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Cooperative, Project-based, Authentic Experiments in the General Chemistry Laboratory (ACE-Labs)

The ACE-Labs course aims to offer an introduction to the science of chemistry from the point of view of practicing chemists. Its core idea is to facilitate students’ understanding of the relevance of scientific research in modern society. For many young citizens, the very complex and rapid scientific and technological development of our society is a huge black box. Many perceive the benefits, technological gadgets, advances in medicine and materials, etc. but do not really comprehend their origin and their connection with scientific research. The ACE-Labs course aims to create research connections for the students that will bring them closer to understanding research as a social endeavor and its reach.

Cooperative, project-based, authentic experiments learning laboratory instruction

Project-based instruction is an instructional strategy that uses challenging tasks in the form of open-ended questions or problems that learners need to solve. The crafting of these projects is such that by working on finding their solution the learners encounter an authentic need to know and master the concepts, principles, techniques and skills associated with the subject. To better accomplish these goals, projects are extended (multi-week) and complex in nature offering learners multiple opportunities for problems solving at different levels and time for exploration and reflection. Project-based learning posits learners in a position that requires them to take charge of their learning, practice critical and creative thinking, produce arguments, collaborate and negotiate meaning and other skills that are transferable and not content-specific.

The ACE-Lab projects constitute authentic experiments. Here experimenting is understood as “trying out” guided by the desire to “find out” answers to questions or further information about an observed or theoretical phenomenon. Experimenting is similar to problem solving in that it encompasses anything that is done when faced with “not knowing what to do”. These experiments strive to provide learners with a context to apply and further develop their chemical knowledge and understanding, that is, to strengthen their chemistry conceptual frameworks.

The role of the instructor

The role of the instructor is in the ACE-Labs it that of an advisor or coach. As the objective of this lab is to let students make their own decision about what to do for each project, your lab instructor is there not to provide you with the “right” answers. However, the instructor is there to provide guidance and he or she will not let you drift away or struggle indefinitely. Your instructor will make suggestions and give you ideas about your proposed experiments and work, but at any point the instructor will not give you a direct procedure on what to do and how to do it.

Also, it is important to mention that your instructor is not the only available resource for you in this lab. Your will be assigned to a group of students to work with. In your group you may find people with ideas about the projects that you should take advantage of exploring and considering, just remember to be critical of the ideas not of the people suggesting those ideas!

The role of the student

The ACE-labs are design to provide students with the opportunity to explore chemistry from a scientist point of view. As you might know, scientific exploration is looking into novel discoveries, experiments never done before and testing ideas never considered before. To achieve that, many scientist need to develop their own method and experiments. In the scientific exploration there is no “right or wrong” answer, only observations, trials and data collection from which conclusions arrive from. There is always room for innovation, improvement and re-design of the experiments. In the ACE-labs this will be the objective of the projects, to provide you with opportunities to discover new ideas about chemistry.

Many of the problems presented in the ACE-labs will require a team to solve them. This means you will be assigned with a group of students at the beginning of the semester to work together and tackle these problems. Research on laboratory experiences in chemistry has shown that cooperative problem-based laboratories foster and exercise skills you can carry into the rest of your life and these are essential for many work industries in almost all fields.