CHEM 361/2: ProLab

CAREER Figures.014

Beginning in Fall of 2015, the Department of Chemistry & Physics transformed our junior and senior-level chemistry laboratory courses from discipline-based “cookbook” labs to interdisciplinary, research-based labs. Instead of taking separate lab courses in inorganic, biological, analytical, and physical chemistry, students take two semesters of Pro-Lab, where faculty collaborate with students on research projects. Each Pro-lab is different depending on the faculty who are running the course. Below is a description of the Pro-Lab course as run by Dr. Kathryn Haas and Dr. Jennifer Fishovitz in Fall 2016. Our specific objectives for this course were to increase student satisfaction in laboratory courses, increase integration of knowledge across sub disciplines of chemistry and other STEM fields, and to increase our students’ confidence to pursue future research experiences.

(Click here to view Dr. Fishovitz’s website)

Pro-Lab Fall 2016:

Pre-Course Assignments: Before the first day of class, students completed a learning module, delivered electronically through their course management system, to prepare them for expectations and in using course tools (Google Tools, Zotero Reference Manager). This module took students 2-3 hours of time.

First Two Weeks, Literature: As this was the first time that some students were engaging in classroom undergraduate research experiences (CURE’s), we felt it was important to explicitly teach students how to read articles, search literature databases, and write about science. The first two weeks (16 hours of class time) was spent in the classroom with students working in teams of two to find information about their first research project. Students were guided to find “big picture” motivation for the research and specific chemical details about experimental methods by completing “literature scavenger hunts”, responding in writing to specific questions, organizing their references using Zotero, and writing a complete outline for their research project, including proposed experimental details. All students were able to come to similar conclusions as their faculty leaders about experimental plans by the end of the two weeks, and some students invented original questions and proposed future experiments to probe their questions. This activity not only taught students how to navigate literature, organize information, and write about science, but facilitated students to take ownership of their projects.

LabNotebookNotebook Keeping: The use of iPadPro devices in combination with OneNote software as electronic laboratory notebooks allowed students to capture audio, video, images, use color and organize thoughts in a way that is more in-line with millennial preferences. These notebooks also facilitated evaluation of notebooks, as faculty could literally watch what students were writing from their own iPadPros or desktop OneNote software. This allowed faculty to give real-time feedback about notebook keeping while students were working. Student and faculty feedback about this use of iPads as electronic netbooks was overwhelmingly positive and faculty believe that the facilitation of real-time formative assessment during lab was beneficial for student learning.

Research Projects and Scientific Communication: There were two major projects conducted in the laboratory inspired by each of the two faculty member’s undergraduate research programs:

1) Investigating the mechanism of copper reduction by the human copper transport protein, Ctr1 (Dr. Haas)
2) Investigating specificity of mitochondrial proteases that maintain mitochondrial integrity (Dr. Fishovitz)

Each project was preceded with a literature activity (see above) where students were guided in acquiring background knowledge, to design experimental plans, and write outlines of research publication before starting their laboratory work. The literature activity was more structured for the first laboratory, while the students were expected to do more work using their own structure in the second project. Following the first six weeks of project 1 intensive laboratory work, students prepared a publication-style written paper on which they were given formative assessment on at least one draft, however students could request additional feedback through several optional draft submissions. Each team also build a poster, which they presented to their peers. Upon completion of laboratory work from project 2, students collaborated in their teams of two to write a publication-style manuscript. Rather than a poster for this second project, students gave private oral defenses of their work to the faculty mentors. As a final assessment of writing and communication, each student chose one of their two manuscripts to edit and re-submit for a final grade. Although the manuscripts were originally submitted in pairs, this final submission was prepared and submitted individually in response to faculty feedback.

Video community resource (CoRe) project: What would have helped you? As a final project in the course, students were asked to chose a laboratory technique or method used during the semester and for which they would have benefitted from a video explanation. Each student generated a narrated video with the intention of sharing with future students in the course to facilitate their learning. These videos are posted on YouTube (below) and will be shared with future students.

Reflective writing about the CURE experience: Students were asked to complete a reflective writing assignment three times during the semester; 1) at the beginning of the course, 2) after the first project, and 3) after the second project. These assignments were completed with two goals in mind. First, we wanted students to reflect upon their learning experience (see Howitt, Susan and Wilson, Anna. Scaffolded Reflection as a Tool for Surface Complex Learning in Undergraduate Research Projects. CUR Quarterly Summer 2016, Volume 35, Number 4, 33-37.) Second, we used their writing as part of the course assessment in order to inform the faculty leaders about whether our course objectives were being met. The reflective assignments are available at the links below:

Reflection 1: Beginning of the course (Week 1 of 16)
Reflection 2: At the end of Project 1 (Week 8 of 16)
Reflection 3: At the end of Project 2: (Week 15 of 16)

Ethics writing assignments and discussion: As part of an NSF CCE-STEM project, students in this course took surveys and completed writing assignments in a private journal, a semi-public discussion board, and on Twitter. This part of the course will be discussed in a future publication.

Assessment: Our specific objectives for this course were to increase student satisfaction in laboratory courses, increase integration of knowledge across sub disciplines of chemistry and other STEM fields, and to increase our students’ confidence to pursue future research experiences. The course objectives were assessed through surveys (an institutional survey, the CURE survey, and instructor-designed survey) and through analysis of students’ reflective writing assignments. A summary of this assessment given by Dr. Fishovitz and Dr. Haas to the Department of Chemistry & Physics is available here: 2016 Fall ProLab Assessment


Below are resources for faculty who would like to conduct similar activities in their classroom laboratory courses:

Visual overview of the Pro-Lab course:

2016 ProLab Overview

Video CoRe project:

This was the first time that we had run a multimedia project in a laboratory course, and some lessons that we learned are as follows. Originally, student topics were approved, and students had two weeks to submit a final video. However, in the future we will ask students to hand in a draft of their transcript and a story board of their video at least one week before the final deadline. The rubric from Fall 2016 is given here.