by Tom Parisi
Who hasn’t ever struggled with a set of instructions on how to put something together?
For the sake of example, let’s say it’s a new gas grill that’s in more pieces than you can count. The directions and illustrations are hardly ever crystal clear, and one misstep might end up costing you hours of work.
Now imagine putting that grill together with a set of instructions that includes comments from others who have completed it successfully and the aid of color photos, diagrams, hyperlinks, references, online discussion areas and even video – all at your fingertips.
Chemistry and Biochemistry Professor James Horn is bringing the same basic concept to the laboratory, where students conducting experiments and research often must follow a precise set of instructions or protocols.
Based on his work in this area, Horn has been named as the recipient of the 2008 David W. Raymond Grant for Use of Technology in Teaching.
The grant was endowed in 1998 by Raymond, a former NIU trustee who donated $25,000 to the NIU Foundation to fund faculty innovations in computer-aided teaching. The initial gift was invested, with annual interest earnings matched by the provost’s office, to fund the yearly award to a faculty member whose proposal best matches Raymond’s gift criteria.
Horn will use the $2,500 award to expand the innovative lesson he has developed. It takes advantage of the features of wiki-technology – the same software responsible for the popular Wikipedia Web site. The aim is to engage undergraduates in a way that helps them to develop protocol skills, hone technical writing abilities and become accustomed to the peer-review process.
Instead of using a static set of protocol handouts, students in two of Horn’s advanced undergraduate chemistry and biochemistry courses (CHEM 498 and CHEM 571) will conduct independent experiments in the laboratory with the aid of mini-laptops, a digital camera with video and photo capabilities and wiki-based Web sites.
Students will be required to write and edit research protocols and mini-reviews of their lab research projects, thus providing a collaborative-authorship resource for fellow and future students.
“Chemistry majors often struggle with scientific writing and aren’t exposed to peer review at the undergraduate level. Yet both play vital roles in the progression of science,” Horn says. “The wiki technology provides exciting new opportunities to engage students in both components, allowing them to serve as scientific writers and reviewers. It will also serve as a centrally located and evolving resource on research.”
The wiki technology will allow students to make protocol improvements from one semester to the next, using photos and video to clarify steps, if needed. They also will be able to create new content related to cutting-edge research.
Meanwhile, the instructor can monitor student entries and edits to better assess comprehension of laboratory exercises and possibly intervene to address any deficiencies.
“The wiki technology really could be used in any course,” Horn adds. “My hope is that the work funded with the Raymond grant will demonstrate its multiple applications and help in adapting the technology to other departments and disciplines across campus at NIU.”