New Computer Network Takes Fear Out Of First-Year Chemistry

September 10, 1997

It won't prevent test tubes from breaking, but a unique network of electronic sensors, measuring equipment and computers at the University of Cincinnati has made first-year college chemistry labs less intimidating and more educational.

Professor of chemistry Estel Sprague will describe the system, called MeasureNet, Wednesday Sept. 10 during the national meeting of the American Chemical Society in Las Vegas.

Traditional first-year labs often require students to work alone, frantically collecting data before the lab period is over. Then, they pack up their lab notebooks and try to analyze their scribbles back in their dorm room.

The MeasureNet system provides quick access to data, which can be shared among teams of students. One computer can crunch data from ten different measuring stations, serving a total of 20 students working in pairs. There are now ten systems operating, serving 200 students simulataneously.

"The overall goal is to give the students more of a sense of what modern-day experimental science is like," said Sprague, who is also the project director and assistant department head in chemistry at UC. "It's not individuals working in isolation. It's people working in teams on projects that take time. They share data. They work hard at trying to interpret their results."

Electronic probes and sensors allow students to determine changes in pressure, temperature, pH, voltage and color over time. Eventually, it will be able to handle more advanced spectroscopy.

"You can get huge amounts of data that everyone can use," said UC research associate Bob Voorhees who helped developed MeasureNet. "It's very impressive to someone who's done it the old way," added Sprague.

There are other computerized measuring systems on the market, but most require a separate PC for each student. Voorhees and instrumentation specialist Paul McKenzie came up with the concept of a network to keep the lab bench clear for actual experimentation. "The whole brains of it are on a card," said McKenzie, noting that also makes it easier to update the system and fix problems.

Together McKenzie and Voorhees designed, built and programmed the system. Their inventiveness has already attracted interest from several Cincinnati-area high schools and other colleges and universities, and a patent is pending.

The new laboratory approach also requires a new approach to learning. Sprague is working with chemistry professor John Alexander and freshman lab manager Peter Padolik to redesign lab exercises and train new teaching assistants in cooperative learning techniques.

The system was phased in over the last academic year, but by the spring quarter of 1997, all students in the first-year labs were using MeasureNet. Their reaction was overwhelmingly positive.

"They like it," said Sprague. "All of the students seem to be able to interact with it easily. We've never had any negative feedback."

MeasureNet was funded by a total of $190,000 in grants from the Procter & Gamble Fund and the National Science Foundation.

University of Cincinnati

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