As universities across the U.S. and world transitioned this fall to online formats or a combination of in-person and virtual classes in response to COVID-19, laboratory science instructors found themselves working overtime to find suitable ways to replicate the hands-on experience and simultaneous safety training inherent within the traditional laboratory setting while also keeping their students remotely engaged and safe.
In a strange turn of events only a global pandemic could inspire, Texas A&M University chemists Alicia Altemose and Edward Lee decided against giving a final exam in their Fundamentals of Chemistry lab, instead challenging their nearly 6,000 undergraduate students enrolled across 280 lab sections each to make a video explaining an everyday concept using what they learned either in their lab or related lecture course during the previous three months.
Altemose and Lee, lecturers in the Texas A&M Department of Chemistry, also serve as technical laboratory coordinators for its First Year Program, which aims to provide an introductory survey of a variety of different chemistry topics and applications while introducing students to laboratory science and techniques. Their atypical final assignment applied to all FYP labs, which include CHEM 117, a one-credit lab that complements the three-credit CHEM 107: General Chemistry for Engineers lecture course, and CHEM 119: Fundamentals of Chemistry I and CHEM 120: Fundamentals of Chemistry II, which are both combined lecture and lab four-credit courses.
“We knew this was going to be a difficult semester for our students, our teaching assistants and us,” Altemose said. “Because our lab final typically is one of the first final exams that freshmen students take, we made a conscious effort to attempt to alleviate some of the anxieties they traditionally would encounter during an otherwise normal semester and chose to create a different kind of assessment appropriate for an abnormal semester.”
Lee says most students take FYP courses because they are required for their major or are prerequisites for other courses. Some students enroll because they are interested in going into a professional health program.
Prior to COVID-19, he said typical final exams in such introductory chemistry labs either were paper-based tests or a lab practical — in essence, a timed experiment. However, neither option seemed pandemic practical to him or Altemose, both from a logistics standpoint, particularly for remote students, or in providing an accurate gauge on learning.
“We were thinking about a summative assessment for all of the courses that would be accessible to both our students taking the lab in-person and via remote,” Altemose said. “We had just finished filming our own videos we were going to be using throughout the semester, and so we thought that since we had put in all this effort to make videos that perhaps we should also have our students make videos.”
Inspired by what he describes as a cool tweet he saw in early September, Lee set out to make his own TikTok video. Although both he and Altemose got a previous crash course in video-making when COVID-19 swept the country and initially shut down universities in mid-semester last March, neither had any experience with TikTok.
“Both of us downloaded the app for the first time this semester,” Lee said. “I think I had read about hype houses in the New York Times, and so I thought that TikTok would be a good venue for us to reach our students. We also gave them other options to make sure students who didn’t want to post a video to TikTok or some other social media application would still have the ability to participate.”
The end-of-semester-project, known as #GIGCHEM, was kept under wraps until halfway through the semester, at which point Lee unveiled his example video in both TikTok and YouTube formats along with project guidelines. Reactions ranged from excited to anxious, with a good number of students requesting meetings with their instructors to pitch ideas.
“We told the students that if they wanted to share their videos on social media, they could tag it with #gigchem,” Lee said. “We are pretty tickled about the response — about 6.8 million views on the hashtag via TikTok to date, with additional tags on Instagram and Twitter.”
Public health major Celeste Alvarenga ’24 says she took the course as a prerequisite for physician’s assistant school and a potential nurse practitioner master’s program. When she found out about the final lab project, her first reaction was a smile.
“I was overwhelmed with happiness, because I expected a difficult lab report over content learned in the lab,” Alvarenga said. “I thought this was such an amazing way to allow students to mix their personalities and their knowledge of chemistry in a fun way. My classmates and I kept sending chemistry TikToks in the GroupMe, and it was hilarious and educational at the same time.
“Another reason I enjoyed this project very much was because I got to see classmates I had talked to over GroupMe or in the Zoom chat but had never met due to COVID. Furthermore, as I scrolled through the projects, I learned how chemistry is involved in so many different daily activities. For example, I saw one project over bleaching pants and then another project explaining the chemistry behind making ramen noodles.”
Biomedical sciences major Emmy Webb ’24 registered for the course because it’s a requirement for her major as well as applying to Texas A&M veterinary school and said she felt relieved when she found out the final was a project she would have time to prepare for well in advance of her other finals. She was able to work on it over the course of a few days and even spend extra time perfecting it instead of just getting one shot at it, to the point she says she actually didn’t dread hitting “submit” like she would have with a traditional lab practical.
“I came into this course thinking that chemistry was going to eat my lunch, but I came out of it knowing that I have all of the resources, help from my professor and self-discipline that I need to keep that from happening,” Webb said. “Facing my first semester at Texas A&M, in the wake of a global pandemic no less, has taught me many things about myself, but most importantly, it taught me exactly what I am capable of and has given me a newfound confidence in myself. People have no idea of the circumstances they are capable of adapting to and overcoming — that is, until you throw a global pandemic in their face.”
Eddie Hinneh-Bediako ‘09, who received a master’s degree in economics from Texas A&M earlier this year and now is working toward a postbaccalaureate degree in genetics, says he registered for the course in order to satisfy the requirements for medical school application, with the ultimate goal of serving as a medical doctor in the U.S. Navy, where he currently serves as a hospital corpsman.
“I would rank this project near the top, maybe nine out of 10, because I not only had to have an in-depth understanding of a concept, but I also had to plan and learn YouTube video posting skills as well as presentation skills to successfully execute the project,” he said. “I have learned that I am capable of handling a challenging course. However, I have to be better at time management and not underestimate any first-year course. This experience has taught me that a chemistry course is not a walk-in-the-park and that I should plan accordingly.”
Alvarenga also noted the project wasn’t easy, given that she had to review an entire semester’s worth of material to select a concept that would be ideal for a videotaped experiment. On top of that, she also had to plan out all action and dialogue to be certain that all information in her video was presented accurately. In the process, however, she learned that perfection can be quite pleasing.
“This project was great because it makes every individual a master on a specific topic, since they had to explain how an experiment works,” Alvarenga said. “This was my favorite assignment of the entire course!
“In all honesty, I do believe that this course influenced me to pursue a career in the medical field. CHEM 119 is a difficult course, but when I was reviewing for my final in the chemistry lecture part of it, everything just clicked, and it’s the best feeling ever. I can say I really did learn from this course and, honestly, it was exciting learning chemistry.”
Biomedical sciences major Nicklaus Elam ’24 joined many others in crediting Altemose for her steady and capable hand in structuring the lecture course during “such a strange time of life” and doing everything possible to help her students understand chemistry, earning the nickname Queen in the process, based on her passion for both the subject and her students.
“Her patience in answering questions and explanations made the material easy to understand and apply to new situations and problems,” Elam said. “The uniqueness of the final for our lab was a very fun and engaging approach, especially for the many students who did not have the opportunity to get hands-on experience within the lab environment. In such a strange semester with COVID-19, it allowed students who had not been in the lab all semester to get hands on with a science experience they could choose.”
Embracing the spirit of uniqueness, Elam says he wanted to do something no other student would think of: an at-home combustion reaction using a small mouth glass jar graciously provided by the chemistry department and isopropyl alcohol that produced an amazing reaction and flame.
“Not only was it fun to conduct the experiment and be a part of, but it was also fun to get to be the teacher and explain what exactly was taking place when the reaction happened and the chemistry behind it,” Elam said. “This assignment was by far the best I was able to be a part of this semester. It was so much more engaging than a standard multiple-choice test or an essay. I wish other classes would take this approach to engaging their students and allowing them to have hands-on interaction with the material that they have learned.”
All video submissions were graded by program teaching assistants, who also nominated their picks for the most outstanding clips. Altemose and Lee plan to post those top picks — pending permission from their respective student creators — to the Texas A&M Chemistry TikTok account.
“I felt this class did a great job at covering the essential material to build a strong foundation in chemistry,” said general engineering major Dave Mitchell ’24. “I was excited and intrigued that the final could be presented in any unique and creative manner, given that this type of academic freedom is not typically found in a lower level course. I enjoyed this final above and beyond the other finals I had to complete this semester.”
In the end, Altemose says both the final assignment and the overall course proved to be as educational for the students as their instructors. Along with their students, Altemose says she and Lee learned to adapt to challenges, from the scale of their program to the byproduct of their success.
“With 5,900 students across 280 sections, we had a lot of videos to evaluate,” she said. “It’s been surprisingly impressive to see how creative some of our students were in creating visuals for their videos. The other big surprise for us was the relative lack of questions from our students. It seems they took to this project like fish to water.”
Lee says the jury’s still out as to whether their final approach has the longevity necessary to become a Texas A&M tradition.
“We think we will add this assignment to our pool and that it has a lot of durability beyond the COVID times,” he added. “We’ll see how it goes again in the spring before committing to making it a tradition.”
Beyond some of the basics of chemistry, Alvarenga says she learned that nothing is impossible and that if she wants something, she’ll have to earn it.
“This perspective was in my mind this whole semester when I felt like giving up, but I knew I wanted an A in my CHEM course,” Alvarenga said. “I went to many of my professor’s office hours, many teaching assistant and supplemental instruction sessions, and sent many, many emails to my professor. Now that this course is over, I’m glad I did all of this work, because it was definitely worth it, and with this reinforcement, I know I am capable of great things.”
Webb shared similar thoughts, noting that her biggest struggle thus far in her admittedly young college career is the lack of what she describes as life application for material learned in the classroom — a problem she didn’t encounter with chemistry, thanks in part to her final lab assignment.
“This video project was successful in not only providing students a fun, atypical way to showcase what they learned throughout the semester, but it also demonstrated to students that there actually are real-life applications of chemistry and the topics that we learn in class,” Webb said. “When students realize a class is actually applicable to their life and something they can utilize in the real world, I think that their attitude toward chemistry quickly changes from ‘I have to take chemistry’ to ‘I want to take chemistry.’”