There is such a thing as too classic when it comes to chemistry experiments.
We’re in the middle of a pretty major overhaul of the chemistry curriculum at Keele and this summer, we’re doing a good bit of development work for the 2nd year laboratories, and fine tuning last years revisions to the 1st year laboratories. One of the most frustrating things about looking for new experiments is remembering to do a few ‘reality checks’ on ideas. Most of these are the obvious things like looking into the cost of the chemicals, the fragility or fickle nature of the equipment, the robustness of the reaction and the ease of conveying the method in the desired format. There is, however, another key aspect to this and that’s to Google the experiment.
Many of our students are Google first, think second students and will look up large volumes of information on the internet to assist with assignments. It is debatable how this pans out as a long term strategy and what effect it has on learning, but it obviously helps in completing the assignment fairly swiftly. The problem is that some experiments are so widespread, so common, that there is no aspect of them that is not available online. A great example is the synthesis of aspirin – fully interpreted NMR, IR, melting points, other tests, full lab reports – all of it is online. Some transition metal experiments are similar, with full lab reports freely available. To me, this is a deal breaker and I start looking for a different experiment, one that survives internet scrutiny.
Talking to some teachers a few months ago, I told them of this issue and one pointed out that it depended on what my goal was. If doing the experiment was the end in itself, then there was no need to fret over the online stuff. The problem wasn’t with the experiment, but rather with the related assessment or write up. It’s a very fair point and there are some experiments that I will leave alone because they teach experimental techniques and illustrate points very nicely. We don’t ask for everything to be written up and tying things into observations will help. There are a couple that must be substantially different however as both may be used for substantial assessments in the form of laboratory reports. There is too much analysis to be done to rely entirely on the students own observations, and so changes must be made.
It’s just frustrating because there are reasons why these experiments are so widely used – they work, illustrate points brilliantly, and are affordable and easy to run well. Googling lab reports feels like the chemistry equivalent of contract essay writing, and I have had to take action on academic conduct issues where whole lab reports were ‘obtained’ from internet sources in the past. I don’t find it problematic that lab manuals are available online – even more extensive introductions to experiments provide little more assistance in the lab report arena. It’s actually the oposite – online lab manuals are great to sift through lots of experiments, knowing that they likely work well. The relevant chem ed journals are good as well, but I struggle a little more with those, sometimes difficult to see exactly how an experiment can be done in the lab (which is ironic given that’s often the point of publishing it). I find it quite difficult to sift through chem ed journals for appealing experiments.
Anyway, I’m not a big fan of popular experiments with full sets of data online. When we’ve got a lot of development work to do, we don’t have the time to come up with ingenious ways of working around the Google-first, think second attitude that we sometimes see.