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The recent change in how we deliver instruction to our students has challenged teachers to rethink everything, especially those educators who deliver instruction in lab format. How do we conduct safe, effective, engaging chemistry labs via Zoom or Hangouts? Is it even possible?

The homeschool community already has a model in place for this circumstance. I am lucky enough to work for Chawanakee Academy, a district-backed charter homeschool in the foothills of California’s Central Valley. As an educator with a bachelor’s in chemistry, it is my job to support homeschool families by providing their children with rigorous, quality chemistry instruction that lives up to college prep standards.

Impossible, you say? I would like to suggest that not only is it possible, but that students can actually have a rich educational experience that is on par with any in-person lab — if properly structured by the chemistry teacher. There are some excellent online alternative lab simulations available, with PhET being the most well-known, and Labster being the most rigorous and realistic (in my opinion).

However, if you want to tailor your labs for your students and curriculum, you need to find a way to create your own distance labs.

As a homeschool teacher with a bit of experience in this area, I want to share a few of my rules with you, as well as a lesson plan. My hope is that this might help support any educators who are called on to be flexible with curriculum delivery now, or in the future.

Getting started

When determining how to restructure a traditional chemistry lab for online delivery, the best tool in your toolbox is your own creativity. Rethink everything! To illustrate, let’s look at a classic chemistry lab: an introduction to atomic spectra.

In a traditional, pre-pandemic setting, a common introductory hook in the atomic spectra lab is using the flame test demonstration. Students observe the teacher igniting a variety of salt samples, and the flame color for each one is determined. In this controlled lab setting, students might then be given an unknown salt sample and instructions for determining its identity.

At first glance, the use of flame, the safety precautions, and the process of distributing unknown substances to the students might indicate that this lab is not practical for a distance lesson. By considering the following rules, we can transform this lab, and many other existing labs, into a meaningful distance lab.

Rule 1: Have Students Use the RAMP Concept to Make Safety a Priority in At-Home Labs

Our first and foremost concern as chemistry teachers is the safety of our students. This becomes even more important when we entertain the idea of our students doing labs at home without our direct supervision. So we must carefully examine each lab activity to ensure the safety of our students and their families.

Students should be under the supervision of an adult whenever conducting at-home lab activities. Teachers can find excellent information in the American Chemical Society Guidelines for Chemical Laboratory Safety in Secondary Schools, including the precautions that are summarized in the acronym, RAMP:

  • Recognize the hazards.
  • Assess the risks of the hazards.
  • Minimize the risks of the hazards.
  • Prepare for emergencies from uncontrolled hazards.

The greatest hazard in using the atomic spectra lab without teacher supervision is the use of a flame (a point summarized in the acronym’s first letter, R). Since the repercussions of this action could be catastrophic in a worst-case scenario (A), it is best to eliminate any activity requiring a flame from the student portion of the activity (M). You should also ask the students to make sure they have a working fire extinguisher in their homes (P). With any luck, our students’ homes will be safer than they were before the lab.

Rule 2: Creatively Consider all Resources

What do you have available for a distance learning experience? First, you have a cell phone or a laptop to hold synchronous or asynchronous meetings with your students. While a video demonstration and direct instruction through a synchronous online meeting is ideal, it is not required. Any demonstrations you perform can be recorded and offered asynchronously, allowing students to view them anytime. If this is your district’s policy, make certain that you are available to your students via online communication. You might want to define the hours that you will answer texts and messages. Many of my students have become night owls, and I’m sure that many of yours are, too.

Second, as the chemistry teacher, you likely have metal salt samples and laboratory equipment available to you. At my school, I even have the science room available to me, since our school has generously allowed teachers to be on campus if they observe certain precautions. These are all the ingredients you need to set up a synchronous Zoom (or other platform) demonstration of the flame test. AACT has released a safe version of this demonstration that I suggest using.

If your lab is inaccessible because of the pandemic restrictions, you could make your kitchen table work as a makeshift demonstration platform. Please apply all the steps of RAMP to create a safe workspace for yourself. If you are not able to procure the metal salt samples from your lab, colored flame candles from the grocery store should make a nice substitute.

Third, since your students need to interact with the idea for it to be meaningful, consider what resources they have available to them. All the students in our district are issued laptops, and I hope that most of your students have access to laptops or other devices as well, so that they can effectively participate in distance learning. Your students need to be able to watch your demonstrations, create documents and presentations, and conduct research. A computer of some sort and a stable internet connection are critical for distance learning. I have not found a good workaround for being without some type of device.

I would guess that most of your students have colored pencils, crayons, shoe boxes, paper, clear bottles, and water at home. These items can also contribute to a fun, effective atomic spectra lab. After you complete the synchronous (ideally) demonstration of the flame test according to the lesson plan, ask your students to view a video of an unknown element’s flame color, and then hypothesize about the element and the reason the flame is that color. You can make these videos yourself using the same metal salts you used for the demonstration, or you can opt for another prop for the unknowns (I like using the kind of birthday candle mentioned above). You can record one unknown demonstration at a time, and then make the links available through an online platform.

Figure 1. A student model of electrons moving between energy levels.

Rule 3: Extend the Lab into a Weeklong Activity

I know — you’re probably saying, What!? That’s crazy! I can’t get my students to pay attention to the lesson for an hour, let alone an entire week!

Please hear me out.

When students engage with an idea for two hours, they might remember the material for that long after the lab — but maybe not. In contrast, when you give your students a week to engage with the idea, you are allowing their brains to wrap around the concept and retain it for longer than two hours.

Your synchronous demonstration and the students’ viewing of the unknowns was just the beginning of this lab. Your students may be able to hypothesize about the identity of the elements in the candles, but we must dive into the deeper concepts of why. We must explore the ideas of color, wavelength, and atomic spectra — and make them interesting so that the students will want to learn about them at home.

Since color is our ‘gateway’ idea to this concept, let’s use it in another activity. Ask your students to use materials they have at home to build a prism. Most likely, they will need to do some research about prism building. Students should document the entire process, from the construction of their prism to a demonstration of splitting white light. Ask your students to think back to a time when they have unexpectedly seen a “rainbow.” What object created that effect? Can they mimic this process with the object? Keep RAMP in mind as you suggest materials — such as encouraging the use of clear plastic instead of glass, for example.

If there are students who do not have access to these materials or a way to construct a prism at home, you can direct them to some excellent online resources to investigate. One of the best is the Bending Light simulation by PhET, which allow students to interact with prisms of different shapes and materials and observe the splitting of white light just as clearly. There are also many online videos demonstrating prisms of all shapes and materials, and your students should be encouraged to explore these resources as well, especially if you have students who are challenged with a disability or special circumstance.

Ask your students to associate a range of wavelengths with each color band and design a graph showing these wavelengths. Encourage ingenuity and creativity, maybe even a little “Dr. Seuss-i-ness” with their design. Make sure that students use a combination of words, pictures, illustrations, and videos to document their design, process, and results in their lab journals.

Now that the students have tied together the concepts of color and wavelength, it’s time to marry the ideas of wavelength to energy levels and electromagnetic radiation. Since this concept is not tangible in the traditional sense, it will help if students build a model to illustrate how they envision the process of energy absorption and release, and how electrons make transitions between energy levels. Again, the students will likely have to research the idea as they design and construct their models.

Encourage the students to physically illustrate the process with pegboards, levers, marbles, ping-pong balls, trampolines, and anything else their beautiful, creative minds can come up with! The idea is to show the process of an electron (a marble, perhaps?) falling from a higher energy state to a lower energy state (two levers on the pegboard) and a photon (ping-pong ball, popcorn puff, etc.) being ejected in the process. It’s not a perfect analogy, but it’s close. Plus, your students will have fun building, testing, tweaking, and re-building. A video of this process is highly encouraged as the preferred documentation method.

Rule 4: Have Your Students Create a Presentation Instead of Filling out a Lab Report

This is where it all comes together! Your students will create a video presentation to walk viewers through their hypothesis about the unknown flame color, their homemade prisms, and their energy level models. As they do, they will explain how each idea relates to the next one, and how all the ideas support one another. Your students need to include their initial hypothesis, scans or photos of their lab journals, as well as photos of apparatuses, videos, and illustrations used during their investigation.

Why require a video presentation instead of a lab report? A simple lab report is a formative tool used by the teacher to determine if a student has grasped the idea. A student-created presentation, on the other hand, is a summative tool that helps the student tie together the ideas and cement understanding. Creating the presentation contributes to the learning process (and as a bonus for you, viewing presentations is more fun than grading lab reports!). Students will enjoy showing off their unique projects and contraptions during their presentation. I suggest posting these presentations on your virtual platform, so that other students can view and comment on the work of their peers. Be sure to review comments before allowing them to be displayed. This is a good practice and supports the idea of a responsible digital community.

After a week of viewing, researching, building, modeling, and creating, your students will have experienced a far more immersive lesson than that of the traditional 1-2 hour lab. Dare I say that they will have enjoyed it more, as well? Hopefully, your students will be looking forward to the next lab project that you roll out.

I encourage you to review the traditional labs that your students completed in previous years and determine which ones you can transform into distance labs using the four rules I’ve shared here. I suggest that you try these activities yourself before assigning them to your students. Not only will you be better prepared for the questions and problems your students will encounter, but you will also have a finished product as a reference. Most important, you will be able to share your passion and excitement about chemistry with your students, even though you cannot share a lab room with them.

It’s true that tackling distance labs in this way requires more planning, structure, and communication than traditional labs, and that the restructuring process is initially time consuming and difficult. But, the payoff is so worth it! When we can go back to our classrooms and labs, I challenge you to take some of these ideas with you, especially those that allow for student creativity and autonomy to be safely incorporated in the labs. The more your students can interact with and build their chemistry, the more they will love the subject!

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