Teaching Students the Ask the Right Questions

You will notice that I didn’t say “Teaching Students to Get the Right Answers” which seems to be the preoccupation with most educational practices. Formulating good questions could be cultivated as a skill in organic chemistry because the real experience of laboratory work lends itself to asking questions about the phenomena the student’s are observing. Essentially, questions drive the scientific enterprise. My experience with open research is that most experiments are neither an unqualified success nor a complete failure. Rather, they fall somewhere in-between. “It generally worked as we expected but there are also ambiguities in the results that are hard to explain with our current understanding.” How can asking questions become a more integral part of Sophomore Organic Chemistry lab? As I have already promoted, it would be cool to analyze previous results and formulate ways to probe the inconsistencies and anomalies before the experiment is done in lab. However, asking students to analyze an experiment about which they have no experience is a big challenge. It may be more accessible to have students perform an experiment, ask questions about the results, develop a procedure that will adequately address the questions, and then redo the experiment in such a way that would address those questions. This will take some dedicated time: GC-FID, GC-MS, HPLC, and NMR analyses take a few days. The data has to be analyzed, questions formed, then the procedure modified, and the appropriate chemicals and equipment bought before the second round of experimentation can proceed. The payoff is a greater understanding of and participation in the scientific method. If the process can be well documented, then maybe the process can be streamlined the next year the students do this series of experiments. This idea seems to work well in a simpistic way with the 1) caffeine from tea, 2) caffeine from beverages, sequence.

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