Virtual Build for General Chemistry using Articulate Storyline

The Organic Chemistry Laboratory course sequence (CHEM117/118) at Georgetown University is an introductory-level laboratory course. Each year, more than 180 students in as many as 14 different sections begin this course sequence in the fall in hopes of learning how to be an effective and productive bench chemist. These students use the fundamental, freshman-level understanding of chemical principles from the pre-requisite General Chemistry course to carry out more sophisticated operations in the laboratory. These operations include synthesizing and purifying a number of organic compounds using the tools of a modern synthetic organic chemist.

These operations often require that students build complex apparatus constructed from multiple pieces of glassware and other specialized equipment. In certain cases, as many as a dozen pieces of glassware must be properly configured, attached and secured in order to successfully complete the weekly exercise in lab. The process of building such an apparatus can be confusing, intimidating and time-consuming for students in an environment when time and resources are limited.

This project aimed to create and test a supplemental electronic resource which students can use to prepare for their actual laboratory build by first conducting the build in a virtual environment. Particularly exciting is the prospect that students will be able to use mobile, touch-screen-enabled technology to perform this exercise, making it a highly accessible and kinesthetic experience.

To this end, a web-based exercise called a ‘Virtual Build’ was created using Articulate Storyline 2. Storyline 2 allows us to construct interactive, HTML-5 and SCORM-formatted exercises which can be easily distributed to students over a wide variety of platforms, including traditional PC’s, laptops, tablet computers and even smart phones.

As an initial trial, a virtual build was produced to aid students in the construction of a steam distillation apparatus mid-way through the second semester of the course. The steam still is the most complex build of the entire course, requiring the proper positioning of at least eleven pieces of glassware, multiple clamps and electrical equipment. A control group (n = 67 students, 5 sections) was afforded all of the preparation resources commonly provided in the course, including an online fundamentals lecture, written procedure and one hour preparatory recitation with a graduate teaching assistant. The test group (n = 81 students, 7 sections) was afforded all of the aforementioned resources and given optional access to the virtual build at least four days prior to conducting the experiment in lab.

At the time of the lab exercise, the control and test groups were surveyed regarding their level of confidence and perceived preparedness for the build. TA’s also measured the time required for each student to complete the build satisfactorily.

Organic chemistry laboratory practice can be intimidating and difficult for students. Often, teaching assistants and instructors find it necessary to spend valuable lab time coaching students in the fundamentals of constructing complex apparatus. This is unfortunate, since lab time and resources are fixed. Each minute spent demonstrating and explaining the build process is one more minute less for students to run their reaction or purification for the week.

This project aimed to determine if mobile computing technology and web-based delivery of a virtual build exercise could positively influence student confidence and performance during this important setup portion of their experiments. If this can be accomplished, valuable lab time can be saved and repurposed to other tasks which can only be conducted in the lab, such as data collection.

The questions asked in the study were:

  1. Will students choose use such a resource when it is presented to them as optional?
  2. Will students’ confidence level be affected positively by using this tool?
  3. Will inclusion of this resource in the curriculum result in a measurable improvement in students’ ability to construct a complex apparatus quickly and properly?

Students in both groups were asked to complete a short survey before beginning their steam-still build in the associated laboratory meeting. The control group survey asked only about the student’s own assessment of their confidence level going into the build for the week using a seven-point, Likert response scale, with 1 being ‘very strongly disagree’ and 7 being ‘very strongly agree’.

The test group survey also asked students to indicate the amount of time spent using the virtual build (if any at all) and to elaborate on which type of mobile computing device they chose to complete the exercise.

Opting in

According to student surveys, 70% of the test group opted to use the virtual build in some capacity to prepare for the laboratory. For such an experienced group of students, this is a promising indication that student faith in the benefits of electronic exercises is adequate to motivate them to try new ways of learning and preparing for lab exercises.

Among the 57 respondents from the test group who used the virtual build exercise, the average amount of time spent was rather modest at 7.5 minutes.

Student Confidence

Student confidence was surveyed by their response to the statement “I feel well-prepared for this build”, using a seven point Likert scale of (1) “Very Strongly Disagree” through (7) “Very Strongly Agree”. The test group responded in greater agreement to this statement with a mean response of 6.1, compared to respondents in the control group which reported a mean of 5.5 for the same statement.

Students in the test group on average responded in greater agreement with the statement that they were confident in their ability to complete the week’s lab build.

This result suggests that the act of preparing with an interactive electronic exercise may leave students feeling better prepared for complex lab builds. This increased confidence should translate to more rapidly and accurately executing related tasks in the laboratory itself.

Toward a More Efficient Lab Exercise

Once students began their build, the supervising teaching assistant kept track of the time required for each student to report to them that their build was complete. After this, the TA completed a 15-item checklist scoring aspects of each student’s build as ‘good’ (2 pts), ‘fair’ (1 pt) or ‘poor’ (0 pts). Each student’s build time (in minutes) and quality score (out of 30 points) were recorded on their survey by the TA.

The time required for students to complete the build portion of their exercise is reported in figure 3. Times varied widely in both groups, with times ranging from as little as two minutes to as long as 45 minutes. The mean build, time for the control group was nine minutes longer than that of the test group, more than 50% longer. When compared to the average amount of time spent on the virtual build by participating students in the test group (7.5 minutes), this suggests that not only can valuable time in lab be saved using this strategy, but that a disproportionately smaller amount of time must be invested by the student outside of lab in order to realize these benefits.

Students in the test group posted a substantially lower mean build time result than those in the control group. High variability, however, suggests that additional trials are needed to substantiate this beneficial effect.

All builds were well-executed in both the control and test groups, with average build assessment scores of 29 in both the control group and among those members of the test group using the virtual build assignment.

Based on the preliminary information collected during this study, there is clearly potential value in investing small amounts of students’ time in a well-crafted mobile computing application which can be used to familiarize them with laboratory apparatus. The availability of web-distribution and of touch-screen devices such as tablets and smartphones may also help to bridge the gap between the virtual and the real by making the electronic exercise more tactile and kinesthetic. When given the choice, however, the majority of students in the test group reported that they opted to use traditional computers with trackpad or mouse inputs. Future iterations of this exercise should be conducted in a more controlled environment, such as a TA guided recitation, to ensure that all participating students are using similar devices and input methods.

Survey data from this project indicate that just a few minutes of preparation using this strategy may lead to a more confident and efficiently-working student in the laboratory. The significantly reduced build-times achieved by the test group students is strong evidence of this. However, since this exercise was tested on the 15th build of the academic year, all students were able to create their steam stills accurately, albeit with differing speeds. If there is indeed a benefit in terms of build accuracy, this is expected to be more pronounced earlier in the academic year, when students are still mastering the basics of connecting and securing glassware.

Future directions for this promising product include its implementation in an earlier laboratory exercise within the CHEM117/118 course sequence in order to better assess this strategy’s potential in terms of improving the accuracy of builds in the organic chemistry lab. During this implementation, test-group students should be given timed access to a single type of device in a classroom environment in order to establish more rigid controls regarding time invested and input technology used.

In any case, the results of this preliminary use of a virtual build exercise show great promise toward enhancing student confidence and efficiency in scientific laboratory courses.