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Livestreamed Chemistry Labs Keep Learning Real — Mistakes, Spills and All

To offer more than pre-recorded lab demonstrations or virtual laboratories to remote students, two chemistry instructors at Missouri S&T have refined their approach, which uses real-time live-streamed demonstrations of experiments.

Klaus Woelk, an associate professor of chemistry, and Philip Whitefield, professor emeritus of chemistry, have published a paper through the American Chemical Society about their experiences with online chemistry labs to provide best practices for other educators in similar circumstances.

To keep students engaged, the synchronous sessions include small-group breakout sessions and on-the-spot activities like having students name compounds; balance chemical equations; predict the outcomes of experiments; and calculate masses, amounts and concentrations for the chemicals used.

The sessions last for three hours and run on Zoom. Breakouts include groups of four, allowing the students to discuss the experiments and make their calculations before they're called back to the main room to give their answers.

The university's current physical distancing guidelines limit the number of people in a lab to three, which is exactly how many it takes to do the livestreaming. Each virtual lab includes an instructor, a teaching assistant and a camera operator. They run two cameras — one attached to the board where the instructor writes formulas, and the other a portable webcam that moves around the room and shows close-ups of chemical measures, mixtures and reactions. A university article on the process mentioned that the camera operator "always has the right-of-way."

Since the experiments are live, there's no editing — unlike many videos showing online labs. "How helpful is it when the chef says to sauté the onions until they're translucent, then the camera cuts to the finished onions?" said Whitefield. "You sit there and think, 'How long do you cook them? I don't know.'"

As a result, in the livestream labs, mistakes and spills can happen, which is part of the learning too. The instructors show how to clean up the spills following safety guidelines. In fact, writing safety rules is part of the students' coursework in the class.

A particular challenge of the virtual labs, the faculty members noted, was the "lack of sensory experience, especially smell."

"Some substances smell fruity, some are minty, some produce a rough smell, and we need to be creative to emulate that online for our students," explained Woelk. "When students are back on campus, I think we'll send them little samples. Once the experiment is done, I can have them open the sample of the product and they can report the scent."

Another drawback is a lack of participation in large groups. As the two instructors pointed out, some students "log in only for the points given and pay no attention to the livestream."

For that reason, future sessions "may require students to add screenshots of the livestreamed sessions to their post-lab reports and provide individual answers to assigned tasks during the livestream," said Woelk. Recordings won't be made available, thereby preventing students from scanning through the session to find the answers they need for their reporting.

Classes for the latest semester at Missouri S&T began in late August. Now about 144 students attend science classes in person, while another 400 are continuing with livestreamed instruction.

"As Close as It Might Get to the Real Lab Experience — Live-Streamed Laboratory Activities" is available to subscribers of the Journal of Chemical Education.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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