Chemistry instruction team builds new online lab program

July 6, 2020

Bear@Home online lab

Demonstration of an online lab that can be viewed at anytime by students. Photo: BeArS@home project.

A team of faculty and lecturers in the Department of Chemistry at UC Berkeley are building a new online program to allow undergraduate students to have a better interactive experience while doing labs remotely. 

The new program called BeArS@home will customize interactive lab experiments that have historically been available only in the classroom. 

If you’ve taken introductory chemistry, you might guess that this project has to do with chemistry, and you’d be right! “Be” is the symbol for the element beryllium, "Ar" is the symbol for the element argon, and "S" is the symbol for the element sulfur. When the COVID-19 pandemic kept students away from campus this spring, Berkeley’s Department of Chemistry had to scramble to keep the laboratory sections working.

“We were able to cobble together something functional that we were actually pretty proud of to finish out the spring semester,” said Dr. Michelle Douskey, who oversees the introductory general chemistry laboratories. "But this was only a stopgap measure."

The idea that students wouldn’t be able to come back in the fall has prompted the department to think creatively about a more long-term solution. “This is Berkeley. We hold ourselves to a very high educational standard. Students come here expecting a world-class education and we want to make sure we are prepared to deliver on that, even though many classes will still be remote come fall," said Dr. Alexis Shusterman, who is a lead lecturer for the organic laboratories.

Example set of instructions

Example of a set of instructions to the students on how the online demo is prepared. Photo: BeArS@home project.

With that in mind, a multi tiered instructional team has been assembled to create BeArS@home: an online chemistry laboratory framework that will bring custom, first-person video clips into an interactive choose-your-own-adventure environment, curated specifically for Berkeley's students.

Unlike existing old-school “cookbook chemistry” modules, the program will center around Berkeley’s green chemistry focus, which is one of many unique aspects of Berkeley’s undergraduate curriculum. As each student charts their own course through the choice-driven BeArS@home platform, they will use lab notebooks to record their successes or mistakes. The students can utilize their mistakes, regardless of frequency, to analyze what went wrong and reattempt the experiment. 

Matthew Francis, Chair of the Department of Chemistry, envisions the benefits of the BeArS@home platform extending far beyond the Berkeley campus. “Our colleagues in the College of Environmental Engineering are already expressing their interest in using the BeArS@home framework to drop in their own videos, and I know other institutions would benefit from this approach too. Everyone is struggling right now to make remote learning a meaningful, positive experience; the idea of making something that works for your students in your style is something truly innovative that everyone can get behind.”

The team plans to have an initial version of the new program available by Fall 2020.