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Budget cuts force chemistry dept. to hold some labs online

In an effort to cut costs, students in general chemistry and organic chemistry classes this semester are conducting half of their laboratory sessions outside of class on their computers.

The new curriculum includes “wet” and “dry” labs, with the dry labs consisting of work in an online program called Sapling Learning. Dry labs typically consist of reading and written exercises graded online, James Parise, instructor of chemistry and organic chemistry laboratory manager, wrote in an e-mail. The wet labs will consist of traditional experiments that introduce a technique or focus on a synthetic method, he added.

The changes will affect students in Chemistry 31, 32, 151 and 152, he said.

During the previous two fiscal years, the chemistry department’s budget was reduced by 5 and 10 percent, respectively, Warren Warren, James B. Duke professor of chemistry and chair of the chemistry department, wrote in an e-mail.

“As you know, all departments in Trinity [College of Arts and Sciences] were directed to make significant cuts last year,” Warren said. “We felt that decreasing the organic [and general chemistry labs] was a constructive solution which was consistent with what our peer institutions were doing, and which would open up new educational opportunities.”

The cost of operating undergraduate laboratories is one of the largest components of the chemistry department’s operating budget, Richard MacPhail, associate chair and co-director of undergraduate studies for the chemistry department, wrote in an e-mail.

The new format will achieve cost-savings estimated between 25 and 50 percent on various lab materials such as chemicals, pipettes, glassware and gloves. Further savings will result from lighter staffing, but exact estimates for savings are not currently available.

“Because the budget for these operations is so complex, we do not expect to have an exact accounting of our savings until the year is over,” MacPhail said.

Unhappy customers

Some students noted that the new curriculum is both less conducive to learning and less demanding.

Sophomore Billy Kim, who spends an average of less than half an hour doing the dry lab but more than three hours doing the wet lab, described the new curriculum as easier but less hands-on.

The dry lab is designed to reinforce concepts from the wet lab, but sophomore Sharon Chan finds that doing the dry lab does not supplement her understanding of the material.

“Half the questions for dry lab are really procedure questions that I don’t find very useful at all for learning the concepts,” Chan said. “The other questions... are very specific but don’t really help you learn the concepts. You can find the answer by looking it up in the back of the book.”

She added that “nobody likes Sapling” because if answers are not entered exactly, students are not awarded the points.

Sophomore Thomas Liu sees the dry labs as helpful for learning the concepts but still prefers the wet labs.

“The dry labs are useful in helping you learn the concepts more and it’s just a good complement to the craft,” Liu said, “[but] definitely the wet labs are more helpful, because there’s more work you do in the post-lab write-ups.”

The bright side

Although he said there are “inevitably trade-offs” in the decision to eliminate some wet lab time, MacPhail said he hopes that the addition of more dry labs will open up other soft-skill learning opportunities in scientific writing, experimental design and data analysis.

The chemistry department will also use the online labs to prepare students more fully for the hands-on laboratory experience and require more thorough analysis of their results, he added.

The new curriculum will incorporate aspects of chemistry learning that are hard to include in a wet lab due to time and resource constraints, such as experimental design and computational chemistry exercises, MacPhail said.

“It is also worth noting that fewer wet labs will... result in a substantial reduction in our waste stream, and hence, a ‘greener’ curriculum,” he wrote.

Warren noted that the chemistry department has undergone a number of changes over the past decade that have strengthened the undergraduate experience. The department has upgraded lab equipment and added 10 classes at the undergraduate level in topics such as chemistry outreach and ethics, as well as a graduation with distinction program.

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