Can we train in experimental work in chemistry by sitting in front of a computer screen rather than in front of a laboratory bench? At first glance, the idea may surprise. “I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand,” said Confucius.
If we refer to this famous maxim, manipulating a bain-marie and pipettes, balance, tubes and flasks seems much more obvious for those who want to progress in experimental sciences than to consult videos or protocols online. And this is not to deny the importance of the practical sessions.
Like Hofstein , Lagowski and Scheckler , we are convinced that experimentation must retain a special place in chemistry training. But it is clear that the time devoted to these sessions is more and more limited in the courses, partly for financial reasons and constraints of preparation.
In addition, master’s promotions are becoming more and more diverse. A positive trend to promote dialogue between students. But their personal baggage is different, some having worked a lot in the laboratory before, others not, which requires reminders or upgrades.
How can laboratory work be optimized under these conditions and make exchanges between teachers and learners more efficient? With several teachers from three establishments at Paris-Saclay University, in 2014 we decided to answer the question digitally, by designing an online resource site, Chimactiv .
Initially, Chimactiv aimed at clearly identified courses – AgroParisTech engineer, Nutrition and Food Sciences master, Chemistry master, pharmacist, FESup master (teacher training for higher education). So that resources can be shared from one to another, we have made the site freely available.
Then, as the development progressed, we realized that the public could be much larger: Chimactiv indeed covers a very wide field in the field of chemical analysis, going from fundamental notions of high school level to methodological contributions at master level with concrete applications.
Through a great diversity of content – texts, photos, interactive diagrams, videos, slideshows – some of which are downloadable, the site addresses five fundamental themes to understand the experimental sessions:
- safety in a chemical laboratory
- the BABA of manipulations
- drug analysis
- food analysis
- familiarization with experimental methodologies.
It also offers self-assessment tools (quizzes and exercises) and remains interactive whatever the consultation medium (computer, tablet or smartphone), which is a factor of attractiveness .
Each teacher can freely organize their pedagogical scenario and direct their pupils towards the resources to consult before the sessions on the model of the inverted class . They can also draw on these resources during lessons, tutorials and practicals, by integrating them into their own teaching aids.
As for the students, beyond the teachers’ instructions, they can direct their navigation according to their needs. Thus, students unfamiliar with the laboratory will consult the sheets relating to the safety and handling of risky chemicals before the sessions, while students with already experience will abstain from this consultation or spend less time.
Enough to arrive better prepared in the laboratory, as already shown by other work on the provision of digital resources, and therefore lighten the cognitive load that they could experience in experimental session.
Having apprehended the protocol and the manipulations upstream, they allow themselves less to monopolize the mind by the technical tasks – for example the preparation of dilutions if they are asked to dose a compound in an extract – to better focus on the ‘results interpretation.
This avoids the participants being satisfied with the role of simple “TP recipe executors”. The time allocated to the experimental practice increases and the exchanges during the session are richer.
Towards an online community?
The resources are also used after laboratory sessions, to help interpret or enhance the results (for drawing a calibration line, or determining the effective concentration of an antioxidant for example).
Use in a professional situation is also observed, as illustrated by the testimony of a former student engineer who passed through the research laboratory of a large company:
“I did not master certain laboratory techniques before starting my internship. I therefore consulted the site in order to understand and learn how the gas chromatography, ion chromatography and HPLC methods also work. […] And thanks to Chimactiv, I was able to review the basics of the “benchtop world” that I hadn’t had the opportunity to attend for several years. “
Does this example signify the emergence of a wider user community than the audience initially targeted? Of the 228 respondents to the satisfaction questionnaire that appears on the site, we find that 7.5% of them are non-teaching professionals working in quality control, in an R&D department or in a research unit .
In addition, if the creation of the site made it possible to federate an inter-establishment team, Chimactiv is used by teachers from other schools and universities. The goal is to continue to spread out in different courses, while focusing more on the uses of the site and its contributions.
To this end, Chimactiv is one of the projects integrated into the new research-action chair on educational innovation inaugurated by Paris-Saclay University, in order to work hand in hand with researchers in the educational sciences.