Taking a college course online -- also called distance learning -- is now the norm for many students needing a more convenient and affordable way to earn college credits. The trend has not yet caught on for most science courses that require laboratory sessions, however, as many educators think it's unrealistic to teach the lab experience outside of the classroom.
Several chemistry professors tried to change that perception at the 232nd National Meeting of the American Chemical Society, the world's largest scientific society. Educators cited their successes with kitchen chemistry, lab simulations and virtual experiments, and provide suggestions on incorporating distance learning in the science curriculum during a symposium, Sept. 14, entitled "Distance Learning and the Chemistry Laboratory."
"Students have, by and large, done really well," says James Reeves, Ph.D., of the University of North Carolina Wilmington, whose students conduct experiments in their own kitchens as part of their distance learning course. Reeves and Doris Kimbrough, Ph.D., of the University of Colorado at Denver, created several kitchen chemistry experiments for distance learners, which mimic traditional lab experiments but replace potentially dangerous chemicals with such common household items as baking soda and vinegar.
"You get lots of people whose knee-jerk reaction is: 'you have be in a lab to learn chemistry,'" says Reeves. "But my reaction is: everybody's in the kitchen and if you give [students] the right tools -- the same tools they use to carry out cooking dinner -- they can make real measurements, and that's really what a lab is for."
Reeves' online courses use the same sequence of topics outlined in standard chemistry textbooks, but his approach to first-year, general chemistry courses is conceptual. "It's not as important that [students] can make precise measurements in the kitchen," he says. "What's important is that they see the phenomenon; that they measure the phenomenon; that they work out what the measurement means in terms of the chemistry involved; and that they can actually compare it to the real world."
Reeves' research shows that distance learners who were given lab exams on qualitative analysis, paper chromatography and density, performed better than traditional students in all areas, which he will describe during the symposium.
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