“Be flexible and have a great sense of humour” has always been my philosophy of life, especially so when teaching during COVID times. As many times as COVID seems to have mutated these past few years I feel I have also adapted and changed most everything I do. By no means do I consider myself an expert in teaching chemistry during COVID, but what I seek to do here is provide you with some tips and concrete, workable ideas which have worked for me in my desire to provide a chemistry programme that is both interesting and rigorous.
Part 1: A “Hands-on” Approach to Save the Apparently Sinking Ship known as Lab Work in the Chemistry Classroom
“Old friends make good times better and bad times easier.” I began the fall of 2021 with great trepidation because in Ontario, where I teach, we still had strict COVID protocols in place: my students were returning to in-person learning after approximately 27 weeks of on-line learning, and most had learned under the universally dreaded and pedagogically-challenged quadmester* --the quadmester too heavily concentrated too many hours of learning into a too tightly compacted amount of time, thereby preventing students from gaining the necessary practise time necessary to master the material. My senior students were severely negatively impacted by this through no fault of their own. How would I approach the semester of 2021? By most assuredly relying on an old friend to my classroom called lab work!
I have taught for 29 years, and my chemistry classrooms have focused on inquiry learning, practical labs, and hands-on activities. In the fall of 2021, I decided to focus on two key problems from the myriad of same from which to choose: first, I found out that many of my students were noticeably behind in the chemistry theory/content they would surely need in order to succeed in their academic future; second, students were afraid of most everything to do with hands-on laboratory work. I read an unsettling tweet before beginning the semester that the last complete “normal” – pre-COVID year for my grade 11’s was in fact their grade 8 year, and for my grade 12’s, the last “normal” for them was their grade 9 year! Somehow, I felt I had to get them up to academic snuff as quickly as I could. I had to infuse within them the feeling of being comfortable with the perfectly normal notion of “failure” all the while providing the necessary rigor that is demanded of anyone desiring a career in the sciences.
After teaching safety protocols, the real CHEMISTRY began! Step one was to assume my students knew NOTHING about the laboratory, or, if they did, they hadn’t practiced for quite some time. Bins of differentiated lab skills were made available to my students to practice skills such as lighting a Bunsen burner, decanting, wafting, measuring volumes, massing, and filtering, to name but a few. Safety and equipment Scavenger Hunts were also done. Students got use to wearing safety goggles with their COVID-19 masks (the protocol at the time). Interspersed within the lab skills there were pre-lab questions that related to the previous year’s curriculum. Pre-labs had to be checked by the teacher before the students could proceed. Students felt comfortable asking me questions in the busy lab rather than in front of the entire class. I also integrated electronic automatically marked multiple choice questions.
Trust was building! My students started to trust themselves because they were moving from a simple sand and water decant to a sludge of copper isolation decant. Indeed, no longer were they afraid to light a Bunsen burner but instead were acting like so-called “normal” science students by asking me, “What can we burn next?”
Gradually, we moved from cookbook type labs to more comprehensive inquiry-based labs. I found my students were no longer upset if they “failed” in a lab but, instead, readily picked up their lab recording books to start anew. Famed educator Steve Sogo’s lab “Less than Zero”1 was a huge hit as the class competed to see just how low a temperature they could reach. There were moans – then rejigs – then ultimately shouts of “yahoo!” By the end of the semester, I readily observed my students’ confidence having grown, and that same had become more comfortable with “failure”; in fact, through their successful trials, the idea of “failure” was not to be feared but instead to be embraced as a perfectly normal outcome in the world of science! My students were breaking down the artificial barriers that the pandemic had set-up and welcomed trying new things: they were thinking critically; they were problem solving; and, most importantly, they were enjoying themselves while studying chemistry!
Anyone who teaches chemistry knows that Lab Work takes a lot of effort to put together. I found the following laboratory “hacks,” if you will, quite useful in my classroom:
I create a lot of stand-alone stations” which contain a laminated lab sheet and any “special” lab equipment needed to run the experiment. Students often work through said bins in no particular order because my classroom, like maybe yours, does NOT have enough equipment for everyone to do the same experiment concurrently. Such also allows students to work at their own pace, as they should. If students are working very hard then that’s all I feel I can ask them to do. I do not view the learning process as a race to the arbitrary finish line. Nonetheless, I always offer extra components for quicker students to do which I will explain in a future article, “Above and Beyond”.
I do NOT formally evaluate every component of a student’s lab. Students record data in their lab data collecting book (their “HILROY”, so to speak) which includes the standard criteria such as title, date(s), purpose, special safety, waste disposal, SDS, observations, and the like. I pick and choose what to evaluate depending on the lab being done and its proximity to my stated objectives for each lesson.
- I create “HAND-INS” for students which they can hand directly to me or submit electronically.
Lab work has always been integral to my chemistry class. It is a faithful and old friend that I always rely on. It reinforces the theoretical aspects learned in the other, more teacher-centered components of the chemistry classroom, and, perhaps most important, it very much helps to turn-on all students (not just “hands-on” learners) to the predictably difficult concepts collectively called chemistry.
If you require any further help or encouragement or would like copies of the labs I work through (with “Hand-Ins”) I would be only too willing to share. I have attached a copy of the “Growing Copper Crystals Lab”, “HAND-IN” for the Copper Crystals, and the Teacher Notes2. I previously wrote about this lab for Chem13 News. That article, Growing Copper Crystals3, includes videos that you might find helpful if you plan to try this lab in your own classroom.
*Quadmester: The school year is divided into 4 components (quads) instead of the usual two semesters. Each quad is approximately 9 weeks and full time students take two credits per quadmester.
**HILROY: A brand of notebook in Canada.
Supporting Information - (Log into your ChemEd X account to access. Don't have an account? Register here for free!) Experimental procedures, student Hand In and Teacher Notes are provided.
- Steve Sogo’s lab “Less than Zero”, ACCT Classroom Resource. 2019.
- ASM Materials Education Foundation – Teachers Camp for the Crystal Growing Experiment
- Yvonne Clifford, Growing Copper Crystals, Chem13 News, University of Waterloo, March 2018.
- My editor in chief – the in-house expert of the English language – Matthew Clifford (my husband)
For Laboratory Work: Please refer to the ACS Guidelines for Chemical Laboratory Safety in Secondary Schools (2016).
For Demonstrations: Please refer to the ACS Division of Chemical Education Safety Guidelines for Chemical Demonstrations.
Other Safety resources
RAMP: Recognize hazards; Assess the risks of hazards; Minimize the risks of hazards; Prepare for emergencies