Final year projects: has the time finally come for chemistry education topics?

With much of the fretting about the 2020/21 academic year focussing on the logistics of laboratory work and particularly the final year project. We’ve long held final year projects as a capstone research experience in BSc courses (and more so, but with greater justification in MChem courses). The reality is, a BSc is not entirely sufficient preparation for the ‘cutting edge’ of chemistry research in this century and a 15 credit project is little more than ‘just another module’. Some academics are incredibly successful at integrating these smaller research-training projects into their wider arcs of effort and this often leads to students contributing to research projects. For other academics, the value in offering final year research projects is in other ways – a training/supervision opportunity for a research trainee within their group, a way to test an idea. And for further academics, projects are undertaken because there is an interest in the specified area and an obligation for the academic to undertake the workload of project supervision to ensure some degree of parity across all staff. None of the above indicates a more or less positive experience for the students undertaking the project, it’s just a set of observations.

All of this brings me to the preparation for 2020/21 academic year. There are a great many scenarios in which laboratory work is not going to be feasible. In particular, we must note that just keeping students and staff 2 m apart in a laboratory is insufficient to protect each other. Labs with a lot of fume cupboards are probably better than other teaching spaces (lecture theatres, non-lab flat rooms) because they have much more efficient ventilation and PPE as standard (assuming it’s appropriate for labs to acquire PPE). So how do we offer a satisfactory project experience to students entering their final year? There are a number of options we might consider:

  • literature based dissertations
  • data mining/analysis projects
  • computational chemistry projects
  • chemistry education projects

Purely literature based work is often incorporated into projects, either as a literature review for the ‘first chapter’ of a project report, or as a separate module. Go off and find out lots of stuff about topic X is a fairly common final year task. Data mining/analysis projects might suit some kinds of research better than others. Crystallography and other structure determination springs to mind, but training on databases, analysis tools, and techniques may need to be extensive, as might having data generated for students to analyse. Computational chemistry projects also offer a valid research experience, albeit with a fairly high requirement for software and training. Data mining/analysis and computational chemistry have the advantage of being widely accepted forms of chemistry research.

Chemistry education research on the other hand is more challenging. It has been harder to convince chemistry researchers to accept chem ed as valid final year project options. And harder yet to ensure that assessment guidelines and marking rubrics are relevant to chem ed projects. And we’ve not even approached convincing students to learn an entirely different set of research methods while carrying out their first project in the area, and that’s after grappling with ethical approval for the work. So what could chem ed projects offer?

Firstly, we need to consider the range of chem ed types. These can range from laboratory based (improve this undergrad laboratory experiment or create an experiment that does X and Y), through teaching innovation and evaluation of teaching innovation, and on into trying to understand how students learn. The research tools then range from things that fit easily into the prior experiences and perspectives of the students (undergraduate laboratory methods) through to those involving interaction with human participants through interviews, questionnaires, and focus groups. I have tremendous respect for all the final year chem ed project students I’ve had over the past 5 years who have stepped up to learn new research methodologies, ventured into the social science side of science, and explored questions that have never been covered in a taught module during their degree. Frame it that way and you realise that their accomplishments are spectacular. I’m only now, 5 years in, learning better ways in which to support these students. This year that’s included a couple of taught sessions on research methods, editing or creating versions of assessment guidelines (yet again), and establishing an undergraduate project ethics committee to ensure their work meets the expected standards of ethical conduct.

That’s the second point: the infrastructure necessary to role out chem ed projects on a larger scale is equal in complexity to the infrastructure necessary to support laboratory based students. Research involving human participants (or data) requires ethical review, understanding of GDPR and information security, and confidentiality and anonymity. Yes, the ‘improve this lab experiment’ kind of project doesn’t need that, but the premise here is to remove the need for laboratory based experiments.

The third point is sourcing participants: you cannot have a whole load of chem ed projects sending out invitations to participate to the same cohort of students. Firstly, it’s really hard to get participants in any study. Secondly, it’s unfair on cohorts to be bombarded by requests to participate. We have a calendar that’s to log all participation requests to specific cohorts with the idea that you can check the number of requests made and decide whether to ask or not. Evaluation fatigue is a real issue with the number of surveys students get sent on a regular basis. Obviously the participants don’t need to be students but there are all kinds of power dynamics to consider if the participants are teaching staff, and all kinds of access issues with ‘the public’.

There’s probably a sweet spot between book research and human participants in chem ed that’s similar to the sweet spot of data mining/analysis projects. Or there’s ways to have a group of students work towards producing a single ‘high value’ research tool for human participants where the data are then parcelled out to the students for analysis. Off the top of my head, some ideas:

  • student authored MCQs on specific topics to identify common errors or misconceptions
  • student authored revision resources, or outreach resources (or recruitment resources)
  • proposing changes to laboratory experiments based on green chemistry and sustainability
  • evaluating curriculum resources to review how specific topics are covered (sustainability, decolonising)
  • researching and creating case studies for use in teaching
  • reviewing assessment guideline and marking criteria and creating ‘student friendly’ translations
  • creating glossaries of terminology to benefit students

The MCQs could easily be delivered in some form, the student authored resources could be evaluated (if they can be created, checked and deployed at a time to be useful to students), evaluating curricula and other aspects could really help teaching staff work out how their topics fit into the experiences of the students, and how they can improve assessment literacy amongst their students. Some of these would require ethical approval, others wouldn’t.

If you’re seriously planning to increase the number of chem ed projects on offer to cope with the challenges of 2020/21, please consider:

  • appropriate assessment criteria that uses the right terms
  • taught sessions to introduce the research methods, key issues, ethics, and theoretical basis for work. Finding and reading education literature is also different.
  • using staff who have carried out and evaluated teaching innovation (as minimum, running chem ed projects would be better) as supervisors (you wouldn’t send a synthetic bench chemist off to supervise a crystallography project, don’t send them off to supervise education projects)
  • buddying your chem ed research staff with the other staff to provide support in running projects
  • your sales pitch to students: non-lab based projects are often seen as ways to avoid the lab, or a great way for students interested in education careers to undertake a project of interest. They are harder than lab based projects, but they are different enough to be scary so how do you demonstrate their value and equivalence, and make the students understand they will be supported?
  • how you will assess the projects
  • electronic research portfolios as an alternative to laboratory diaries: handwritten lab diaries are largely unfit for the purpose of chem ed projects. It’s better to use something like OneNote or a shared drive to collate all the data analysis sheets and the like.
  • establishing or bolstering your undergraduate research project ethics committee
  • accepting that assessment criteria that focusses on the amount of ‘peer reviewed scientific literature’ consulted is not necessarily appropriate. There are a broader range of appropriate sources for some kinds of chem ed projects

I think there’s some merit in considering increasing chem ed projects as a means of dealing with the challenges of laboratory based anything in 2020, but only if it’s fully supported and resourced. It is not a simple option, but there are so many talented staff across the UK attending meetings like MICER and ViCEPhEC, and regularly presenting and publishing, who have the skills to support this. It’s just a shame that those are also the staff who are likely least able to take on additional teaching/student support duties owing to already massively high teaching and support roles.

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