Before and After Lab: Instructing Students in 'Non-Chemical' Research Skills

Continuing a theme put together at a symposium at the 2012 Biennial Conference on Chemical Education (a report was published in Chemical Information Bulletin, Winter 2012), the presenters at the recent CINF symposium at the 2013 Fall ACS National Meeting discussed a variety of topics useful for chemistry students above and beyond the basic skills of chemical research.

To open the session, Teri Vogel of the University of California – San Diego library presented “Chemical information across San Diego County: a community college and university library collaboration for an independent synthesis project” co-authored with Cynthia Gilley of Palomar College. Vogel and Gilley joined forces to introduce Gilley’s organic synthesis lab students to major resources for locating syntheses in the primary literature. After introducing them to the concept of the flow of information, and searching techniques, Vogel obtained guest access to SciFinder for the 13 students, and they were directed to use SciFinder and/or Reaxys to find a reference for a two-step synthesis of their designated compound. Most students had success with the databases, though in some cases, both steps were not found in the same document. The collaborators have not yet decided whether to repeat the experiment with the coming year’s class.

Unfortunately, the second scheduled paper, “Teaching chemical information literacy through an undergraduate laboratory project” by Martin Walker of the State University of New York at Potsdam, had to be withdrawn due to a family emergency.

Shu Guo, science reference librarian at Central Michigan University, offered “Integrating citations as a teaching element into chemistry information literacy training methods.” CMU’s organic chemistry lab course had previously offered four embedded chemical information instruction sessions, covering general searching, Web of Science, SciFinder and Reaxys. Most recently, Shu has added an element focusing on citations: reading citations, and what, when, why and how to cite, including introduction to cited reference searching in Web of Science and the ACS citation style. Students reported increased confidence in dealing with the literature, and ability to apply it in their lab course.

The next paper, “Designing instruction activities to guide students through the research lifecycle: a science librarian approach,” described assignments designed to show the students the role of information in each stage of the research cycle: creating a proposal, planning and carrying out the experiment, sharing the results and application of the results. Ye Li, chemistry librarian at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, introduced the students to methods to find, organize, manage and evaluate scientific information.

“I can just copy this, right?” discussed aspects of copyright that students need to know, first as users, then as producers of copyrighted material.  Charles Huber of the University of California at Santa Barbara touched on copyright as relevant to undergraduates: the basic meaning of copyright, what “fair use” allows them to do…and does not, and the distinctions between copyright violation and plagiarism. As producers of publications, graduate students need to know a lot more, both the permissions needed to reuse others’ copyrighted materials and what their rights as authors are. Key topics include work-for-hire rules at institutions, transfer of copyright to publishers, the various meanings of “open access” and the opportunities offered by Creative Commons licensing.

Donna Wrublewski, currently a science librarian at Caltech, described some of her collaboration with faculty in her previous job in “Anything BUT overlooked: librarians teaching scientific communication skills at the University of Florida” co-authored with Sara Gonzalez and Margeaux Johnson of the University of Florida Libraries. Summarizing the material covered as “what I wish I’d known when I started grad school,” Donna described an honors program course offered to a group of about twenty students, mostly freshmen. Topics included evaluating scientific literature, creating an annotated bibliography, preparing and presenting a poster, and writing abstracts and papers. The program included faculty guest lecturers introducing research opportunities for the undergraduates. The course evolved from one session to another in response to student feedback.

Electronic laboratory notebooks have made great inroads in industry, but so far have not become widespread in academia. Svetla Baykoucheva described some of the efforts to do so in “Introducing electronic laboratory notebooks (ELNs) to students and researchers at the University of Maryland – College Park.” The benefits of ELNs are many (they can save time, preserve data, establish priority for intellectual property purposes, and facilitate data management plans now frequently required by funding agencies), but academics have often found them expensive and difficult to implement. The University of Maryland evaluated both LabArchives Classroom Edition and a “light” version of the Contur ELN from Accelrys, deciding on the former in 2011. The library partnered with instructors in 2013 to develop a project for an instrumental lab course. Students were to use the ELN system to access lab protocols, create and submit lab reports, and share files. This required a great deal of effort from the librarian: assigning materials to both students and TAs, and grading for 45 students. Students were able to search PubMed from within the ELN, and used customized calculators to analyze their data. ELN use improved communication among students and with instructors. Key problems encountered include: undergraduates don not generate enough data to make effective use of the ELNs, students did not like bringing laptops to the laboratory, and the ELN was perceived as more time-consuming than standard lab notebooks. Future plans include broadening the use of ELN across more courses for chemistry majors and graduate students.

Dealing with chemical information instruction in large laboratory classes was the subject of Judith Currano’s “Teaching chemical information in bulk.” Previous attempts to incorporate chemical information instruction in the University of Pennsylvania’s organic chemistry lab course had run afoul of lack of time during the quarter, and a tendency for students to skip the lecture. However, a new approach, teaching small groups during the lab check-in week proved more successful. This format allowed a full 90-minute session, with opportunities for discussion and hands-on practice with electronic resources. Topics covered included “the anatomy of a handbook” and identifying substances. Handouts compared resources on their ease of use and fee-based vs. free. Both instructors and students deemed the sessions successful, with the students asking good questions about the material.

Antony Williams of the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) discussed “Social profile of a chemist online: potential profits of participation.” In a scholarly environment where online presence and influence is measurable, altmetrics will increasingly supplement, and perhaps supplant, such traditional estimators of scientific stature as citation statistics and the impact factors of the journals in which one publishes. A researcher can help craft his or her own scholarly profile in a variety of ways:  creating an ORCID identifier to help ensure proper attribution of published work; micropublishing through tools like ChemSpider and ChemSpider Synthetic Pages to preserve and disseminate research that might never make it into a traditional paper; sharing your work freely on the Web using repositories, as well as tools like SlideShare, YouTube, and SciVee; and blogging and tweeting. Antony recommended maintaining separate “identities”/accounts for purely social and personal networking vs. professional and scholarly networking, and maintaining a single spot where all your professional networking sites can be found. Sources like ImpactStory and Plum Analytics can help researchers track their own altmetrics.

"Safety outreach to the academic chemistry community” was the topic of Ralph Stuart’s presentation.  Recent accidents in academic laboratories have highlighted the need for the development of a “safety culture” in academic institutions. He noted that personal safety is not the same thing as system safety, pointing to the Deep Water Horizon oil platform disaster as an example. His position in the Department of Environmental Health and Safety at Cornell University has involved him directly in trying to develop safety culture. The key concept is RAMP: Recognize, Assess, Manage, Prepare. One traditional chemical safety resource, the Materials Safety Data Sheet, with its lack of standardization, is “dead,” being replaced by the Globally Harmonized System for the Classification of Chemicals.  Stuart recommended “Laboratory Safety for Chemistry Students” by Hill and Finster (Wiley, 2010) and the website of the ACS Division of Chemical Health and Safety as good starting points for resources.

Pamela Scott of Pfizer concluded the session with “Other skills for post-graduates,” enumerating many of the “soft skills” that can be as important for professional success as the technical knowledge and laboratory skills which students traditionally learn. Self-assessment is extremely important, and Pamela commended the Meyers-Briggs personality assessment as a useful tool to assess creativity and innovation, and motivation and commitment. One’s non-job interests and social interactions can be important to professional success. Time management, priority setting, problem solving, negotiation and team skills are all vital in any organization. Budgeting, contracts and other fiscal skills are important, and can often be developed through volunteer work in non-profit organizations, as well as skills in dealing with clients. Communication skills, including written and oral presentations, can also be developed both inside and outside the academic environment. Making the habit of continuous learning is vital to keeping all of these skills honed.

Charles Huber, Symposium Co-Organizer



2014 Biennial Conference on Chemical Education
August 3-7, 2014
Grand Valley State University,
Allendale, Michigan
Call for abstracts begins January 1, 2014