Instructor Michael Burand will give a presentation titled, “Letter Writing: A Pathway to Better Laboratory Comprehension” at the 2014 Biennial Conference on Chemical Education, August 3-7 at Grand Valley State University.


General chemistry students in honors and majors-only laboratory courses are required to write a letter in lieu of a traditional laboratory report for one of their laboratory projects. The students use the letter to explain their results to a recipient whom they are told does not necessarily have background in science. This requirement to explain their laboratory results in nonscientific terms causes the students to think more thoroughly about the underlying concepts involved. Indeed, survey results indicate that 94% of the laboratory students polled felt they had gained a deeper understanding when they wrote the letter as opposed to a traditional laboratory report. The details of the assignment will be discussed along with students’ survey responses.

The laboratory activity chosen for this letter-writing project involved testing for lead contamination in urban soils via atomic absorption spectroscopy. This provided a viable means of incorporating a service-learning aspect into the project. Students indicated that they put forth a more substantial effort in writing the letter knowing it would be sent to an actual recipient, not only the student’s TA and/or laboratory instructor. Thus, this project combines the nontraditional laboratory pedagogical approach of letter writing with a service-learning component. How this leads to students attaining a deeper understanding and facilitates better student engagement and ownership will be discussed.

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