Sydney Demers standing in front of glassware in a chemistry lab

Student, faculty lab innovation published in prestigious chemistry journal

April 4, 2023
By: Nancy Sheehan

Students and faculty have developed a new discovery-style learning approach to college organic chemistry labs that improves student enthusiasm and research skills. 

The new method is described in the peer reviewed Journal of Chemistry Education by lead author Sydney Demers, a senior chemistry major, with co-authors Joshua Fung-A-Fat ’23 and chemistry faculty members Jeremy Andreatta, Margaret Kerr, and Weichu Xu are co-authors. 

The article is titled Cultivating Student Research Interests in Undergraduate Organic Chemistry Course Through Class Activity. It describes a new approach developed at Worcester State aimed at cultivating students’ interest in organic chemistry labs by using what the authors call a “research-esque” method instead of the customary lab protocols where students replicate an outcome known in advance.

Instead, the redesigned “research-esque” organic chemistry laboratory course uses discovery-style learning, in which certain experiments are

Sydney Demers and a lab partner in a chemistry lab

Sydney Demers (right) and Ynhi Nguyen ’24 at work in the chemistry lab

treated as a research project. During the lab, reaction parameters within the experiment are varied by the students who then compare their results with their peers. Doing so creates an opportunity to better understand the experiment, pique the students’ interests in the subject, and create an environment that more closely resembles scientific research, the authors say in the introduction to the article.

In a traditional college lab, all students follow the same protocol so everyone gets a similar result, and then they write their lab reports. While that is an important, time-tested method for learning, the parameters are varied in the new approach so that some students are working with one set of directions, while others follow slightly different sets. 

Variations might include things such as using a different solvent, the amount of reagent used, the sequence of mixing the reactants, or the reaction temperature. This leads to varied results which nudge students to question the protocol they followed and do research to determine why their results turned out in a particular way.

 “The fact that students are going to have different outcomes leads to more of an opportunity for discussion to ask, ‘Well, why did this happen?’ versus just the regular protocol that we’re usually given,” Demers said.

The new approach also appears to increase student engagement in the laboratory process, she said. “Often for these undergraduate labs, a lot of students come in feeling bored or like they don’t even want to show up for a lab for four hours because we already know what the outcome is supposed to be,” she said. “So, this way just brings more excitement to the lab.” 

Prof. Weichu Xu in his office

Professor Weichu Xu in his office at Worcester State

Student reaction to the new format has been overwhelmingly positive, Demers said. Feedback was collected from 39 students in three sections of the fall 2020 semester and 57 students in four sections of the fall 2021 semester. Survey responses included statements like, “feels more like a chemist than an undergraduate student,” and “learn not only how to think like a scientist, but also work like scientists.”

The approach is used only for certain experiments in organic chemistry labs presently, Dr. Xu said. “Potentially, instructors can design their own experiments  for lab courses based on the ideas for the research-esque style outlined in the article, he said.

The idea of finding a new approach to labs had been percolating among chemistry faculty for a while but took on new urgency with the pandemic, Dr. Xu said. Because of the severe restrictions on in-person learning, faculty sought ways to more fully engage students. Demers had been working on a research project with Xu, so he invited her to work with the faculty on coming up with a new approach. 

“This approach is important not only because it helps increase student interest, but it also gives them a real-world experience,” Demers said. “So many students do not get the opportunity to do research in undergraduate labs, and I have been given that opportunity and I feel so blessed because it has been one of the most rewarding experiences that I’ve had. So, I think having that research component to an undergraduate lab helps students in so many ways.”

The experience of writing an article for an academic journal was a somewhat daunting but exciting experience, Demers said. “I never would have imagined I’d be able to write this during a semester while taking classes and doing research, but it was very rewarding,” she said. After graduation from Worcester State, Demers will enter a graduate program at the University of Connecticut that will lead to a Ph.D. in chemistry. “I have a concentration in medicinal chemistry right now and I am looking forward to learning more about that,” she said.

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