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UHD Chemists Develop Million-Dollar Formula for Student Success

Innovative Teaching Solves Problem of ‘Virtual’ Labs, Earns Pilot Grant


By Laura Wagner

COVID-19 is generally associated with negative experiences. But time has revealed a surprising silver lining to the pandemic, which is now being credited as an engine of innovation. That proved true for two UHD faculty members whose innovative thinking generated a novel approach to teaching chemistry labs.

Developed during the pandemic to give home-bound students hands-on lab experiences, the approach is the brainchild of Dr. Eszter Trufan, Associate Professor of Chemistry, and Dr. Elene Bouhoutsos-Brown, Chemistry Adjunct Professor, both from the College of Sciences & Technology. The pair’s outside-the-lab thinking paid off with a multi-year Open Textbooks Pilot (OTP) program grant worth $1.16 million to enhance and grow the method they ultimately titled, “Experimentium: Inclusive by Design.”

Experimentium’s Origin StoryEszter Trufan1

Like most faculty during the pandemic, Trufan (top right) was trying to make online courses useful for students. As Lab Coordinator for General Chemistry I classes, she found teaching labs virtually to be an added challenge. Without equipment and materials at home, students couldn’t have the same experience as a traditional, in-person lab. She reached out to Bouhoutsos-Brown (bottom right), whom she’d partnered with in the past, and they put their heads together to solve the dilemma.Elene Bouhoutsos-Brown

“We wanted a guided discovery investigation that allowed students to function independently and think beyond a step-by-step lab manual,” said Trufan. They developed experiments that used integrated lab skills, environmentally friendly materials, and basic chemistry lab equipment to ensure the work could be safely and inexpensively completed at home. 

They piloted a trial version of a virtual Gen Chem I lab in Summer 2020. Trufan had used her Surface Pro, purchased through a previous Welch grant, to record videos of herself demonstrating the lab experiments. The pair co-taught the first cohort of fewer than 20 students, earning an enthusiastic thumbs-up from the class. Based on that success, Trufan and Bouhoutsos-Brown trained interested instructors on the method for Fall 2020.

Instructors were uniformly positive, but logistics for the supplies proved a major challenge. At-home supply kits had to be ordered in large quantities and stored on campus for students to pick up while maintaining COVID distancing protocols in the building. “We added QR codes on the building doors that students would scan, then fill out a questionnaire to tell us who they were and what supplies they were picking up to perform the lab at home,” said Trufan. “And we had to track all of it.”supplies-ed3

To develop a system for tracking the effectiveness of the courses and keep costs manageable, the team obtained a Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB) emergency Open Educational Resources (OER) implementation grant. “The grant’s goal was to provide free content to students so they wouldn’t fall behind because they couldn’t afford textbooks or lab manuals,” said Trufan. Supplies were also covered, so the team was able to keep hybrid Gen Chem I and II labs going throughout Fall 2021 and Spring 2022.

As classes returned to campus, many faculty resumed traditional approaches to teaching labs. But Trufan and Bouhoutsos-Brown knew their approach could have significant value for students. “We decided we would give it away to anyone interested in using it for the benefit of their students, make it free and accessible to everyone,” said Trufan. They officially branded the approach Experimentium: Inclusive by Design and distributed the content through their own websites and through the Texas OER repository.Experimentium-logo

Doing the Numbers

Trufan and Bouhoutsos-Brown knew they needed proof of their approach’s success to be able to expand and enhance the program, so they reached out to Dr. Lea Campbell, Executive Director of Assessment & Accreditation in the Office of Institutional Effectiveness. Campbell helped them devise and implement an assessment strategy to determine Experimentium’s efficacy.

“There was some concern that at-home students weren’t learning as much with our method as the in-person students, especially when it came to practical skills,” said Trufan. “The goal of our assessment plan was to uncover whether that was true.” Using the assessment tool, they determined that student success in the online labs was on par or better than in-class participants, including results for under-represented minorities. Trufan and Bouhoutsos-Brown were elated. “We knew this approach could benefit so many students, and we were determined to keep it operational,” Trufan said.

That meant more funding.

The Next Phase

Trufan learned of the OTP grant as she was considering how to keep Experimentium alive, and once again joined forces with Bouhoutsos-Brown. After five weeks of late nights and a number of interviews with potential research partners, the pair completed the grant and on-boarded Houston Community College and Baylor University in Waco.Baylor_University_seal.svg

“Dr. Bryan Shaw of Baylor was a true find,” Trufan said. Shaw had recently received a grant to prepare chemistry research experiences for blind and visually impaired students. He encouraged the duo to add an accessibility component to their grant proposal and committed to helping them ensure the method they created would beHcc_logo.svg as accessible as possible for students of all abilities. “That’s the most exciting feature of what we’re planning,” said Trufan. “We’re also thrilled to partner with Houston Community College—the team there is so enthusiastic.”

Beginning Again

The OTP grant supports projects that help students realize savings through open textbooks, particularly in high-demand fields like STEM, making Experimentium a perfect fit. Trufan and Bouhoutsos-Brown welcomed the opportunity to start fresh, keeping the elements that worked and improving other components. Most important, the team is committed to making the labs relatable for students.

“Success with any project like this starts with fundamentally understanding your student population,” Trufan said. “Many of our students have English as a second language, many have never set foot in a chemistry lab, or they may struggle with financial insecurity. Our challenge is to convey jargon-dense chemistry instruction in a way that students understand so they don’t make mistakes over and over. And it must be affordable.”

The pair decided video-based instruction was still the best option to provide students with a visual reinforcement of verbal instructions. “Students can replay videos as many times as needed to watch a demonstration. And that works great,” said Bouhoutsos-Brown, “Unless you have a visual impairment.” That’s where Baylor’s Shaw comes in.

“This is the frontier of chemistry instruction,” said Trufan. “We are going to push the boundaries, and with the help of Dr. Shaw, create a smaller collection of experiments that work for students who are visually impaired. Video-based demonstration or instruction with closed captioning and transcripts that can be done at home will accommodate a range of disabilities and allow those students to perform experiments independently.”
Butterfly Pea Tree Solution2

The team is committed to having a capsule collection of experiments on a functional website by midsummer. They’re also planning to share their approach and resources widely via OER contacts and conferences, and to extend it to high school teachers.

Bouhoutsos-Brown is excited to have students move past the “cookbook” approach to chemistry, noting, “Our experiments are extremely visual, high interest, and engaging.” She also found it particularly gratifying that the students were sharing their learnings with their own children and parents. “They’re engaging the community in our studies—that’s a positive force for STEM, which makes me very happy.”

When asked about advice for faculty who want to explore an innovative teaching method, Trufan shared the team’s secrets to success: “Be determined. Have hard data to prove the success of your method. And get a good grant.”

To learn more about Experimentium: Inclusive by Design, watch Dr. Trufan and Dr. Bouhoutsos-Brown’s presentation to OER Camp Global, Dec. 10, 2021. To learn more about the team’s early efforts to implement at-home chemistry during the pandemic, read a UHD News article from the archives

About the University of Houston-Downtown

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.