Analytical Chemistry Laboratory:


St. Olaf College

Northfield, Minnesota

This report was prepared as part of the

PKAL Dreyfus

Chemistry Writing Project:

Capstone Courses


A dilemma has arisen for your company. You, the boss, are interested in marketing a new clear plastic spray coating, but aren’t sure if your product differs enough from those of your competitors to have its own brand name. You ask the company Manager to decide if it would be ethical to market the spray under its own name. She guesses it would be too hard for the competitor’s lawyers to prove that their products were being copied, but wants to be sure.

At St. Olaf College, such a dilemma awaits Chemistry students in the Chemistry 255/256 Analytical Chemistry courses originally developed between 1985 and 1999 by Professor John Walters. In this class students assume roles (Manager, Hardware, Software , or Chemist) in a "company" and then play out those roles in pursuit of a solution of a management dilemma. In this course at the junior level, students learn chemical methods of analysis; learning instrumental methods of analysis is the focus of the senior-level course.

Such role-playing in classrooms and laboratories, which usually involves students adopting and acting out deliberately exaggerated cultural stereotypes, can be a very effective teaching and learning tool, as demonstrated by the St. Olaf experience. Assuming a role and identifying with the real-world issues gives students a different sort of ownership over their work. This ownership can provide for better knowledge transfer and ultimately– better learning.

In a more traditional lab, students tend to work and learn independently, in relative isolation. Through their work in Professor Walters’ and Jackson’s courses, students get to practice and develop the skills they need to be Analytical Chemists. The team approach also forces students to support each other’s development, creating a "sink or swim together" environment.

The "role-playing" Analytical Chemistry lab approach emphasizes interdependence and small-group learning As former student Maren Bunge noted: "What really struck me was the cooperation and noncompetitiveness of the class, as well as the willingness of students to work hard together on the problems."

Students develop management and leadership skills while they tackle the Analytical Chemistry problems confronting their ‘company.’ Each person assumes individual responsibility to solve a specific aspect of the problem (from the perspective of his/her assigned role). The final solution is determined as the individual pieces begin to be integrated by the team. The integration of individual pieces is not a task done at the end, for the way each individual assignment is undertaken is dependent upon how the others in the group are approaching their assigned task. (During the semester each student has the opportunity to play each role.)

The process of dividing responsibilities at the onset is as much a part of the integration as is bringing it all together at the end. "One of the advantages of role playing in the Chemistry laboratory is to allow the development of technical expertise at an individual level while at the same time stressing and developing communication and collaborative skills," Professor Walters notes. "It is particularly effective for teaching undergraduate Analytical Chemistry because much Analytical work naturally thrives in an interdependent, diverse small group." Likewise the role of the instructor changes - as it becomes imperative that the instructor plays along and becomes the kind of active listener who can help people realize and experience the consequences of what they say in the role they are playing.

Course Structure and Pedagogy

There are several levels of collaboration within the courses. The roles reflect the four main areas of responsibility for an Analytical Chemist in an industrial setting: the Chemistry, the Hardware and Software, and managing the project. The role of Manager is critical as the person who holds the team responsible for completing the assignment and for reporting the results in a ‘manger’s interview.’ These interviews are time-intensive, lasting up to two hours. Teaching assistants facilitate the process.

The Manager’s position becomes more and more demanding as the experimental exercises become more sophisticated as the group moves through the syllabus. A good deal of effort must be put into the "infra-structure" of the experiment to ensure that people can successfully progress through the case studies. Student reports suggest that experience is the best teacher.

Another level of team/group interaction involves the interplay between the companies, represented by each of the four-person teams. The labs are set up so that four ‘companies’ are doing the same experiment during a given lab period; each has its own set of glassware, computers, and bench space. Although this is more resource- intensive than rotating groups through the experiments, Professor Walters finds this approach is key to having the right dynamics in the lab. The Managers are encouraged to consult with each other about how they are going to approach the experiment, and--in fact– they help each other by sharing individual results to improve the statistics of the entire experiment. In turn, this helps everyone’s grade because the average for the entire class reflects the overall statistics of the results - everyone wins. Professor Walters describes this as a form of profit sharing in which the individual’s grade goes up with the class average.

A third level of group cooperation occurs between the junior level instrumental analysis course and the senior level chemical analysis course, since the methods for the experiments to be done by the juniors are designed by students in the senior level course. This give and take between the two courses leads to a unique professional-like camaraderie since the students are getting feedback from peers who are directly affected by their work. In addition this integration of the upper and lower level courses has lead to a number of improvements in the content of courses which will be the focus of an upcoming publications by Professor Walters and Paul Jackson (a former Dreyfus Teaching Postdoctoral Fellow at St. Olaf).

To determine whether the company cited previously should market their plastic spray under its own brand name, students in the Senior Instrumental Methods course needed to conduct an analysis using FT-IR spectroscopy. The student playing "Software Coordinator" used a set of simulated spectra on the computer to make individual product assignments, and the "Hardware Coordinator" ran the instrument’s computer to make comparative evaluations though creative baseline subtraction and pattern matching.

This experiment compares experimental data with simulated data to determine how easily the components of a composite mixture can be determined and quantified. The precision of the analysis is directly related to how much time and effort is put into repeated manipulations and simulations of the spectra. This ties in nicely with the question of whether someone from a competing company will have the knowledge, time and desire to repeat this.

Does it Work?

To date over 250 students have been through the program since it was initiated in 1985, and the student response has been overwhelmingly positive. An alumni survey is underway to provide a more quantitative assessment and a follow-up perspective on the success of this pioneering teaching initiative.

The "Company" Roles

As former student and current colleague Paul Jackson notes: "The class is unique in its approach to students; both class lectures and labs are integrated into one network of information. Thus, a large demand is made on time, in the form of work, reading and preparation. But if one strives to meet the demands of the course, the student may obtain vast amounts of information and methods by which to apply it. I felt I learned a tremendous amount."

"The interactions between students become very rich experiences either in a positive or a negative sense," notes Professor Mary Walczak, Chair of the Chemistry Department. She believes students must be made aware that developing cooperative skills is an important goal of the lab. "Professors should be ready to invest some time helping students understand why this is important; they'll need these skills as much as any in their careers."