Bristol ChemLabS: Winner of the 2010 Times Higher Education Outstanding ICT Initiative of the Year Award
The Bristol ChemLabS Laboratories and the Dynamic Laboratory Manual (DLM)
The Dynamic Laboratory Manual (DLM) is an interactive, web-based laboratory manual, which has been developed by Bristol ChemLabS staff in association with Learning Science Ltd. It forms the centrepiece of the Bristol ChemLabS experience in the state-of-the-art Undergraduate Teaching Laboratories in the School of Chemistry at the University of Bristol and has, we believe, transformed teaching and student learning in a laboratory environment. What follows provides an overview of how the new laboratory experience evolved and of how we developed the DLM.
A demonstration which illustrates all of the key components of the DLM can be accessed from links on this page and by clicking here.
"The most obvious point to an outside observer is the purposeful air and committed attitude of the students at all three levels. [...] The students knew what they were doing and were deeply involved in it. [...] No student at Bristol, when asked what (s)he was doing, replied 'I'm down to here on page 2.' [...] The DLM (Dynamic Laboratory Manual) is vital to the operation of the labs."
Extract from the November 2008 Report from the External Academic Evaluator Dr Stuart Warren (Cambridge)
The problem with a traditional laboratory
In a traditional teaching laboratory environment, students typically arrive at the laboratory to do an experiment without a clear idea of the practical techniques they will be using, the skills they will need, or the chemistry behind the practical. It is often only after the laboratory, during a write up, that they will generally start to work out what it was they had been doing all day.
Students will clearly get much more from the laboratory experience if they know what they will be doing before they arrive and pre-laboratory preparation is the key to achieving this. Therefore, one of the main innovations in Bristol ChemLabS has been to shift the balance of work done outside the laboratory to before rather than after the practical class so that students are much better prepared and therefore more confident. The DLM is the multifunctional tool designed to facilitate exactly this and much more besides.
As part of the ChemLabS experience, students are now required to work through some background information about the experiment before they arrive at the laboratory. All the information they need for a particular experiment is contained in the DLM and they do not need, for example, to have had particular lectures in advance of any given experiment. An important part of the pre-laboratory work centres around a set of multiple choice and multiple completion questions. These are assessed and form part of the overall assessment for that experiment, but also provide immediate and informative feedback on any wrong answers given. Students are given two attempts but since the questions are taken from a question bank, the second set of questions will not be same as the first. Likewise, different students will get different questions.
In addition, information about each experiment comes in a variety of rich formats which includes Flash-based simulations/virtual instruments and video.
Flash based simulations/virtual instruments
A complicated piece of equipment or instrumentation is represented in a diagrammatic form which has interactive valves or switches etc. The correct use of the equipment can be learned by following a set of instructions and although it is likely that many students will merely play with the valves initially, even this will educate them about the function of the apparatus. Mistakes, which might be quite serious or costly with the real equipment, can be made with no adverse effects; students just start again and have another go.
Some techniques are best illustrated by video and students find this a very useful way to get a clear idea of what they will need to do in the laboratory. Some students have very limited experience of glassware and general laboratory apparatus and seeing, for example, how to set up a Büchner filtration gives them confidence and saves them from having to ask a demonstrator. Students therefore learn what a particular set of apparatus is supposed to do, have more confidence when it comes to using the real thing, and a much better idea of the chemistry that is being explored in the experiment. Moreover, demonstrators are now free to engage in more productive activities with the students such as in-lab assessment.
Virtual instruments/equipment and video clips are embedded within each experiment and are also gathered together in a Techniques Manual which is available as a general resource throughout the students' time in Bristol. It is important to stress that video and simulation are in no way intended to replace the laboratory experience; their role is to augment it.
In the past students have had to sign a safety form declaring that they understand the risks and hazards associated with the chemicals and apparatus for a particular experiment and the precautions which need to be taken. Unfortunately, some students were prone to taking a rather flippant attitude towards the safety form which was never a very satisfactory state of affairs. As part of the DLM, students are now asked a variety of questions concerning safety and the hazards associated with the chemicals used for each experiment. These questions are in the form of multiple choice or multiple completion questions and students must score a minimum of 80%. Students are thus forced to think about hazards and safe practices. They are told the correct answers at the end of their attempt and may have a second attempt but the questions may not be the same and, even if some of them are the same, will not be presented in the same order. Also, different students are asked different questions in different orders to avoid collusion. If students fail to score 80% after the second attempt they must see a demonstrator to discuss safety before they start the laboratory session.
Using software linked to the DLM, academic staff and demonstrators are able see how the students have performed on the prelab and safety tests. In the case of safety data, a student who scores less than 80% has this mark in a red box whereas a student who has passed has their score shown in a yellow box or in a green box if they have scored 100%. The staff member can thus see at a glance which students need to be spoken to at the start of the laboratory.
Other features of the DLM
A post-laboratory write up is no longer required for all experiments; in their second year, for example, they are asked to provide a write up for six experiments out of 24 in the form of a scientific paper using a template. Students are able to upload their completed documents into the DLM and demonstrators can assess these and post the annotated documents back on the system to provide students with feedback. Moreover, whenever students log onto the DLM they log into their own personal space; the system knows what experiment they are scheduled to do on what day and ensures the correct data is presented. The DLM also allows data from equipment to be recorded and stored in a student’s personal space such that in can then be incorporated into a write up if required; in this regard it acts also as an Electronic Laboratory Notebook.
Feedback so far from students about the DLM could hardly be more positive. They find it incredibly useful and certainly feel more prepared for the laboratory when they arrive than before.
In addition to the new laboratories and state-of-the-art equipment and instrumentation, all of the undergraduate experiments were also reviewed and, in many cases, redesigned or new ones developed. All experiments are now designed to deliver key practical skills such that students at the end of each year of study have acquired a laboratory skills set appropriate for their year group. A list of all the experiments can be found here and a table of the skills sets for each year group can be found here. Experiments are no longer linked explicitly to lectures and reference is not made to the old inorganic/organic/physical structure.
Bristol ChemLabS, in association with Learning Science Ltd, has produced Post 16 DLMs to improve and support the practical chemistry and biology skills for Post 16 Chemistry courses for schools and colleges. Physics is under development. They support all current A-Level specifications and is also appropriate for IB and Scottish Highers. A-Level Chemistry LabSkills is available as a networkable package designed to run on any school VLE and personalised teacher and student versions on a memory stick are also available. Biology LabSkills is available as a VLE networkable package at present. More information about the LabSkills products can be found on the LabSkills website.
More recently and in collaboration with Cengage Learning Inc., General Chemistry LabSkills and Organic Chemistry LabSkills have been produced to support practical chemistry skills development in an introductory setting in universities. These new LabSkills products are available on a subscription basis, further details of which are available here for General Chemistry and here for Organic Chemistry.