Role-Playing in Analytical Chemistry
by Paul T. Jackson

This teaching pedagogy strives to expand the conventional scientific educational experience into an interdependent, people-oriented, small group, learning environment. The course (both class and lab) focuses on learning new chemistry, analytical methods, instrumentation, and computer software while simultaneously developing management and leadership skills. Four main principles make the role-playing work: interdependence between skilled individuals working in a community; division of responsibility rather than the division of labor; rotation of roles within a team; and freedom within a mission.

The following thoughts on role-playing constitute one individual's interpretation of the information contained in a three article series on role-playing in analytical chemistry [1-3]. Personal opinions or desire to teach using role-playing are also expressed for the interested reader.

What is role-playing?

Role-playing, as applied in this educational setting, is a teaching device or technique. Here, explicit use of role-playing does not necessarily mirror the way it is used in psychology or in group therapies. By definition it is the adoption and subsequent acting out of deliberately exaggerated cultural stereotypes. In education we use role-playing for a variety of reasons, here are just a few:

What do you mean by interdependence?

Interdependence involves working and communicating as part of a team rather than the competition between individuals (or individual pairs) working in isolation. Within the teaching construct this idea is constantly encouraged. Everyone in the team is mutually dependent on the whole; although, each member is also an individual at any moment. The glue that binds these ideals together is the division of responsibility.

How do you divide responsibility?

Division of responsibility must begin within the outlined objectives for the specific activity - be it in the lab or in the classroom (which incidentally some chemists feel are and/or should be indistinguishable). Thus, the challenge for the educator in organizing or "orchestrating" an activity looms large under the division of responsibility. Each person in the small group assumes responsibility for a key piece of the solution; however, the whole solution cannot materialize without all pieces becoming integrated as a unit through the guidance of appropriate leadership. Ultimately students find that the best leadership comes from consensus building and open discussion of the problem and responsibilities. Motivation for finding or working toward the solution comes from the task itself. People must buy into solving the problem or show enlightened self-interest. The former is more essential than the latter; however, when you see students showing interest remarkable things happen. Creativity and ownership coincide with scientific skill, learning and communication. Achieving either condition arises from an invitation to all participating parties to "come as you are" and "be yourself". When this occurs the lab fills with fervor and excitement.

Freedom within a mission!

Question: How do the students solve the problem or go about engaging in the activity?
Answer: Pretty much however they see fit!

Freedom within a mission defines the objectives and responsibilities within a specific educational construct or lesson plan; however, it does not give a detailed solution to the problem. The objectives, responsibilities and resources available create a boundary around the task, but do not explicitly indicate how to arrive at a solution. Think of freedom within a mission as a jigsaw puzzle. The puzzle pieces have different shapes and have some splashes of color. The objectives, responsibilities, and resources define the border pieces and how the pieces are colored. However, the group is free to begin putting the puzzle together with any piece or pieces they so choose. Once put together, the group can then fill the remaining colorless spaces with whatever picture they desire. Leadership helps keep all the pieces together and implements a plan for achieving the solution. Hopefully the method used to go about putting the puzzle together and then painting it reflects concepts from the course itself. For role-playing to effectively work you need some structure, but too much chokes the student creativity and ownership. In analytical chemistry I equate the puzzle pieces with the chemistry and analytical method, and the subsequent painting to the interpretation of the results.

So then, why teach this way?

There are a multitude of reasons for using a variety of teaching methods in one's education. A general rationale comes from the way in which each one of us learns. We all learn via different paths and bring unique experiences with us, yet have very similar reasons for being where we are. Role-playing is one way to reach out to those different learning paths under the structure of having similar reasons for doing it this way. Those reasons incorporate: developing an understanding of the subject matter; obtaining a taste of "real-life" experience without the sometimes ruthless consequences (i.e. you may get a poor grade rather than being fired!); learning to communicate effectively as a scientist and concerned citizen; learning what it takes to become a problem solver; appreciating how teams can best approach problems; experiencing time management challenges; facing accountability; fostering interest within science; and learning a bit about yourself along the way.

Role-playing aids the educator's development as well. It helps to invigorate the teaching; it constantly asks you to find new ways to get people involved and encourages you to discover new applications of dry conceptual knowledge. It gives you an added outlet to encourage self-discovery rather than the dispensing of knowledge and decisions from the front of the room. "Ask your manager. If you want me to make the decision for you then I will have to bill you for it." Finally, it gives you the ability to handle large numbers of students. As an educator you can't do this alone; however, with the appropriate staff (former students, graduate students, etc.) it becomes quite feasible.

Ultimately, science and society are about people; we (and our predecessors) form the roots. Without people, what would science be? For that matter what would anything be? Until we recognize the contributions of people working together, we limit only ourselves in whatever we do. Role-playing is a dynamic activity performed by a community of learners and mirrors much a society. It doesnít last long, just the length of the course, but that gives value to the time the role-players spend together. How often do we find ourselves saying, "I wish I could have had more time to _______ or more time to explore _______ or spent one more day with _______". Community. That is why I want to teach this way. I want to communicate science as an integrated adventure that people do together - learning, living, and even liking!

Role-playing Resources:

  1. Walters, J. P.; "Role-Playing Analytical Chemistry Laboratories. Part 1: Structural and Pedagogical Ideas," Anal. Chem., 1991, 63(20), 977A-985A.
  2. Walters, J. P.; "Role-Playing Analytical Chemistry Laboratories. Part 2: Physical Resources," Anal. Chem., 1991, 63(22), 1077A-1087A.
  3. Walters, J. P.; "Role-Playing Analytical Chemistry Laboratories. Part 3: Experiment Objectives and Design," Anal. Chem., 1991, 63(24), 1179A-1191A.
  4. Jackson, P.T.; Walters, J. P.; "Role-Playing in Analytical Chemistry I: The Alumni Speak," J. Chem. Educ., 2000, 77(8), 1019-1025.
| Interdependence | Responsibility | Freedom | Teaching | Resources |

Last updated on February 8, 2003 by Paul T. Jackson