Summer Internship: Developing and Testing Virtual Laboratory Exercises for Chemical Thermodynamics

My name is Chelsea, I am a chemistry major and biology minor in the class of 2021. I spent this past summer working with Professor Thandi Buthelezi of the Wheaton College Chemistry Department to create a virtual laboratory manual for CHEM 355: Chemical Thermodynamics. 

The switch to remote learning and adapting classes to fit social distancing requirements has been especially difficult for laboratory classes where hands-on learning is essential. One way to accomplish remote labs is to utilize a simulation in which students can virtually collect and analyze data. It was my job to find useful simulations and plan experiments that teach students the same techniques they would learn in an in-person lab. 

To accomplish this, I first searched for and selected the best simulation for each topic by evaluating them for accuracy, feasibility, computer compatibility, and reproducibility. It was surprisingly fun to play around with the simulation graphics because they would occasionally do unexpected things like explode or catch on fire. I ended up selecting a simulation for each of the following topics: bomb calorimetry, chemical equilibrium, the ideal gas law and kinetic molecular theory, and computational heats of combustion. 

Each topic presented its own challenges, however, the process of creating an activity was the same for each one. First, I reviewed what would normally be accomplished in the corresponding in-person lab. Second, I  experimented with the simulation in an attempt to produce the same results an in-person lab would generate. This learning objective took the longest amount of time and the most effort to complete. I had to imagine the different perspectives each student would approach the assignment with, how that would impact the results, and the potential pitfalls of each scenario. When I had thoroughly explored the simulation, I wrote a student handout designed to help students learn the topic, encourage critical thinking, streamline data collection, and minimized technical difficulties. After finishing this process for one simulation, I immediately selected another topic and began the process all over again. At the end of six weeks, I had a completed laboratory manual for the Chemical Thermodynamics class. 

Throughout this project, I have used and learned helpful new skills. The skill I practiced most was working in Excel. I have become much faster at creating organized and easy to read tables, charts, and graphs; a skill which is essential for any good chemist. Overall, this valuable internship helped me become a better student, a more confident teacher, and a more efficient chemist.