In theory, the chemistry laboratory offers unique opportunities for students to practice "doing" science and to form links between phenomena that can be seen by the naked eye and atomic- and molecular-scale interpretations of these phenomena. Laboratories can also stimulate and motivate students to learn more about science. Unfortunately, science education research suggests that the potential of the laboratory environment is seldom realized. The primary goal of Advancing Chemistry by Enhancing Learning in the Laboratory (ACELL) project is to provide professional development to chemistry faculty by expanding their understanding of teaching and learning in the instructional laboratory environment. To meet this goal, ACELL is holding a workshop, in which 24 faculty work alongside 24 undergraduate students to experience and learn about a variety of new laboratory approaches that research suggests are more successful at conveying the practice of science to students; to examine their beliefs about the role of laboratory education in light of current educational research; and to analyze and revise more traditional chemistry laboratory experiments to make them engaging and meaningful for students. Faculty members conduct small, locally-relevant educational research projects that allow them to critically evaluate and improve the laboratory learning experiences at their home institutions as post-workshop activities. Overall, ACELL is developing a community of chemistry faculty across the US who are knowledgeable about educational research in the area of laboratory pedagogy, who share that knowledge with colleagues through both informal conversations and formal conference presentations, and who carry out educational research in their own classrooms.

Project Report

The overarching goal of the ACELL project was to provide chemistry faculty with first-hand experience with three, research-based instructional approaches (discovery, inquiry, science writing heuristic) that had shown promise in improving laboratory learning outcomes but had not been widely adopted by general chemistry programs. The design of the 2012 ACELL workshop at Purdue University was informed by an Australian model of professional development in which faculty and undergraduate students worked together during activities (Buntine, et al., 2007). The 48 participants (24 faculty and 24 students) spent three full days performing ACELL-selected lab activities, reflecting on their experiences, discussing the pros/cons of the three pedagogies, and evaluating activities used at their home universities. The GVSU collaborators assisted the other ACELL groups with the design of the workshop (e.g. selection and development of exemplar activities), its implementation, and the examination of the student participants’ beliefs and experiences. The two GVSU undergraduate researchers conducted and transcribed over 20 hours of pre-workshop and post-workshop interviews with the student participants. They also served as embedded observer and peer interviewers as they stayed in the same dorm and socialized with the student participants throughout the workshop. To foster independent inquiry, each undergraduate researcher explored a research question of her own design: How consistent are high school and university-level laboratory experiences? How did student participants’ views of inquiry change as a result of the workshop? Post-workshop interviews suggested that participants’ high school experiences were infrequent and more disconnected from the lecture portion of the class. Preliminary analysis of the Orientation to Laboratory Instruction Survey as well as post-workshop interviews indicated that student participants’ views shifted away from verification toward inquiry with respect to experimental design and data analysis. These changes in beliefs may be permanent for some participants because during a post-workshop interview, a participant recalled the main idea from a PowerPoint slide (NRC, 2000, Table 2.6) she had seen during an ACELL debriefing discussion nine months earlier: "…inquiry is where they give you…well there are different scales for the inquiry, but they can give you the question and have you figure out the procedure and the answer. For the buffer lab we were told to save the patient, but we weren’t told how to save the patient, so we had to come up with that all on our own…they can give you more and they can give you less information to make it easier or more difficult." On a side note, the importance of a significant undergraduate research experience is often mentioned but rarely illustrated. In 2014 one of the two GVSU student researchers was offered and accepted a position as a high school chemistry teacher immediately after graduating. She recalled that when the principal made the offer, he mentioned that her success in the second interview was largely due to her ability to engage the superintendent in an extended discussion of her research experiences, findings, and presentation at a national conference. All of these were made possible by her participation in the ACELL project. Thank you for making the ACELL project possible. Buntine, M.A., Read, J.R., Barrie, S.C., Bucat, R.B., Crisp, G. T., George, A. V., Jamie, I.M., and Kable, S. H. (2007). "Advancing Chemistry by Enhancing Learning in the Laboratory (ACELL): A model for providing professional and personal development and facilitating improved student laboratory learning outcomes." Chemistry Education Research and Practice, 8, 232-254. National Research Council. (2000). Inquiry and the National Science Education Standards. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 29.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Undergraduate Education (DUE)
Standard Grant (Standard)
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Program Officer
David Brown
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Grand Valley State University
United States
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