Students save lab, class time with web-enhanced general chem class

La Sierra University pre-med student Sara Pinto da Silva conducts a general chemistry experiment last quarter in her home using a mail order lab kit.

By Darla Martin Tucker

Over the first two weeks of October, La Sierra University pre-med student Sara Pinto da Silva conducted her first general chemistry experiments to find the presence of starch in rice and bread and perform other analyses.

But unlike the majority of the university’s general chemistry students, da Silva did not carry out her experiments in a university lab. She conducted them in the bathroom of her home in Riverside using a mail-order chemistry kit as a student in a new, web-enhanced general chemistry class.

Da Silva is a native of Portugal and also a veterinarian who aims to switch gears and enter medical school. Toward that goal, the second-year pre-med student is taking 18 units of classes, a heavy load made lighter by the convenience of the web-based program set up by associate chemistry professor Nate Brandstater and his assistant, Christopher Reeves.

“So far I’m really enjoying it because it gives me more freedom of time for my schedule, and that’s really important,” da Silva said.

The shoe-box sized chemistry kit da Silva uses, called a LabPaq, is created by Hands-On Labs Inc. in Englewood, Colo. The company provides LabPaq kits for online courses covering more than 350 experiments across 10 scientific disciplines including forensics, biology, chemistry and others.

The company mails the kits to Brandstater’s office at La Sierra where they are forwarded to the students. The kits include an online manual with detailed lab experiment instructions. “It’s pretty simple,” da Silva said. She mitigates potential questions and problems with experiments by reading the lab assignments and checking her lab materials ahead of time. If she needs help, she sends Brandstater an email or text message and receives a response the same day, she says.

Da Silva shares a house with three people and uses the large bathroom for her experiments because of its good lighting and window ventilation. “I used fire [portable burner] and hydrochloric acid yesterday and there were no problems,” she said.

Hands-On Labs creates kits for La Sierra’s class with materials for 10 experiments including determining acid concentrations in vinegar, the generation and study of gases, and electron transfer reactions. The kits come with beakers, flasks, safety goggles, chemicals, a digital scale and flame source. “It’s micro-scale so it has small quantities of materials,” said Brandstater.

Many other online chemistry classes require students to travel to school campuses to conduct wet lab experiments. Other courses offer simulated experiments but such an approach lacks the vital tactile experience, said Brandstater.

His web-enhanced course runs concurrently with three on-site general chemistry classes with more than 160 students enrolled. Brandstater’s course includes a syllabus, 10-minute video on the principle aspects of chemistry, homework and reading assignments assignments, supplemental digital assignments, video shots of chemistry experiments and reactions, and several methods of student interaction and communication with Brandstater. Exams are still paper-based and proctored by teaching assistants. Brandstater is keeping a journal on the responsiveness of students, documenting elements that are working well and those that need improvement.

While providing a level of convenience for students, the online course also saves Brandstater the time he normally spends iterating general course material, allowing him to focus on specific areas of confusion students may encounter, he said. “That’s where the high-value contact happens,” Brandstater said.

He added, “This is going to be a big learning experience for me and the chemistry department here, but I hope to hear very positive things from students who take this class.”

  • Last update on  January 22, 2013