Use of Computers and Computer Networks in the Physical Chemistry Laboratory and Lecture

Maria Pacheco

Department of Chemistry
Buffalo State College

Computers and computer networks in the physical chemistry laboratory have proven a powerful teaching tool. Network-available software included WordPerfect, Lotus 1-2-3, Excel, and MS Word, for the preparation of formal laboratory reports, data analysis, and manipulation. Spectroscopic and kinetic simulation programs are used for both presentation of concepts and for analysis of simulated experimental situations. E-mail is used for the distribution and submission of laboratory related announcements, schedules and assignments, as well as for communication between working partners. ERIC, Uncover, and FirstSearch systems available through the campus Local Area Network introduce students to database literature searches. Students perform searches for experiments related to current journal articles and submit critical analysis of the articles. Students join and report on the SAFETY and CHEMED electronic discussion groups. These activities dramatically change the laboratory structure and dynamics. They are powerful alternatives to conventional teaching.

Buffalo State College requires a one year upper level physical chemistry laboratory course for chemistry and chemistry secondary education students, with enrollment totaling between five and twelve per semester. Classified as writing intensive (at least 15 pages of original writing), it is part of the college-wide Writing Across the Curriculum Initiative. Students meet once a week for three hours and perform between six and eight physical chemistry experiments per semester, writing a formal laboratory report for each experiment. Course grades are determined from performance on electronic assignments, a final written examination and laboratory.

Project Description

Course introduction includes laboratory safety regulations, course outline, and grading policy. To assess students' Internet, Local Area Network, and software knowledge, a survey includes questions with answers ranging from "never used" to "expert level." Students work in pairs, so the survey results allow judicious pairing of students to enhance the work cooperative aspect.

The second week, students meeting in computer laboratories receive a brief hands-on introduction to the Local Area Network (LAN) and electronic mail. Having automatically obtained a mainframe account when they registered at their first use of their account, they receive a welcoming e-mail message; their first two assignment are to respond to that message, and to send a message to another member of the class. Handouts are detailed directions for the use of the e-mail system (Gold Mail), so students can refine their skills at their own pace. Most students already have experience with word processing and spreadsheet software, so no additional training is provided, but user's manuals for the software used (Lotus 1-2-3, Excel, QuattroPro, WordPerfect and MS Word) are made accessible, and I am available for consultation.

Prior to the third class, students learn via e-mail the identity of their partner, their experiment assignment, and their first network-related assignment. After logging in to the Buffalo State College (BSC) Butler Library through the LAN, students perform the following exercises:

  1. Familiarize themselves with the library's electronic catalog by conducting a title search for books in physical chemistry, reporting how many "hits" they got and choosing one of the books, for which they have to provide all relevant information
  2. Repeat their search in the BSC library and compare the results obtained from two other libraries in the Buffalo area (Canisius College and the University at Buffalo).

For the rest of the semester, the following assignments were given:

As part of your activities for this course, you will be writing analytical commentaries on recent journal articles dealing with the concept/procedure being presented in the laboratory that week. You will be required to write a summary and an analysis of the article. Analysis is the most important part of the assignment. Writing will be judged by clarity of presentation; include items such as target audience, your understanding of the paper's message, whether you learned something or not, and the article's relevance to the work being done in class.

All assignments are distributed and submitted via e-mail.

Specific search directions. For FirstSearch and Uncover and ERIC, the objective was to teach students how to access and utilize both search systems and to find a recent (five years or less) chemistry journal article dealing with the concept and/or technique they would utilize in the experiment to be performed that week. Following the steps described above for journal analysis, students were to access Sherlock; select C to connect to other databases; select choice 1, Carl/Uncover; follow the screen directions and select the GenSciIndex database; search for a paper dealing with viscosity; do the journal analysis as previously indicated. Below are the specific directions:

For your search using the system called FirstSearch, you should: access Sherlock; select C to connect to other databases; select choice 6, First Search; your authorization number is 100-096-519; your password or user id is SHERLOCK. You now have choices! You can either: in Topic Area, select #5, Education and within that choice, select the EducationInd; in Topic Area, select #8, General Science/Earth Science and within that choice you can select #4 (General Science Index) or #2 (Article1st). Whatever your choice is, your search will be for papers dealing with solution calorimetry. Make sure you indicate which database you chose. Also include in your analysis a 1-2 sentence statement telling which search system you liked better or found easier to use, Uncover or FirstSearch.

ERIC, the Educational Resources Information Catalog database for educational articles/papers, introduced the students to papers written specifically with an educational purpose as opposed to pure research papers. Criteria for choosing and direction for analysis were the same as for FirstSearch and Uncover. Instructions for students were as follows:

This search uses MIXTURES as your search word. You will select a paper presenting an experiment suitable for the physical chemistry laboratory. You will do the regular paper analysis, explaining why the experiment is appropriate for the Physical Chemistry level comment on the educational value of the experiment.
To access ERIC you can go to the CD ROM section of the library, or do the following: Turn on one of the networked PCs; on the first menu, select choice 1, General PC Software; on the second menu, select choice 5, CD ROM software; on the third menu, select choice 2, Educational Resources and WNY Library CD ROM. At this point choose ERIC and proceed to do your search.
When writing your paper, also present a short summary of ERIC and how many entries you found in your search.

Electronic discussion groups. To give students an idea of the workings of an electronic discussion groups, students were required to sign on to the CHEMED and SAFETY groups for a month, keep track of the topics discussed, and select and summarize and make a personal comment on the one they found most interesting.

Buffalo Free-Net. This is a free connecting service to the Internet, providing e-mail and other services. Students were required to visit the Free-Net site and present a brief description of the services available to members. This made students aware of their options on Internet after graduation.

Internet libraries utilities. This option is available directly from the library access page. Students were required to connect to a library in a different state, to describe the access protocol and do a search for physical chemistry books, reporting on the complete reference for the book of their preference.

Bulletin boards. Students selected a topic of their interest from the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency bulletin boards and briefly reported on it.

Other activities. Throughout the semester, LOTUS 1-2-3, QuattroPro, Excell, WordPerfect and MS Word were available for the preparation of their reports. They also had access to the McGrawHill Scientific Encyclopedia on CD ROM and simulation programs for spectroscopy and kinetics studies, among them Vibrational Modes and Atomic Orbitals (Physics Software) and Diatomic (Trinity Software). This semester students will be introduced to the World Wide Web to look for and work with Chemistry-related Web sites. Students enrolled in the lecture are the same as those in the laboratory, so cross-referencing between classes has been very easy.


The activities presented in this work have dramatically changed the structure and dynamics of the physical chemistry laboratory. Using a different avenue to fulfill the writing requirements of the course besides the writing of formal laboratory reports. students acquired electronic skills useful not just in this class, but also in other classes, and in some cases, in the workplace. Teachers and students have found these activities powerful alternatives to the conventional way of teaching the course.

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