Many questions about how well the role-playing lab teaching construct works have been presented to me by other professors interested in adopting the method over the past 20 years. But few have been as well put as those sent to me by Prof. Frederic C Laquer. To help you understand how the lab worked in routine, daily practice, while I was teaching it (before I retired in 2003), I offer my responses to him in interview form here. His questions are indented once, and preceded by the initials "FL". My responses are indented twice, and preceded by the initials "JPW".



FL

I have been considering your "Role Playing" educational model (Analytical Chemistry, 63(20),977A; 63(22),1077A; 63(24),1179A) for a couple of years now. This semester I have a very large class of 12 in our senior level Instrumental Methods of Analysis class (compared to only 2, 4, and 1 over the last three years).

JPW

I also had 12 this year. I broke them up into three groups of four and had them get together every Monday as a whole to have a planning and staff meeting. I then ran three labs a week, with one group of four in each afternoon. I thought it would be more work than it was. The small groups made it fun for me to interact with them, and I had excuses for not going to other meetings.

FL

Due to our limited amount of specialized equipment, and the impossibility for me to maintain more than four different simultaneous experiments at one time, I am attempting to implement some of your ideas into our laboratory course which meets just once per week. I am going to form the students into three "companies". Each student has a role in the experiment: manager, chemist, instrument operator (hardware),and data analyst (software). Each company will have the same four experiments to perform over an 8 week period, in rotation for optimum instrument access, and the roles will rotate also.

JPW

I have found that with classes less than 20 or so, individual set-ups are not as crucial. This spring, I will have 41 people in the junior course. I expect it to be a real challenge.

FL

We are an urban university without dorms. Many of the students in this class are older than the usual college student (i.e. 22). Many of the students have jobs away from the university.

JPW

I think this may actually help you. The additional maturity should add to their desire to make the groups work. The down side is not having computers in dorm and public work areas so they can exchange files and do e-mail.

FL

We of course do not have the compliment of equipment that you have in running your course. Our computer resources are stand alone MS-DOS machines. Most instruments are stand alone, or are computer driven (i.e. PE Lambda 6 with UVDM software). We have a limited amount of RS- 232 interfaced equipment with software. "Sneaker net" is the data transfer method of choice and ease of application.

JPW

I realize how fortunate we are here at St. Olaf to have our networks and connections to dorms and the outside internet. But, when I started this, I was using Heath H-100 machines in a standalone configuration. I learned form all this that the most important thing is the responsibilities that adopted by each of the role-players. If they identify with their responsibilities, then the actual hardware takes on a lesser significance. It definitely is a people thing.

FL

I am inclined to apply some of your ideas in the performance of more traditional experiments, such as:

Cope, V. W., J. Chem. Educ. 55(10),680. "Determination of the performance parameters of a [UV-VIS] spectrophotometer."

MMercury in fish by AAS.

HPLC determination of preservatives in food. Determination of the selectivity coefficient of an ion selective electrode.

JPW

I am sure you will have success with these problems. My main focus what to present problems that were sufficiently challenging that they actually need a group effort to solve, but not so difficult that they fell outside the attention span of our students. I wanted each group to see that they really could do more if they linked their specialties than if they ran alone. I didn't want them to view this necessarily as a social task - more as a fact of life if a chemist wants to tackle really interesting problems with limited resources. I am positive that anything you do in textile or food chemistry will be a winner.

FL

In my preliminary discussions of the possibility of this group learning experience in my class, some students have expressed reservations that all of their grade for this laboratory could be at the mercy of some other (deadbeat) student. I therefore plan to have the students work independently on an additional 2 or 3 projects of their own choosing at the end of the semester.

JPW

In fact, the group must deal with this as a preamble to their work. If one person falls down, then all do. I place the responsibility for seeing that people come to lab on time, prepared, and willing to work right smack on the Manager - and everyone in the class knows that this is the way it will be. If a person gets a poor grade because the software person is a slaggard, that is not the software person's fault - it is the Manager's fault, and s/he will have to discuss that with me in our management interview. Our students take this responsibility to heart! But, remember, I also rotate the roles regularly. If the group had the same Manager all semester, then they could be demoralized and want to be on their own. In the IA course we rotate just about every week. In the junior course, we rotate every 2 weeks for the first 4 experiments, and then every week for the last 4. I really don't think the thing would work at all if it weren't for the rotations.

FL

Your articles in Analytical Chemistry clearly had to leave out some details. Of course the implimentation of such a radically different teaching technique is certainly in some of the details. What additional information do you have, electronically or in print that could help me implement this method in my upper level laboratory? I would also be interested in obtaining a copy of the student laboratory manual if possible.

JPW

The lab manual is awfully big. I will see what I can put together for you. You obviously use e-mail. Do you use Eudora (or NuPop) so I could attach the Microsoft Word files to my messages? I am going to be on leave next year at this time, and trying to take the whole paper business over to all electronic then. That will make it much easier for me to share with all who are interested, inclyuding the students.

FL

How much of the success of this technique is the result of your own set of experiences and your own personality?

JPW

Ah so. The inevitable "exportability" question!Yes. Well, I know that when I started the work, it was only on one experiment. I was really insecure at doing group things, and one of my colleagues was openly critical of the Manager getting the grade and everyone else getting the same grade as the Manager. But, it worked so well from the student's viewpoint that I did another one later in the semester, at their request. I was happy, and it showed, and they new that, but they really were the driving force to keep going on it. And that has been the case all along. For example, I never wanted a class of 41 students in this junior course. But the word gets out that the lab is fun (seriously - this is what they say). I suspect that my personality comes in most strongly in being enthusiastic about what the kids are doing, and letting them know it. But, that's the way it always is. There is an uncertainty principle active here. I would be surprised if your students were not enthusiastic about the approach, even if you were "distant". It shifts more responsibility, and thus more control, into their hands. Those who do not like the additional responsibility may balk until they get a few successes underway.

FL

Does it succeed at St. Olaf because of the type of students that you have, or is it more universal?

JPW

Our students are a mixed bag in terms of their aspirations, but not in terms of wanting things to go well. They are pretty clear about that, since they now are paying $20,000 per year for the pleasure of working 80 hours a week. So the motivation is there, But, I started the group work at Wisconsin, and that was a totally mixed bag in every aspect. I think our students have helped me immensely get the program off the ground, but at the same time, I think that most students will be enthusiastic about having a chance to role-play a professional situation and get a grade for it.

FL

What sort of success have other professors had implementing these ideas at other institutions while using possibly more traditional experiments?

JPW

I don't have a lot of data in yet. John Wright, my friend at the University of Wisconsin, is building a large program based on these group structures (with role-playing, I believe) right now for the first year, second semester analytical course. He and some other young faculty at the UW have made this the focus of a planning grant to the NSF for funds to build a very large program. You can e-mail him at wright@bert.chem.wisc.edu to ask him how that is going. I had a visit from Kip Powell from Christchurch New Zealand. He stayed for a few days and talked with my students and attended a lab and a class. He was doing the role-playing at Canterbury - in the instrumental analysis course - and with success. He modified my approach to use 3 instead of 4 people per company, mostly because he wanted to combine the software and hardware roles into one of a technician. He has his people outdoors taking real samples and doing all manner of intricate experiments. You can reach him at CHEM150@csc.canterbury.ac.nz. Then, Bob Eiermann at UW, Eau Claire has done this for a few years, and has even gotten NSF funding for it. He is presently chair of the department there, and I do not have his e-mail. But, it still is a young disclosure, and runs counter to many of the traditional analytical schools of thought. It may take a while for parts of it to click.

FL

What experiment specific instructions are the managers given prior to beginning an experiment? Can you send me examples of student notes for each of the roles for a specific experiment (management dillema or methods development)? What do you tell each manager in writing about the values that Upper Management prizes? (AC 63, p 982A, 3rd column).

JPW

I will try to put some of these things together for you to address the above three questions and send them by regular mail. I have written them down for the students. Each experiment has a cover sheet that sets up objectives for all four people. In the junior course I let the paper copy carry a lot of weight. In the senior course (instrumental) I hold a one-hour staff meeting each Monday (before they start their labs) and emphasize verbally what I hope can be accomplished. This is occasionally ad hoc, but for the most part follows that the projected needs will be in the junior course the next time it is taught. Most of the seniors have already taken the junior course, and they always have many ideas of their own. I am told by those who should know that I am practicing "management by objectives". Whatever. The senior course carries a lot more methods development flavor, and I spend more time in verbal contact with the Managers there than I can do in the large junior course. At any rate, I shall put something together to send you.

FL

How specifically, and what sorts of specific information from the informal "inquiries" are communicated to the manager prior to the manager interview.

JPW

I do an awfully lot of communication with the whole class by e-mail. With Eudora, we can send pure binary files back and forth, so they can get spreadsheets and old files from me, and shoot them around to each other. We have AppleTalk into the dorm rooms in two of our dorms, so a lot of exchange can occur that way, as well as "in the cafeteria". I can do the same for you or your people if you want to make the link.

FL

How much instruction about operating an instrument is given, or is the student expected to read the manual and figure it out?

JPW

I am very clear here. If it is a commercial instrument, Hardware gets the manual out, reads it, and figures out how to calibrate and operate the instrument. That is what a hardware person is expected to do. If the instrument has had some local customization, the I pitch in with some verbal tutoring, but only to the Hardware role-player. S/he then has to take care of the rest of the group, but always according to the plan and schedule of the Manager. As always, ther Manager determines how much time can be put into this, and when. Since this is an educational institution, and since the Manager knows that the people in the company will want to put things on their resumes about running this or that nstrument, there always is a lot of discussion about this point. But, I do not intervene. Manager decides.

FL

Is time available outside the regularly scheduled laboratory session to learn how to operate an instrument? or to prepare the solutions?

JPW

No. I have been very clear about this to everyone. The lab opens at 13:00 sharp, and closes at 17:30 sharp, regardless. It is up to the Manager to determine what has to be done first, and how to handle priorities. I tell them that with 4 people avalaible to do the work, they must be able to pull it off within the lab time. In the senior course, we do "lateral" the results from one lab group to the next one to come in so that the whole class can accumulate toward a larger objective (like programming the robot). In the junior course, I allow two afternoons for some experiments (like Dick Ramette's gravimetric lead). But, if they botch up the oven schedule in that experiment, or a digestion, that is a managment flaw. I make sure that the experiment objectives are attainable in the time alotted with the equiment at hand. The rest is up to the group. And they know that they can blow it. There are no repeat labs.

FL

Do you assign the students to groups, or do they get to choose their own?

JPW

I do it in a randomized version of alphabetical order. The students appreciate this, because it breaks up their dorm cliques. And I tell them that they will not be able to choose with whom they work in graduate school or the professional world, so why here? I have the roles assigned from the class roster on the first day the class meets.

FL

How do transfer students fit in, i.e. those without the junior level experience, and without the interim - computer programming basics?

JPW

We don't have much trouble with this. There have to be a few people in each lab who can handle the Mac computers, especially with regard to spreadsheets. After that, it is a bootstrap operation. I put a trade book (Lotus for the Mac Simplified) in the bookstore, and many buy it. But, most of the time, they tutor each other. And remember, they rotate! So each Software person can tutor the next, etc.

Fl

How do you set up groups when there is not a multiple of 4 students? What happens when a student withdraws and the group is now down to three or two?

JPW

Yes, this is indeed a challenge. I take time from the first class to rearrange shedules to try to get as close to 4 to a bench as possible. I have run 3 - Manager becomes Chemist most of the time then. It works, but the flavor is different and it shows. 5 just will not work, and 2 is a completely different approach. I usually have to work this out the hard way, and it takes a lot of personal effort if there are difficult schedules to fit. This is one place where I attempt to use my personality as much as I can. Often I give out professional copies of books as prizes for those who are willing to rearrange their schedules.

Fl

How are the lecture and the lab linked, what Textbooks do you use? For much instrumentation, the students have never seen it before, and little understand its function, or operation, thus their backgrounds are weak going into the class (as is to be expected).

JPW

I link the class and lab electronically, via our computers (I have a set of Duo 230 machines in class) and by using our own lab data as often as I can for problem sets, computer exercises, and lecture illustrations. I am working on the video links now, and expanding the computer part. This spring I will carry the roles over into the classroom for the second time, in the junior course, with the companies sitting together and having division or responsibilities there as well as in the lab. The e-mail is also a great linking device. I also give a lab exam that counts in with their other class exam grades. This is a good question for me to attempt to answer, since it is what is on my mind right now. I use Skoog and Leary in the senior IA course, and Harris in the junior course.

Fl

I realize that just one experience for my students at each of the four roles cannot compare to your 6+ or so over two semesters. I am also reluctant to depart too far from the traditional series of experiments that we have performed in the past, over concern that the students need to be exposed to these modern instrumental methods before entering the job market. Still as a pedagogical experiment it looks promising. I shall try to let you know how it works out.

JPW

If your experience is like mine, your students will help you decide how fast and how far to extend your approach. I wish you the best. I am going to forward this letter to my "alums", who are for the most part students who went through the role-playing labs and who have graduated and gone on to graduate or medical schools, or to industry. I suspect that they will be interested in your questions and my responses, and may be a valuable resource for you in the future. We keep up to date and in touch with each other via e-mail. Many of them are interested in teaching, and will want to know how things are going for you.

Disclaimer