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Center for Excellence in Science Education

Small, Mobile Instruments for Laboratory Enhancement

Small, Mobile Instruments for Laboratory Enhancement (SMILE)

In an effort to help students develop critical-thinking skills – both conceptual and practical, many science educators have recognized the need for a pedagogical transformation of undergraduate STEM education, at the heart of which is a desire to increase the engagement of students and teachers alike through a successful synergy between faculty research and all levels of course curricula.  Dr. Dan Sykes, Senior Lecturer in Chemistry is no exception this line of thinking.  It became obvious to him while teaching his analytical lab courses that instruments had very much become “black boxes” and students were unable to appreciate or consider the practical limitations that influence instrument design and data acquisition, and therefore, never questioned the significance or quality of their data. This observation was one of the driving forces for his strong desire to begin making major changes to his curriculum and in 2002 he began working with Rod Kreuter, Research Instruments Facility Supervisor in the Department of Chemistry to teach his students to build smaller prototypes of instruments.  By  2009, Dan,  Rod, and Dr. Bal Chohan at Penn State Harrisburg had developed enough prototype instruments to completely redesign their laboratory courses.  This new approach  would focus on the development of rugged, low-cost, low-maintenance, and low-power Small, Mobile Instruments for Laboratory Enhancement (SMILE) with the ultimate goal of making sure these instruments could be easily constructed by students and so allowing them a peek inside the “black box”.

In its current state the SMILE curriculum requires students to build, from kits, calibrated and quantitative instruments (e.g., colorimeter, fluorometer, a diamond-anvil cell, gated-fluorometer, barcode scanner, GC-FID, ion chromatography instrument, dissolved oxygen probe, cyclic voltammetry instrument, DNA oligomer sensor, UV-VIS grating-based photodiode array spectrometer, CE-chip, among others).  Semester-long projects provide an intensive guided-inquiry learning experience where the students are the principal investigators; they must submit a literature-based research proposal, work as a team to complete the project, present their research at a chemistry-wide poster symposium, and write a final report. Faculty guidance does not ensure a successful end to any project.  The success or failure of any project is based on the students’ initiative, motivation, organization and work ethic.

To-date, the SMILE initiative has created a handful of low-maintenance, low-operating cost, mobile instruments,1-5 including a bar-code scanner, an electrostatic lifter, a static NMR probe that is compatible with an existing Bruker NMR spectrometer, a colorimeter, two types of fluorimeters, a Karl-Fisher apparatus, a dissolved oxygen probe, a conductivity meter (currently being used as part of a water quality educational initiative in Ghana), high-pressure liquid chromatography columns, and a cyclic voltammeter, all of which cost between $50 and $180 to build. A number of instruments continue to be developed, such as a GC-FID, a temperature-gradient gel electrophoresis unit, a portable nitroaromatic explosives detector, a photoacoustic/ piezoelectric cell, and a magnetic susceptibility balance.   It is important to stress that these instruments involve relatively simple electronic components. Although the science or chemistry major may never become an instrumentation expert, he/she should have a reasonable concept of the basic principles and applications of the more common electronics devices. The scope intended for the course of the analytical chemistry course that utilizes these instruments is at the undergraduate level is one of familiarization.

The SMILE team have also developed a co-curricular chemistry lab program (SMILE) where instruments, such as a colorimeter or fluorometer are built by the senior-level instrumental analysis students, and then used in lower-level general and analytical chemistry courses by their younger peers (and/or donated to local school districts).  As the younger peers advance through the curriculum, their knowledge of the instrumentation and their ability to use the instrumentation in more sophisticated ways increases until, eventually, they are involved in the construction of a better version of the instrument to be used by their younger peers. The use of these student-built instruments promotes student competency in the sciences and engineering. We have found that it is a natural conduit for co-curricular experiences, and strongly fosters student ownership of their program's curriculum. The additional benefit of such instruments is that the low-price, low-maintenance and low-operating costs allows for deployment of multiple units. Some of the new instruments are donated to high schools for use in science class, thus allowing Penn State University to build connections with pre-college teachers. Our initial data suggests a significant increase in student engagement, interest, and understanding of related concepts in science.

To date SMILE has been implemented in (1) middle school STEM programs within the State College School District and West Branch School District, PA, (2) a summer enrichment program for at-risk high school students from Philadelphia and Harrisburg, PA, (3) in the science program at Solroed Gymnasium, Solroed Strand, Denmark, (4) a research experience for teachers (RET) program at Penn State, (5) an instrumental analysis course at Rollins College, Florida, (6) the general chemistry laboratories at the Penn State Harrisburg (a 2-year college), and (7) the quantitative and instrumental analysis courses at the Penn State University Park campus.