Three ChemE instructors get creative with remote active learning

A camera and a bottle of Gatorade were the key pieces of equipment for a recent virtual lab in Professor Jennifer Farmer’s (ChemE) course, CHE204: Applied Chemistry.

“We told students that they’d have to determine the amount of food dye in the drink,” explains Farmer.

Any other year, students would learn to operate a spectrometer to find the answer.

“Well, we don’t have spectrometers at home — or do we?”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, instructors and teaching assistants (TAs) across U of T Engineering have had to get creative in finding new, engaging and equitable ways to conduct labs — a traditionally hands-on and collaborative in-person learning experience — without on-campus equipment, software or space.

""Farmer is using a combination of “kitchen labs,” simulated lab platforms and data analysis reports to create a new lab experience. And in the case of this recent assignment: students used a camera or smartphone in place of a spectrometer.

“It was important that the labs were accessible and that students could use what they have on hand at home instead of procuring specialty items and tools,” says Farmer.

Another important goal of Farmer’s is to ensure her students still get to build relationships with their peers. For the kitchen labs, she puts students into teams to mimic the interactions of a lab setting.

“Normally, students will be looking over and going, ‘Oh, it didn’t work for you either? Ok, so is it the chemistry that’s not working?’ and they talk it out to solve it,” she says. “I want to provide that same conversation from their own homes.”

Professor Emeritus Joseph C. Paradi (ChemE, MIE) and Lecture Fellow Margarete Von Vaight, a trained opera singer, engineering consultant and Faculty of Music alumna, are leveraging music and creativity to deliver Entrepreneurship & Small Business. This includes the voluntary Dollar Store Challenge, where students are assigned a fictional case and are tasked to create a musical instrument, costing under $10, for an individual suffering from a physical or mental health issue.

Additionally, Professor Grant Allen, Chair of ChemE, has produced a video series that uses a leaf blower as an example of a fluid mechanics device that uses a ‘pump’ and transfers momentum. The videos, which have received overwhelmingly positive reactions from students, were produced near his family cottage and feature ample cameos from his dog, Layla:

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