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Experienced teaching assistants help transform laboratories

This past summer, four experienced teaching assistants—David Boyce, Amanda Maxwell, Kaustubh Mote, and Emily Pelton—played pivotal roles in transforming general chemistry laboratories from verification to guided-inquiry experiences.

Although they faced challenges, overall the teaching assistants like the new guided-inquiry labs, which they feel are much more beneficial and educational for students. They think that the students are learning more, are developing a scientific curiosity, are using problem-solving and critical-thinking skills, are thinking independently, and are more comfortable in laboratory settings.

This is how a lab should be run, said Kaustubh, with the students developing plans of action to solve the problems, carrying out those plans, assessing the approaches used and the results, and reporting their findings.

The focus of guided-inquiry labs is on the thought process and improving experimental design skills rather than following directions exactly, or even getting particular results, Amanda said. David agrees, noting that the key to the new lab format is to let students plan and execute their own solutions to the experiments, and truly learn how to experiment by developing multiple solutions to their projects.

"I think that developing this new lab format will be tremendously beneficial to students as they proceed through the chemistry curriculum," said Emily. "By introducing students to laboratory problem-solving in chemistry at the introductory level, students will be better able to face the problem-solving challenges presented by upper-level chemistry labs. In addition, the new lab format offers students opportunities to develop skills that are applicable beyond the walls of Smith Hall. . . . Students are learning how to work cooperatively in groups, develop written and oral presentation skills, develop time management skills, and develop confidence in problem solving," she said.

It is hard for the teaching assistants to avoid providing answers to the students, to act more as coaches than answer keys. As coaches, the teaching assistants strive to be positive and encouraging. It is sometimes difficult to not tell students that they are doing things incorrectly or that something they are trying won't work.

"Sometimes it is difficult to not tell the answer," said Kaustubh, "especially when students are getting frustrated when experiments don't work . . . . It is hard to get students who feel very frustrated to think about the lab. It is challenging to not answer, 'What do I do next?' without appearing unhelpful."

It is important for the students to realize that they are capable of answering their own questions, to make them think for themselves, and to have them become independent learners. The teaching assistants' first responses to students' questions are to ask: Have you looked it up? What resources could you use to find the answers?

"I encourage them to experiment for themselves," said Amanda. "Even if they start off in a direction that I know will not work, they can still learn from the experience."

All of the teaching assistants feel that students are learning more in the guided-inquiry laboratories. "I was amazed by how enthusiastic and creative my students were," said Amanda. "They often thought of methods for solving a problem that I never would have considered. It is exciting to see the expressions on students' faces when they are finally successful at an experiment that they have attempted several times. . . . The success is sweeter because of their initial struggle, and the chances that they retain what they learned is much greater," she said.

Teaching Assistant Amanda Mawell (left), acting as a coach in guided-inquiry labs, helps Alyssia Morley.