From baking soda and vinegar to virtual reality, this Chem prof is keeping students engaged at home

By Melissa Nilan, Marketing and Communications

When the pandemic hit, James Zhou was among the many instructors scrambling to convert a very hands-on subject to an online format. How could students practise chemistry at home without a lab? (Dexter’s Laboratory, anyone? If only!) James and the laboratory staff came up with some clever and creative solutions, including virtual simulations and having students do experiments with ingredients found in their own kitchens.

Black bean experiment: The black beans were used to make a natural pH indicator. It helps determine whether a solution is acidic or basic. A black bean indicator is grayish-purple in neutral solutions, pink when it comes into contact with an acid, and green when in contact with a base.

“We felt that if we just filmed everything, students wouldn’t be engaged enough. We wanted them to really get hands-on experience in the lab. Simulations and safe at-home experiments were the answer, and the students have really enjoyed it,” says James.

Chemistry in the kitchen

For the first-year introductory chemistry course, James shipped kits to students’ homes. This “lab” required students to mix and identify common pantry ingredients, such as salt, sugar and flour. Since these aren’t volatile chemicals, the ingredients could be safely shipped, and students could easily perform the experiments at home.

“We gave the students sandwich bags randomly labelled A, B, C, et cetera, and they had to determine what each chemical was by doing different reactions with it, such as testing if it dissolves in water. We also gave them special beans that change colour if the ingredient is acidic or basic, and pH papers they could use. Students really enjoyed it because they actually got to do something hands-on,” says James.

Exploring the limitless possibilities of virtual labs

James and his team also introduced students to virtual chemistry labs. A virtual lab allows students to play with different equipment and chemicals to simulate their own experiments. The best part? There is no limit to how many times they can do an experiment online, unlike in a physical lab where there are limited time and resources.

“Simulations were the answer. The virtual lab is like a chemistry video game. You can do the experiments over again as many times as you want and keep making improvements. The program will tell you at the end where you made mistakes and how you can improve,” says James.

This is one of the virtual lab experiments conducted with students in upper-level chemistry courses.

For students in upper-level chemistry courses, James offered a platform that could go full virtual reality with the addition of VR goggles, for those who had them. Students would get the experience of immersing themselves in the lab, where they can turn their heads and look around the virtual room as if they were actually there. 

And yes, students can cause explosions in their virtual labs by mixing the wrong chemicals or altering time and heat in their experiment — something they wouldn’t be able to do in a real classroom.

“The simulator allows you to speed up time, conduct the experiment in different orders and try different products. Some students discovered if you leave the experiment for too long or turn the temperature up too high or add the wrong reagent, it will explode. We can’t do all those variations in a true lab, but in a virtual setting you have unlimited resources,” says James.

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Pursuing the WOW factor in science

James knows the value of experiential learning first-hand; lab experiments are what led him to a career in chemistry.

“My favourite part of chemistry was going into the lab, exploring chemicals and doing fun experiments. And I was really good at it, so I ended up following the chem path through university,” says James.

While he was working on his master’s degree at SFU, he did STEM outreach for K-12 students. Teaching them about science sparked his interest in becoming a teacher himself.

“I would host workshops for kids and teens and do fun activities. We blew stuff up, made things shrivel into little pieces, shattered things – lots of cool stuff you can’t do at home. The ‘wow’ aspect of those experiments is, I think, what really gets students’ attention.”

James Zhou teaches chemistry at Douglas College

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Looking ahead to post-pandemic

While some chem students have returned to in-person labs this semester, James and his colleagues are continuing to make use of these remote methods in order to limit the number of students on campus. They will continue this approach throughout the pandemic – and maybe even after.

The simulations are a really nice dry run for students before they actually come into a real lab, and possibly something we could continue using in the future. They can test out and practise their experiments online in advance before doing them for real.”

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