Citing costs and a lack of evidence that traditional labs increase student learning, experts say instructors need to make improvements.

Depending on the size of the college, hundreds or even thousands of students will take an institution’s general chemistry labs each semester. The dedicated lab space, equipment, reagents, waste disposal, and instructional time required to accommodate that many students, typically in their first or second year of study, make general chemistry labs among the most expensive educational undertakings on a university campus.

Because of these costs, some instructors and administrators question the labs’ value, particularly for students not majoring in chemistry. Oftentimes, general chemistry labs teach what educational experts refer to as “cookbook chemistry”—prescribed experiments in which students follow a set of instructions to achieve a particular outcome. Research backing up the assumed educational benefits of these labs is limited at best, critics say.

This scrutiny of general chemistry labs is coming to a head thanks to the pivot to remote learning that most colleges have made in response to the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Campus shutdowns mean that labs can’t be done in the usual way. Chemists who advocate alternative approaches to lab courses and who conduct research on teaching and learning are worried that the current situation could provide ammunition for people who want to eliminate general chemistry instructional labs.

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