At-Home Chemistry Experiments Support UHD Students’ Learning Experiences During Pandemic
Exercises with Household Items Enhance Interest in Science
By Mike Emery
TV viewers of a certain age will recall TV scientist Don “Mr. Wizard” Herbert’s at-home experiments conducted with household items found in any pantry or cupboard. Herbert inspired generations of future scientists with safe, educational (and fun) investigations that could be conducted in one’s kitchen or garage.
Fast forward to 2021, and a pair of University of Houston-Downtown (UHD) professors are engaging students in learning chemistry with an assortment of home goods. Drs. Eszter Trufan and Elene Bouhoutsos-Brown recognized that many undergraduates usually don't immediately have positive reactions to chemistry. It can be a daunting subject, especially during a pandemic year when students had to learn from the safety of their own homes and away from the guidance of lab instructors.
Leave it UHD’s very own science “Wizards” to promote science (particularly chemistry) and reimagine teamwork development through innovative at-home experiments.
“In April 2020, we realized we couldn't return to our labs because of the pandemic,” said Trufan, Associate Professor of Chemistry, “We started thinking about experiments for our General Chemistry students that were safe, could be taken out of the lab and performed at home. So, we started thinking about what could be done with materials found in almost every household which would provide the same learning experiences that they’d receive in one of our in-person laboratories.”
Experiments devised by Trufan and Bouhoutsos-Brown, Chemistry Lecturer, included determining the amount of calcium in eggshells through an extraction process using vinegar and precipitated with decomposed baking soda. Also, polymers from diapers were investigated for their absorptivity and converted into solid state pH indicators to determine whether certain solutions are acidic or basic. For their electrochemistry experiments, they split water (into hydrogen and oxygen) using a battery, pencil lead and alligator clips.
The professors designed each experiment to be visually impactful with a strong scientific focus. Through their assignment prompts, they encouraged students to think meaningfully about the experiments and how their observations connect to the world. This guided discovery approach led to a solid understanding of the concepts and the students reported enjoying the process.
“We had a clear vision of what our students needed to learn, and we had to devise experiments that were straightforward, exciting and non-hazardous,” Trufan said.
Experiments were tested by Trufan and Bouhoutsos-Brown, recorded on video, saved on UHD’s MediaSite and presented to students through integrated prompts that contained video links to experiment demonstrations, concept explanations and guided tasks in one clear and organized document. Soon, this work will be freely available to other educators from higher education institutions or even K-12 schools as an open education resource (OER). A snapshot of the materials can be accessed here.
Just as UHD students developed an appreciation for STEM through these experiments, Trufan and Bouhoutsos-Brown are optimistic that other students also will be inspired to look at science through a different lens now that these experiments are available to everyone.
“We already have heard from our students that their family members were interested in what they were doing with these experiments,” Trufan said. “That’s exciting. There’s engagement in STEM beyond a class assignment. Our hope is that those family members and students who have access to these assignments will take an interest in science.”
As UHD students return to campus this fall, Trufan and Bouhoutsos-Brown will still offer online sections of General Chemistry Laboratory, as well as face-to-face courses in which modified versions of the same experiments will be conducted in University laboratories.
Although the experiments help make science fun and relatable for students, students still must work diligently to comprehend the concepts being taught. They must develop lab reports for these experiments, and often times, that is where critical thinking is further refined.
“When we designed these courses with at home experiments, we didn’t do so with the intention of making them easier,” Trufan said. “They retain the scientific rigor of the original classes taught on campus.”
While the hands-on experiments are the main teaching element in these laboratory courses, teamwork also factors into Trufan and Bouhoutsos-Brown's classes. In face-to-face laboratory classes, students tag-team while performing the experiments and work on the interpretation of the findings independently. In the at home classes, Trufan and Bouhoutsos-Brown’s approach to teamwork had each student perform their own experiment independently followed by the groups collaboratively interpreting the resulting data, observations and trends.
“Teamwork is essential to the lab experience, whether it’s in person or online,” Trufan said. “It also is critical to students’ overall learning experiences as they must communicate and collaborate to complete projects. In a real-life, each individual will perform their own task and then contribute those findings to the group discussion that will result in informed decisions. These at home experiences gave UHD students another version of teamwork that will serve them well in their future careers.”
The University of Houston-Downtown (UHD) is the second-largest university in Houston and has served the educational needs of the nation’s fourth-largest city since 1974. As one of four distinct public universities in the University of Houston System, UHD is a comprehensive, four-year university led by President Loren J. Blanchard. Annually, UHD educates approximately 14,000 students, boasts more than 66,000 alumni, and offers 45 bachelor’s degrees, 12 master’s degrees, and 19 online programs within four colleges: Marilyn Davies College of Business, College of Humanities and Social Sciences, College of Public Service, and College of Sciences and Technology. UHD has one of the lowest tuition rates in Texas.
U.S. News and World Report ranked UHD among the nation’s Best Online Bachelor’s Programs for Applied Administration and Best Online Master’s Programs in Criminal Justice, as well as a Top Performer in Social Mobility. The Wall Street Journal/College Pulse ranked UHD one of the best colleges in the U.S. for its 2024 rankings, with notable distinctions: No. 1 for diversity (tied) and No. 3 for student experience. The University is designated as a Hispanic-Serving Institution, a Minority-Serving Institution, and a Military Friendly School. For more information on the University of Houston-Downtown, visit uhd.edu.