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Published March 29, 2016 | Chemistry

A Tale of 2 CEGEPs: Virtual Labs with Geographically-Dispersed Student Teams in Chemistry

What are the ingredients for a compelling distance learning and collaboration project in Chemistry? Take one large CEGEP in the city, one geographically remote CEGEP in the beautiful Gaspé Peninsula, add dedicated students and teachers, a sprinkle of technology and a whole bunch of seaweed!

A Little History

Murray first learned about the availability of Entente Canada-Québec funding a few years ago from his colleagues (Nathaniel Lasry; Physics and Norm Spatz; Profweb’s 1st English Edition Editor) when he began looking into making his courses more meaningful for the students using problem-based learning. Very pleased to learn that the project involving students at both John Abbott College (JAC) and Cégep de la Gaspésie et des Iles (GIM) had been funded, both professors set about building the infrastructure and material needed for their problem-based learning project. Furthermore, during this first year, a pilot-test to evaluate the various facets of the project was performed before its actual implementation in their courses (a Profweb article has been previously written about their experiences in the first year). The second year saw the introduction of the chemical laboratory simulation software, VirtualChemLab (VCL), which was used in two ways: as a form of “prelab” or practice labs performed at home to prepare the students for the actual physical lab, and also as a supplement to class content.

Year-Three Objectives

With Entente Canada-Québec`s support, the third year of the project is now underway, allowing both professors to develop an online approach to laboratory experiments. In addition to studying the educational effectiveness of running a virtual laboratory, other secondary objectives were targeted.

Since distance education seems to be a more entrenched part of the learning experience in Gaspé than at JAC (where, incidentally, it has not yet been developed), there was an interest in determining whether distance learning and distance collaboration were perceived as more important for students at GIM than for students at JAC. We also wanted to understand the dynamics of exchanges and the differences between an urban centre and a smaller group from a CEGEP in the regions.

The Project

To make the Chemistry of Solutions course content more relevant to their future career, PBL projects were created with a real-world scenario. The students, posing as Health Canada Employees, were asked to discover a food source more rich in iron (Fe) than the common sources, such as broccoli or spinach. To answer this question, they had to produce an experimental procedure to extract iron from its source and analyze its concentration. The students were then asked to compare the quantity of iron among food sources (e.g., broccoli, spinach and two types of seaweed; Nori and Atlantic). Petra collected Atlantic seaweed on the Gaspé coast, dried it and transported it to JAC. We would put the Popeye myth (spinach leads to strength) to the test!

Four-person collaborative teams were formed with 2 students from Gaspé and 2 from JAC. Teams had to decide how they would manage the experimental work, which was easily divisible into 2 parts: the extraction and the analysis. Google Docs of the experimental procedures were created and shared with all team members, as well as with both professors. These Google Docs were then just expanded upon to prepare the final collaborative lab report. The Google platform allows multiple users to edit a document over the Internet, and allows each person to see who is contributing in real-time. JAC and GIM team members had to work with each other to complete the assignment and meet the objectives.

Given the size of the cohorts (there were 40 students at JAC and 10 in the Gaspé), some teams were composed only of JAC members. This configuration allowed the professors to compare collaborative groups separated by distance with local collaborative groups.


Leading up to the virtual laboratory assignments, students were required to complete eLessons designed to review particular lab techniques. In an effort to scaffold learning, students were asked to watch demonstration videos and answer a series of questions. For example, one eLesson encouraged students to review the technique of preparing a stock solution, i.e. a solution with a high degree of accuracy.

An example eLesson that uses Google Forms and contains a link to video demonstrations.

Some of the videos in the eLessons, drawn from a project developed by the CCDMD entitled Hands-on Science, include:

Virtual Chemistry Labs (VCLs)

A variety of technological components formed part of the project this year, one of them being the VirtualChemLab (VCL) software available from Pearson. Some of these laboratory simulations were similar to the experiments that students would actually be doing in the lab, while others allowed in-person wet labs to be replaced. Virtual experiments similar to the actual lab experiments, allowed the students to be better prepared for the wet-lab experiments. These virtual labs enhanced their fundamental knowledge and reviewed calculations that would be used for the PBL projects. In an effort to deepen their understanding, students were asked to record data and observations, to perform calculations and to write about their data (conclusions) in lab report sheets. Students were allowed to mix chemicals, experiment, and even virtually break equipment. The virtual nature of the labs reduced the risks associated with errors or misuse of equipment, as well as “supplied” equipment that was either not available in the lab, such as alpha particle generators, or impractical to use in real life. As a result of ‘playing’ in a virtual lab, students increased their conceptual understanding.

Example of the virtual lab

From a budgetary point of view, VCLs are cost effective because they eliminate the need to purchase expensive chemicals or equipment. Anecdotally, students who tried out the virtual labs had higher final laboratory grades. [Editor’s note: For a tour of the virtual chemistry lab, you can visit visit one of Murray’s presentations on the APOP website. Fast forward to 11min 02sec for the presentation].

Collaboration Tools

The starting point for the students was a Google site designed specifically for this problem-based learning project. On this site, students were able to register for the project, create an account and download the VirtualChemLab software. The Website also contained the eLessons, as well as a document describing the project assignment. In order to communicate collaboratively, students also used the Google platform: Google Docs, Google chat and Google Hangout. On their own initiative, students set up Facebook groups to get organized and stay in touch with the latest developments, even though this was not required for the course.

The Problem-based Learning Website created using the Google Platform

We strived for a paperless project, opting to submit all assignments with Google Drive, and all evaluations with Google Forms. Using the comments feature of Google Docs we guided the students in the development of the procedure and in the writing of the lab report, allowing us to follow the evolution of the students’ work. Since the students could enable and receive automatic alerts when new comments were posted, they could also follow the work of their teachers. As mentioned earlier, all team members, including the professors, could collaborate in real-time using the Google platform, because both are able to see what others are typing as they are making these changes. A chat window could be opened for discussions within the Google Doc interface, and students could even launch a video chat on Google Hangouts, if required. In an effort to have a fair and equitable system, team members were asked to contribute equally to the project, and were also asked to provide a list of the tasks they completed. An additional advantage of Google Docs is the revision history feature, which allows all members of each group, including the teachers, to see who contributed to what. Furthermore, Google Docs also allows one to restore previous versions, should an accidental deletion occur.

Student Reaction

The students had a somewhat mixed reaction after participating in the project. On the one hand, everyone agreed that the quality of the learning was superior to what they had experienced in other courses. They also saw online learning skills as something useful to acquire. However, they were hard-pressed to recommend this pedagogical technique to others as they felt that there was too much work for the number of marks available. They all appreciated the project, but felt that it took more time and energy than a traditional lab. However, they felt they had learned some valuable and transferrable skills as part of this project.

In future iterations, we will need to evaluate the cost/benefit ratio to ensure that the amount of effort invested by the students is compensated by the marks apportioned or the project scaled back to be more in-line with student expectations. From our perspective, the lab simulations are not something we want to remove, since the virtual lab environment allows us to do experiments that would simply not be available otherwise. In one experiment, we used a radioactive light source - some real Marie Curie stuff! The simulations were not perfect, but they were perfectly acceptable and somewhat realistic. We were able to do things that were either too dangerous or too expensive for a real lab. We can also see applications for our approach in Nursing programs at both of our colleges, and in the Biopharma program at Abbott, in particular.

Some of the observed advantages of the PBL and Virtual Lab Approach:

  • increased student motivation
  • enhanced communication skills
  • group members perceived as supportive and cooperative
  • benefit of shared workload

We are not certain that this project will generate enduring long-distance relationships, but it was definitely beneficial to compare and contrast different lifestyles and value systems from the urban and rural perspectives. Students reported that they will not return to the old way of working in groups with people emailing files back and forth! No more losing control of the latest version of each assignment.

Faculty Reaction

The respective faculties in each of our CEGEPs like what they have seen of the project. About 10 of our colleagues are presently trying our PBL project’s approach. Each of them will likely put their own spin on the project though. One of the teachers wants to try legumes, like lentils, instead of the seaweed. We hope to pool our results with the other teachers. We are in our final year of project funding, which was dedicated to the development of the project, but are pleased that it will inspire the activities of our peers.

Final Thoughts

Before venturing into partnering with teachers in other cégeps, a department might want to try to begin by pairing up teachers locally to ensure that the teachers are comfortable before adding a partner in another location. A teacher could even simulate what we have done by dividing their class into different groups, one half on one side of lab and the other half on the other side. This will allow them to simulate the approach and witness some of the challenges and frustrations students might face. The next challenge is finding another teacher that will want to do this with you!

We have seen enough positives over the past 3 years to be convinced that Problem-Based Learning and Virtual Labs have a powerful impact on motivation. Combined with some modern collaborative tools and simulations, they will also promote deep learning for our students while giving them many transferable skills!

About the authors

Born in Montreal, Murray Bronet has taught Chemistry at John Abbott College since 1990. He began his career as a Chemical Engineer and has a Bachelor’s, Masters’ and PhD in Chemical Engineering. He also has a Master’s Degree in Education from the Université de Sherbrooke as a past participant of the Master Teaching Program offered by PERFORMA. Over the past ten years, Murray has received release time to devote to a variety of educational projects either as a principal investigator or contributor. Murray is proud of the Best Practice Award he received in 2013 from the SALTISE community of practice.

Having moved from Toronto to Gaspé when she was 4 years old, Petra Turkewitsch completed her elementary, high school and Cégep studies in Gaspé before pursuing university studies at Lennoxville and Montréal. After studying Biochemistry at Bishop’s University, she went on to obtain her PhD in Experimental medicine (1998) at McGill University. In 1999, she began postdoctoral research in cell-signaling at McGill. She was awarded an NSERC Industrial Postdoctoral Fellowship to work in the field of proteomics at MDS PharmaServices in 2002. Petra returned to her hometown of Gaspé in 2004 to teach Chemistry in both French and English at the Cégep de la Gaspésie et des Iles, the same Cégep where she studied. She has presented her research work at numerous national and international conferences.

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