Laboratory Instrumentation: An Exploration of the Impact of Instrumentation on Student Learning

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Academic programs generally work to make their laboratory curriculum both as instrumentation rich and up to date as possible. However, little is known about the relationship between the use of instrumentation in the curriculum and student learning. As part of our department’s ongoing assessment efforts, a project was designed to probe this relationship. Two aspects of the laboratory curriculum, explicitly tied to instrumentation, were the focus: technical competence with instrumentation and the ability of students to use instrumentation to solve chemical problems. Student survey responses and their scores on a practicum task were used to explore the relationship between instrument use and these outcomes. Results suggest that hands-on use of instruments matters. While emphasis on instrumentation in the lecture appears to increase perceived familiarity, more direct use in the laboratory translates into more technical knowledge. However, more exposure to instruments in the laboratory does not necessarily result in better problem solving skills. The introduction of new (to the students) instruments, combined with a guided inquiry approach, seem to improve this outcome. If educators want students to use instruments to problem solve like chemists, then it is important to explicitly support the development of this skill.