Case study: Transforming Laboratory Learning

Tina Overton, School of Chemistry, Monash University

The Transforming Laboratory Learning project aimed to review and revise all laboratory experiences for all students in chemistry units at Monash University.

The project brought together increased levels of inquiry-based learning, moving away from expository laboratory experiences. This is in itself is not unique, but this model brought in work integrated contexts, issues and problems as authentic contexts for learning and embeded increased levels of complementary authentic assessment.

The aim of this project was to enhance students’ transferable and scientific skills and to give them ‘experience’ of how chemists might work in the chemical and related industries and to give them a real-life context for their chemistry learning

Prior to this initiative there were no visible opportunities for work integrated learning embedded within the chemistry curriculum, although students can take Faculty WIL units as electives.

Figure 1 The model for the Transforming Laboratory Learning project

Implementation process

Identifying authentic industrial contexts was key to the success of this approach.

  • Chemists in the chemistry and related industries were contacted via personal relationships, careers events, alumni and industry organisations. Without exception our contacts were very supportive of the project and were eager to help. One challenge was to identify the right person at the right level for the interaction. For example, senior managers were seldom in a position to identify tasks that a recent graduate chemist would be expected to do.
  • The levels and types of support provided were varied and included company videos to be used in pre-laboratory activities, videoed interviews to introduce an activity, sharing of experimental methods, use of company branding in laboratory manuals, providing background information and advice in the development of new activities, links to websites embedded in pre-labs and manuals.
  • In some cases an industrial partner was not readily available. In these cases, we set up the dummy Monash Consulting as a vehicle through which to provide real-life context and which provided advice and technical support for industry. It is probably fair to say that perceived authenticity by students was more important that bone fide authenticity.

Enablers and challenges

  • The greatest enabler has been funding from the faculty that has enabled us to employ a full time educational developer for three years.
  • We were also very fortunate to recruit someone with the perfect skill set; experience of working in several industries, experience of teaching in higher education and incredible networking skills. As this project aims to transform laboratory experiences over 20+ units this level of support has been essential.
  • The project was endorsed by the School Education Committee and has buy-in from all unit coordinators. This has also been essential as we systematically work though all our units.
  • Challenges have come from trying to engage all staff and manage a large School-wide project.
  • The biggest challenge has been around the quality of teaching associates who are key to the success or failure of any curriculum development. The change from expository to inquiry has led to a change in their role which some of them are still struggling with. In addition, some do not value the work-related context, having never worked in industry themselves. The School has committed to enhanced and ongoing training to try to meet this challenge.

Achievements and impact

  • We are systematically researching the impact of this project on the attitudes and attributes of our students.
  • Baseline data shows that students have a very narrow view of the purpose of teaching laboratory activities but that these views are broadened following redesigned activities.
  • A pre and post-study of several expository and several redesigned labs indicates that students identify that they have developed a larger range of scientific and transferable skills in the new labs and that they clearly recognise the industrial context and appreciate the more open-ended style of activity.
  • The project is just past the half way point and now mainly year 3 units remain to be revised. Implementing more inquiry-based learning is relatively simple but real-life contexts are little harder to come by when looking at advanced level chemistry. But we continue to pursue them and are confident of more positive outcomes from the project.

‘an interesting investigation similar to industry processes’

‘Great to plan out own investigation’

‘I now understand how different processes relate to real life situations and that made the lab enjoyable’