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Science 'Survivor': Navigating MIT's chem lab one episode at a time

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Students Dan Zang (left) and Hansol Kang (right) are two of the 14 freshmen who agreed to have their chemistry class taped for the Web-reality show ChemLab Boot Camp. (Photo: Courtesy MIT OpenCourseWare)

Hansol Kang, a freshman at MIT, looks slightly blushed behind plastic goggles. "I've made like two, actually three mistakes today," she confesses. Among Kang's missteps: overheating a chemical mixture, using a too-small funnel, dropping the funnel to the ground. But Kang was not alone, and several of her classmates, too, had run into trouble: there were spills, broken test tubes, starts and restarts.

All part of a day's work in MIT's introductory course for freshmen, 5.301: Chemistry Laboratory Techniques. But in a twist, scenes now documented on film and posted online for all to see as part of the school's latest effort to promote Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) education. For nearly four weeks last January, Kang and 13 other freshmen navigated the chemistry lab — many, for the first time — in a made-for-internet reality series that premiered earlier this fall called ChemLab Boot Camp.

The 11-part series emerged from discussions between the MIT Chemistry department and the Dow Chemical Company about how to best prepare the next generation of chemical engineers and material scientists, said professor of chemistry and biological engineering John Essigmann, who was also executive producer of the series. The question loomed large in Essigmann's mind: "How do you get students in high school and maybe junior high more interested in chemistry?" Bringing in his former MIT undergraduate advisee, George Zaidan, now a freelance science director and producer, the idea for a reality series was hatched. ChemLab Boot Camp would target pre-college students, capturing on film MIT life and the mostly rewarding, sometimes frustrating learning experience in lab. (Zaidan produced and directed the series.) Dow gave $500,000 in funding for the project and two related others, under a larger $2 million grant to promote STEM subjects among women and underrepresented minorities.

In the series, under the watchful eye of their professor, John Dolhun, and two teaching assistants, the freshmen — most of whom were part of the cohort Dow sought to reach — spend hours in the lab, familiarizing themselves with the mechanics of various chemistry techniques. Each episode lasts only a few minutes, mixing educational animations and candid scenes of the students in lab, along with confessional interviews where the students reflect on their experiences. While the videos co-opt the hallmarks of a reality television series — there's competition, alliances and love interests, and at least one bleeped out remark — above all, they capture in real-time how exciting and relevant chemistry laboratory work can be.

Kang, now a sophomore chemistry major, hopes that after watching the series, younger students will view chemistry not just as vehicle to other professions, but as a worthwhile field in and of itself. She credits the experience with growing her confidence in science, and recalls that on that fated day when she was fumbling in lab, "at first I was freaking out." But after talking with the TAs, she said, "I learned through that process that it's ok to make mistakes, and that mistakes help you learn."

As the narrator voices in the series' first episode: "MIT's geniuses all have to start somewhere."

The episodes are available on MIT's YouTube channel, where the trailer has already attracted more than 25,000 views, as well as on OpenCourseWare, the school's initiative to make freely available most of its undergraduate and graduate course materials. There, MIT has also posted a complete guide to the experiments conducted in the class so that science teachers, especially high school instructors, can replicate the course.

Heather Haines, science department chair at the Community Charter School of Cambridge, first learned of the series last summer when she was planning an A.P. chemistry course for her high school students. "It was the first time we were having an A.P. class, and it seemed important to familiarize them with a college lab," she said. Earlier this fall she viewed several of the videos with her students, and liked that the clips stressed the importance of solving puzzles, not reaching perfection. Last week, Haines and her students watched a relevant episode on column chromatography before they conducted a lab experiment of their own using two compounds dissolved in Grape Kool-Aid. "The video does a beautiful job showing what molecules are actually doing on a column and also how long and challenging an experiment can be," Haines said.

Essigmann said as more episodes have aired, a number of high school teachers have contacted him about using the videos in their classroom. He's exploring ways to leverage this interest and recently invited Haines and her class to visit MIT and get to know the "stars" of ChemLab Boot Camp. The high schoolers may return in the spring to film with the MIT undergraduates in the lab, and "complete the loop" of learning, as Essigmann puts it. Later this fall, MIT will also debut two other educational outreach video projects, also funded by Dow: one will highlight the research of MIT professors and the other will explore what Essigmann calls the "chemistry behind the magic."

See more photos from the MIT Internet show here!

At the heart of ChemLab Boot Camp is suspenseful competition: Those students who passed the 5.301 course earned a coveted spot in the school's Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP), where students work in a research lab with MIT faculty.

With the emphasis on learning by trial and error, did anyone fail the class? Steve Carson, director of external relations for MIT's OpenCourseWare, is reluctant to reveal details. "I will say generally, it's a happy ending," he said.

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Students Dan Zang (left) and Hansol Kang (right) are two of the 14 freshmen who agreed to have their chemistry class taped for the Web-reality show ChemLab Boot Camp. (Photo: Courtesy MIT OpenCourseWare)
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