Kitchen Chromatography and Virtual Escape Rooms: Chemistry Faculty Adapt to Remote Instruction

For many faculty, this semester of remote instruction has brought a unique set of challenges and successes, such as building communities through online platforms, engaging students on and off Zoom, and discovering new methods for exploring familiar processes. As the fall semester began, W.M. Keck Science Department chemistry faculty wondered how to best teach laboratory safety in a virtual environment, where students would not have hands-on access to or experience with the department’s equipment or facilities. “Chemistry is a practice as well as a theory, and that practice involves safety,” said Associate Professor of Chemistry Babak Sanii. “If you don’t learn that safety, you become a dangerous chemist.”

The solution: a virtual escape room, hosted in Google Earth’s version of the W.M. Keck Science Building. In a process reminiscent of puzzle-based computer games such as Myst, students clicked on different offices to “visit” chemistry faculty members and learn a brief but important safety lesson from each one, noting the letter assigned to each tip. Students then navigated to the laboratory where the class would have been held on campus, clicking on examples of unsafe practices, such as a spilled beaker or an improperly stored vial. Using the lessons they’d learned, they typed in the proper safety procedures and corresponding letters. Once they’d walked through the entire lab and recognized all the unsafe practices, they unscrambled the letters they’d received to form the message that allowed them to “escape” from the building.

“The lab was fun because we got to virtually explore and see all the instruments we would have been working with if the semester hadn’t been remote,” said Jill Batiuk ’21, a biochemistry major who hopes to pursue a medical career with a focus on women’s health. Chemistry major Sam Shaffer ’21, who plans to work in a lab before entering a chemistry graduate program, added that the lab built community and provided a “heartwarming” way for juniors and seniors to revisit their former professors: “It was a fun way to get to know my groupmates and reinforce safety procedures.”

Adapting to a Remote Learning Environment

Not every assignment has involved that level of online detail. This semester has also included a series of “kitchen chemistry” experiments with common household goods, such as batteries, salt, cereal boxes, and food coloring, many of which were shipped to students as part of their remote instruction course kits. Thus equipped, students have engaged in myriad scientific processes, from molecular geometry with augmented reality and chromatography to water filtration and testing, which encouraged students to critically examine water quality in their home regions. Sanii’s advanced summer research students designed the at-home experiments, which are available online for high school teachers, prospective students, and aspiring chemists to download and follow.

“We wanted to connect students to wherever they were in the world,” said Professor of Chemistry and Environmental Science Katie Purvis-Roberts. And although students are eager to work with equipment on campus, the kitchen kits have been effective teaching tools. “The results of our final lab this semester are really close to the results we get in the on-campus lab, even though students are at home,” she said. “They’re doing good science, and it’s teaching them how to conduct experiments, do calculations, and think about their data.”

Opening Doors to Future Opportunities

Remote instruction technology has also given students the opportunity to prepare for future opportunities in the field. Chemistry lab instructor Sadie Otte’s students have primarily focused on computational chemistry, which involves drawing molecular structures on a computer using a specialized program called WebMO. Students are using the browser-based software to learn about a molecule’s properties, movements, energy, reactions, and arrangement in space. “This is one of the genuine, authentic ways that scientists do science,” Otte said. “Computational chemistry is the area where most internships and research opportunities are available right now.”

Sanii’s students have spent the semester remotely logging into an atomic force microscope, learning the techniques for running the instrument. Atomic force microscopes are mainstay instruments in physical chemistry and academia, Sanii explained, although he said that this is the “first time I’ve seen anyone run one remotely in a class.” The microscope’s biggest research application is imaging semiconductors and microchips, but scientists have also used the instrument to pull apart proteins and image molecules.

Natalie Tsai ’22, a science management major with a focus in biotechnology and chemistry, said that learning how to remotely operate the microscope was one of the course’s highlights. Thanks to this semester’s labs, Tsai added, she now feels well equipped to pursue internships and research positions within the chemistry sector: “Being able to tell future employers that you can successfully operate an atomic force microscope or accurately analyze a mass spectrum are industry skills that could open several career doors.”

To highlight the realities and opportunities of a science career, Sanii invited ten of his former students to take part in a Zoom roundtable with his current students. The alumni, who graduated from Scripps, Claremont McKenna College, and Pitzer College—the three Claremont Colleges that form the W.M. Keck Science Department—now work in academia or at national labs and companies, or they’re attending medical school. Sanii’s current students also participated in online tours of industry chemical labs around the nation, where they learned how science is becoming increasingly digitized. “A lot of science work is done on the computer, where you mail samples off to a facility and get the data back, or you analyze the data in an online database,” said Assistant Professor of Chemistry Ethan Van Arnam, who’s co-teaching an advanced chemistry lab course with Sanii. “We tried to design experiences that take advantage of that.”

One such lab involved perusing existing scientific knowledge to explore the creation of antibiotics and the process of medical drug discovery. Scientists from all over the world have created a massive public database comprised of known antibiotic structures. Using the information in the database, Sanii’s and Van Arnam’s students compared chemical data from known antibiotics to data that no one has chemically described yet—but which could represent potential new antibiotics. “Scientists are voluntarily putting their data in this database with the hope that others will discover something,” Van Arnam said.

Although Tsai is currently hoping to pursue a career in medicine, she said the class has inspired her to become more involved with chemistry-related research, specifically antibiotic discovery. “This course showed me the multitude of ways that chemists can make an impact in their communities,” she said.

Batiuk said that the database exploration showed her how “messy” science can be. While most experiments conducted in course labs involve students attempting to reproduce predetermined results, there are no such expected outcomes in scientific discovery. “I learned not to expect easy answers,” she said. “One dataset can’t give us all the information we need—sometimes there is no one correct answer.”