Project-based learning at UCLA

November 11, 2019
Ideas That MatterJulia Winter

In this interview with UCLA Professor Alex Spokoyny and his fourth-year graduate student, Mary Grumbles, we discuss undergraduate chemistry projects focused on communicating chemistry and science. The project highlighted below is for a team-focused, open-ended advanced inorganic laboratory class.

Listen to the rest of the podcast to hear about the other projects: a writing exercise where students produce Wikipedia entries for inorganic chemistry topics and a communication project in a non-major’s introductory chemistry course where students refute scientific“statements” made on Twitter.

Inorganic laboratory research project

The idea was predicated by the fundamental challenge that we have at UCLA: with over a thousand undergraduate chemistry and biochemistry majors, it’s mathematically impossible for every to student to experience a research environment in a faculty lab.

Having research experience is very important for those going into chemical research but also due to the competitive nature of other post-graduate options, like getting into medical or dentistry school. Beyond that, I think being able to do hypothesis-driven research is critical, for whatever you do in life. Whether you become a researcher or not, developing these research skills teaches a student how to think using problem-solving.  

We decided to take the cookbook-type inorganic laboratory class, which was similar to the earlier undergraduate lab classes only more complex, and completely revamp them. Instead of telling students what to do, we gave them an open-ended question and then had them work as a team to contribute to pieces of that research question. The hope was that they would patch together the work, collaboratively, and uncover new scientific results in the span of 10 weeks in the lab.

The class has a lecture component, too. During that part we spent a good portion of the discussion talking about safety and the logistics of laboratory activities, such as what you should and shouldn’t do when you are dealing with a complex variety of inorganic reagents. For the most part, this is the first time that students are dealing with pyrophoric and flammable materials, for example using a sodium still to dry solvents, so safety is an important part of both the lecture and laboratory learning.

Unlike a lot of laboratory settings with 20-25 students per one TA, these classes are much smaller. There are 12 students per two TAs and there’s a lot more face time, which makes safety reinforcement a lot easier.Additionally, there are a huge variety of backgrounds coming into the course. As instructors, we try to get everybody on the same page at the beginning. The first two weeks we treat them like they know nothing – such as using a Schlenk link and a rotary evaporator. By the end of the course they are really able to equalize, so they all end up around the same level of competence in terms of laboratory skills.

The ultimate goal is to produce a research paper that can potentially be published in a peer-reviewed journal. In the three times that we have taught the class, we were able to produce one manuscript that got published. In another case, we still have more open-ended questions to be figured out, so we will incorporate those into next year’s class. There may be lots of co-authors because it’s a class project, but everybody was happy because they saw they could spend 10 weeks in the lab and work hard as a team to produce a tangible peer-reviewed product.

The assessment for the course comes from a written final exam and participation in lab. Another portion of the grade is based on the writing of the paper. We have tried to create a process that is close to how real-life grades you: you either completed the job, or you did not. The student teams bring me their draft paper, we then sit down and correct it together. If they make the changes necessary to bring the draft up to publishable standards after our discussion, they get full credit on that portion of the course.

We try to reinforce the idea that this course is about collaboration and not competition. Each group turns in a report and they spend a long time on this writing project. We encourage them to start week one, for example, drawing the figures for the reactions and preparing data from an NMR spectrum that will go directly into the report. We also discuss what makes a good figure and why. This is a valuable lesson for future research or for any industry job, because what you really need are clear communication skills.

We view this class as an immersive experience. It’s like we are taking 12 undergraduates into our research lab and showing them how to think,write, and become better scientists.

Listen to the full Episode Here:

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