The idea of teaching science practicals at home isn’t exactly new. The Open University were pioneers in providing a Science Home Experiment Kit in the 1970s and the Science Museum has a microscope from their very first kit in its collection.
While the home chemistry kit has a long history, there are particular challenges – hazards and explosions, for instance – of teaching chemical sciences outside a managed university laboratory.
As part of the Science Museum Group’s COVID-19 collecting project, we’ve collected two university chemistry departments’ responses to teaching their students at home. In September 2020 UCL’s Department of Chemistry launched the award-winning Lab_14 Collaboration, a bespoke laboratory kit teaching initiative for undergraduates to carry out practical experiments at home. Lab_14 kits, containing a mix of scientific apparatus, were mailed to UCL chemistry students around the world.
The Lab_14 Collaboration was originally conceived in Spring 2020 by Professor Andrea Sella, Head of UCL’s Department of Chemistry. One of its principles was connecting chemistry to its impacts on everyday life – some of the course experiments lead to discussions about citizen science and environmental issues like ocean acidification.
Very much in this sprit, the Lab-14 course begins with making a cake – a deliberate homage to Ludwig Gattermann’s famous textbook of chemical instruction that begins the same way. Through baking, students are introduced to practical concepts such as the reproducibility crisis in experimental science, temperature control, heat transfer; and instrumentation such as thermocouples and balances.
Lab-14 is a celebration of the idea of chemistry in the home, with experiments involving kettles, LEDs, household ingredients, ice, and soap making. But it was also much more than just a kit – it was also a social media account on Twitter that invited students and staff to share their experiences of carrying out experiments. It sparked, often funny, conversations about chemistry and science beyond the course. For us as curators, the social media presence provided a wealth of brilliant stories about how Lab-14 was used and the social life of the attached chemistry department.
The team at Imperial College took a similar approach to adapting their first-year chemistry courses: Chemistry Kitchen and Introduction to Synthesis. Piloted in 2019, the Chemistry Kitchen course is built on the idea that chemistry and cooking share similar skills – weighing, measuring, precision, planning, creativity, dexterity and observation. By using skills that students may feel familiar with, the course aims to help them to feel more settled in a lab environment.
Each 85-piece kit also had bespoke PPE and power adaptors to suit their students’ needs. As part of the course, students made cheese, their own agar gel research project, and oil infusions.
For their final assignment, they were tasked to create a ‘modernist cheesecake’. Guided by YouTube videos, online tutorials, virtual chats, the students could share their creations on private Imperial College messaging boards.
Many chemistry experiments depend on using chemicals, often only available in laboratory settings and unsafe to send through post and courier. It was while baking his favourite Bajan coconut cakes that Dr Luke Delmas realised that many food items could be safely used instead. The kit was sent out with different items including a packet of cream of tartar.
Dr Jakob Radzikowski and Luke Delmas challenged themselves to recreate the experiments only using the kit they’d developed. The team had to think of everything, including safety. For example, an envelope was included so students could make a paper dust-pan and brush to clean up any broken glass safely.
Each kit was designed for with the aim of getting students confident in using kit they’d be using throughout their degree. For their physical chemistry students, Nick Brooks and his team created spectrometer kits that could be built and tested at home. Spectrometers are a standard piece of laboratory equipment used to measure the wavelength and frequency of light, enabling samples to be analysed and identified.
First year chemistry students were introduced to UV-Vis spectroscopy – which measures how much a chemical substance absorbs light.
Second year students were challenged to build their own devices, with only some advice to make their spectrometers as effective as possible. They were studying fluorescence, the emission of light by a substance.
Third year students received Introduction to Computer Controlled Experiments to build their Python programming skills and equipment control. Through experiments, students learnt to investigate the conductivity of simple electronic components, in this case a LED light.
Many of the more expensive pieces of kit and all the spectrometers were returned to Imperial College and are now being used in their labs once more, except for those kits which were handed to Chair of Trustees, Dame Mary Archer, for the Science Museum Group’s collection.
Getting these kits to UCL and Imperial students was a huge logistical effort and required teams across the universities to come together. The ongoing pandemic and the impact of Brexit made sourcing components incredibly difficult.
Throughout the pandemic students missed out on a range of university experiences but staff at UCL and Imperial College London’s Chemistry departments worked in challenging circumstances to bring university lab life to them.