s worth it.

  5. WTF?! While I definitely disagree about the usefulness of lab reports–there’s no sense in having students write full JACS-article length shit about useless undergrad labs–basic techniques are a must. My school isn’t really highly regarded, but by the end of a BS my classmates and I could run titrations, flash columns, crystallize things, interpret spectroscopic data, do serial dilutions for standards to give a calibration curve, set up a reaction under anhydrous conditions…

    The YBCO reaction totally rocked, by the way. 🙂

    • Lab reports are a student’s first foray into technical writing. They are a necessary evil. Maybe it comes naturally to everyone else, but I really struggled with technical writing as a freshman and sophomore. By junior year, my style got a lot cleaner. I owe my success to having my teachers push me to write well.

      I didn’t get the chance to set up anhydrous reactions or even run efficient chromatography until I was in grad school (my organic training wasn’t excellent), but I knew the inner workings of most commonly used laboratory instruments.

      My point is this: the specifics of everyone’s undergrad chemical training will be different, but the fundamentals should be (roughly) equal. My big gripe with a lot of big Universities is that they don’t harp on the fundamentals enough.

      • That’s very true. The fundamentals are important, because that’s usually the big equalizer when it comes to graduate school. My alma mater was all about the fundamentals and when I graduated, I could run almost every piece of analytical equipment. I griped at how much work we had to do, but in the end it was totally worth it because now, I can be like, “Oh, it’s cyclic voltammetry data..blah blah..”

        People here..when I tried comparing something to CV, they were like, “Curriculum vitae?!?” And these were seniors who had the analytical class already. It made me a sad panda.

  6. I think it would be rather difficult to pull something like that if you are just a TA. Especially if other TAs are not doing something similar with their students. When I was an undergrad, time was a very important resource that I couldn’t squander on the caprices of my TAs. Physics TAs were the worst offenders.

  7. I’m just an undergrad still, so my $0.02 is worth considerably less. I have to agree that I would rather have basic skills than do cool stuff. I’m impatient with the basic skills I’m currently acquiring, because I want to do more dramatic experiments, but a skill’s a skill. I’m suddenly more appreciative of the time I spent declumsifying in Gen Chem.

  8. Great topic and very cogent what with today’s science. I can only speak about chemistry, but I’m sure this holds true for most of the physical sciences.

    There are definitely some fundamental concepts and techniques that every undergraduate should know before they graduate. This is true of graduate students as well. An undergraduate’s education, and to a lesser extent graduate student’s IS learning the fundamentals, whether that be theory or practical “in-lab” knowledge. Really, every prospective chemist should be able to be proficient not just in his/her academics but also in a lab practicum of some sort where {s}he is given a compound to prepare then must analyze it qualitatively and quantitatively and get it right while documenting the logic used in the analysis (an analysis which would hopefully combine many skill sets i.e. synthesis techniques, equipment, wet chemistry, error minimization, safety).

    Unfortunately, there comes in a point in education where you must focus on a specific area of concentration. The very nature of that is limiting with respect to the types of equipment that you’ll get to use. Not many organic chemists mess about with XFS or ICP-AES–just like not too many physical or inorganic chemists are running GC or HPLC and column chromatography. Chemistry is technique driven and there are right ways and wrong ways to set things up, take measurements, and analyze data.

    The big thing I harp on is that most undergraduates and graduates are not exposed to enough statistics. They have little concept of what statistically relevant data is. They forget the basics. I can’t even begin to say how many students don’t know why more measurements are better. This is lack of appreciation for the maths is particularly prevalent in some of the biosciences and some medical journals. Reading over a paper, I’m left thinking “who reviewed this and who the hell is the editor of this journal?” and that (at the worst) it is garbage science or (at the best) of very little worth.

    @boyie: I find it odd that your advising professor (or whoever is in charge of the lab section which you TA for) does not support you. As an undergraduate, I recall the professor siding with the TA on almost every occasion even if the TA was clearly in the wrong. There are good and bad TAs–in my opinion, a good one will play it laissez-faire until {s}he must intervene to stop the students from botching the whole experiment. A TA should not spoon feed students nor leave them to their own devices. As with most things, it’s that happy middle ground of just enough instruction and advice being balanced with allowing students to make their own way. A bad TA will basically tell an undergrad to figure it out alone, or will give bad advice and/or be intentionally misleading.

    It’s a sad truth, but quite a few students are fundamentally lazy and will whine about any inconvenience or perceived extravagance in their education. I saw and see extra knowledge, even if it’s tangential to the task at hand, as icing on the cake of my education– the more the merrier. A big thing I always stress is knowing a material’s properties so that it can be worked with appropriately…

    Flashy experiments aren’t a bad thing to do, especially early on when you’re trying to “hook” them on the field and foster an interest but later on, education takes precedent. If the experiment is really fun, not too challenging (this is what most students most enjoy, an easy task) but ultimately lacking in educational value, it is not for an upper level lab. Undergraduate chemistry students should leave with an arsenal of lab techniques and most importantly, critical reasoning skills. It’s ok to get a few things wrong, but they should at least have an idea of where to start on the Why and How of the experiment going wrong and not be dead in the water. If they can’t do that, then how are they supposed to succeed in a career, let alone in graduate or post graduate studies?

    Whoops! I almost forgot commonsense! That’s a given…anyone without that and a modicum of chemical intuition should be a paper chemist or, preferably, study something else. A few years back we had a graduate student mistake a sealed ampoule of liquid Na/K alloy for mercury–cracking it open he learned his mistake at the cost of personal injury, and damage to the fume cupboard. Negligence on his part for not connecting the dots and exercising due diligence, and negligence on the part of whoever forgot to appropriately label the ampoule.

    Oh yeah, what the heck happened to all the glassworking courses? That used to be a requirement for graduation. Every grad student should have some passing familiarity with working borosilicate and silica and making simple apparatus!

    Eh, this was more rant-like that it ought to have been.

    • Oh yeah, what the heck happened to all the glassworking courses? That used to be a requirement for graduation. Every grad student should have some passing familiarity with working borosilicate and silica and making simple apparatus!

      Oh man, I’d give my left [insert body part here] to do a course like that.

      • You and me both! Actually, we got to do a tiny bit of glassblowing as part of our inorg lab…it was super fun!

        • At the larger universities there is usually a dedicated glassblower on campus to serve the physics and chemistry departments. Professors and students alike usually consult the scientific glassblower (especially when it comes to anything made of quartz–a nightmare to work) if they want complex apparatus or need something fixed.

          I’m not saying that grad students should know how to make their own vacuum manifold or reflux condenser, but simple things like scoring and breaking glass, making ampoules, and attaching one glass piece to another should be a minimum.

          Nowadays, most researchers simply order their glass from Ace, Chemglass, or any other number of suppliers. Unfortunately, many of the reactions I run require specialised glassware that’s not often found in the catalogues. I’ve found it cheaper, and more importantly, quicker to (try) to make my own. If it’s above my modest skill, then I contact the glassblower or order out if he’s backlogged. When something needs to get done and you’re waiting on your glass supply company to figure out what it is that’s wanted and how to make it and how much to charge for it, you’re left waiting in the queue. It’s a real pity that the art is disappearing…

          • All solid state chemists (such as myself), have rudimentary glass blowing training. Considering most of our reactions are run in fused silica or pyrex tubes, it’s a must if you’re going to do anything in our lab. The more senior students can make other glass tubes, so it’s pretty sweet. A very important one as well.

  9. I agree with much of what you say except the titrations bit. In my view this is a totally outdated technique that is only useful in some narrow specialized applicarions. Computer labs don’t teach dead languages (by and large) so why should we? For the record I did hundreds of titrations in undergrad, including titration competitions (!) but in my subsequent 20 year career as a chemist I doubt I would have done more than a handful. We have limited lab time with undergrads so let’s teach them the most relevant techniques.

  10. Well it wasn’t like that as an Ivy League Undergrad ’58 – ’60, or a grad student ’60 – ’62 teaching other Ivy league kids (few of whom were chemistry majors). People back then worked hard, knew their stuff and didn’t complain. The only evaluation TAs got was how well their section did on tests (which we didn’t make up or see before they were given). Judging by the post and the comments evoked, everything presently seems reversed.

    See the In the Pipeline blog of 9 Jan ’09 for a link to the “Four Yorkshiremen sketch”, a Monty Python classic, with 4 relatively young old geezers complaining about how hard they had it, and how easy people have it now.

    Out nightmare back then was that we would be replaced by a younger, smarter, better educated group. It doesn’t seem to have happened.

  11. You can go on and on all you want. Most undergraduates studying Chemistry have no care for Chemistry. It is a stepping stone to go to medical school or nursing or pharmacy, etc etc. If they do not care about it and do not want to learn, they are not going to.

    If you are a graduate student studying chemistry, you better enjoy chemistry and want to learn chemistry or you are in big trouble.

  12. @j
    Yeah, I’m an organic chemist too and regularly titrated the alkyl lithiums etc, but that’s not my point. Titration is a moderately useful skill for a few applications but not nearly as important as one would think given the time devoted to it in undergrad labs. Think about how many proton nmrs you’ve run compared to titrations, for example.

    • It’s a good point about NMR. Clearly, as organic chemists, we use NMR frequently. Having a firm grasp on theory and interpretation is a necessary component to completing our tasks (i.e. what good is synthesis if you can’t identify what you’ve made). For whatever it’s worth, I honestly couldn’t tell you where to find a burette in my building.

      However (I’m speaking for myself), the concept of mass balance and chemical precision never really hit home until I got heavy into titrations as an undergrad. I use the lessons learned from the numerous titrations I’ve run on a daily basis while I complete my degree. Subjectively, during my undergrad the “necessary” skills weren’t well-covered for the purposes of becoming an organic chemist. Fortunately, many of the things I learned in an analytical setting (i.e. lecture, lab, instrumentation) filled in the gaps. As such, I’d consider myself very well rounded compared to my immediate peers.

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