Teaching and Learning Forum 97 [ Contents ]

Introducing second year chemistry students to research work through mini-projects

Jeffrey G. Dunn and David N. Phillips
School of Applied Chemistry
Curtin University of Technology

Various authors have described innovative changes to experimental design in undergraduate chemistry courses that involve some form of project type work. Merritt et al (1) changed the emphasis in their general chemistry laboratory classes to involve students in the planning of exercises. In their approach, students are allocated specific projects and work in group sizes of 14-16, where the primary emphases are on the interactive nature of laboratory research, and an insight to the type of work undertaken by chemists. They found that this approach gave the students both a sense of ownership of the project, and an improved mastering of the principles by talking to each other. Demczylo et al (2) have used applied research projects specifically in their analytical chemistry undergraduate course. Experiments such as EDTA titrations carried out routinely in weekly large group situations, are revisited by the students in smaller groups, where they derive a greater appreciation of the experiments when studied in far greater detail. Kirk and Hanna (3) have developed an interdisciplinary program where student groups are introduced to research skills in a formalised classroom setting. The projects given to students are based directly on the experiences of the faculty staff. Groups of students each study one aspect of an overall project, and the continuity is achieved by bringing the groups together at weekly research group meetings. More recently Juhl (4) has described an applied and cooperative teaching methodology, where students utilize group project teaching ideas, with local industry being involved in the educational process. Students were also assigned oral presentations and written reports. The benefits gained from such group participation were the fresh ideas gained in a team environment while, on the other hand, some students allowed their peers to carry out all the work.

The Inorganic Chemistry staff at Curtin University of Technology have planned units in the Applied Chemistry degree course which systematically help students develop a range of skills and techniques which will assist them in experimental program design and planning, an ability that they will need to use frequently either when they gain employment, or proceed into higher degree programs (5). Over the past ten years we have introduced students to so-called "mini-projects" in the second semester of second year. Here they gain their first insight to studying a chemistry-based problem prior to undertaking a major chemistry project at third year similar to that described by Chan and Lee (6) and Belliveau and O'Leary (7).

Student Program

In the mini-projects students work in small groups over a period of six weeks at 5 hours per week. This represents a deliberate sacrifice of standard laboratory exercises both in favour of giving students an introductory experience of the circumstances they will encounter with project work, and group interactions when they gain employment.

The class is divided into groups of 3 students with each group being given a different project. The marks obtained by the students in their first semester Analytical Chemistry unit (8) are used to categorise the students. Each group is quite deliberately structured to include students of a range of ability.

The mini-project title and a brief summary of its aims is handed to each group in the first week of semester. The mini-projects consist either of industrially based problems, improving current experiments in our second year Analytical Chemistry unit (8), or developing new experiments for future cohorts in Inorganic/Analytical Chemistry units. Typical examples of the topics issued to students, together with their aims, are shown in Table 1.

Table 1: Typical Project Titles and Aims

Development of Zirconia-Based Pigments. Australian Fused Materials produces zirconia at its Rockingham plant. One method of adding value to the zirconia would be to manufacture zirconia-based pigments. In this project you will prepare pigments of various colours at different temperatures and investigate the leaching of sodium at various pH values.
Synthesis of Basic Zirconium Carbonate. Hanwha Advanced Ceramics manufactures zirconia at its plant at Rockingham. The company wants to explore the possibility of manufacturing other chemicals from the process stream. In this project you will investigate the conditions necessary for the precipitation of basic zirconium carbonate from the starting material zirconium oxychloride. The product will be characterized using instrumental methods of analysis.
The Fire Assay of Gold. This technique is still the only acceptable legal method for the analysis of gold in gold-bearing minerals. You are required to investigate the fire assay method for the analysis of the sulfide and silicate gold ores supplied.
Analysis of Gold by an Alternative Method. It has been claimed that extremely accurate and precise gold assays may be obtained using a low temperature permanganate and hydrochloric acid digestion procedure followed by co-precipitation of the gold with mercury. You are required to investigate the accuracy and precision of the method on the gold ore provided.
Investigation of the Flocculation of Iron(III) Hydroxide in the Determination of Chromium in a Chromite Ore. During the determination of chromium in chromite in the exercise in Analytical Chemistry 201, the iron(III) hydroxide forms as a near colloidal size precipitate. You are required to identify a flocculating agent that will assist in producing a particle size that will easily settle and filter.
Evaluation of a Bauxite Ore for a Sample Preparation Exercise. The ore currently used in the Sample Preparation exercise in Inorganic Chemistry 301 is a nickel sulfide ore. Such sulfides are now classed as carcinogens and an alternative ore is needed. You are required to investigate a bauxite ore to display the aspects of sample preparation being sought.

Time is set aside in the first week for sufficient literature searching and group discussion so that the experimental program may satisfactorarily commence in the second week. Each group reports back to the class supervisor at the end of the first week to ensure they have achieved this goal. Some advice may be given by the supervisor at this point if considered necessary.

The next four weeks are spent on the experimental program, where they are taught professional practice by being expected to enter their results directly in a duplicate book and submit the duplicate sheet on completion of each week. In standard weekly laboratory experiments, students are provided with the required reagents. In these mini-projects the students are expected to prepare all their own reagents, including standardising any appropriate solutions. This is good practice for what they will encounter in their future employment.

Each group then has two weeks in which to submit a written report which is a joint report from the group, further encouraging interactive participation. Guidelines are given for the structure of the report including its categorisation and correct format for the literature cited. Common faults found in project reports are also outlined to the students. Reports on the industrially related projects are sent to the appropriate company.

In the final week each group makes an oral presentation to the whole class in the presence of the class supervisor. Stress is placed on professional presentations including the display of overhead transparencies, samples etc.

Three quarters of the assessment is based on a self and peer assessment system by the students. They are required not only to provide marks but also give a written explanation of the reasons for those marks. The students hand in their marks and comments independently. The contribution of the class supervisor represents the other one quarter of the final assessment in the form of an equal mark for the report for each student.


These mini-projects are thoroughly enjoyed by the vast majority of students. In a typical class of 18 students, only one will either not enjoy or encounter difficulty with this approach. The mini-projects provide an alternative experience for students to complement the standard laboratory exercises encountered in other sections of the course. They serve to introduce students on how to work in group situations, while also providing an insight to the type of work they will meet in their future employment as also described by Merritt et al (1). Juhl (4) cites the downside of such project work as some students allowing their peers to carry out all the work. We have continued our policy of deliberately categorising the groups as previously described. While the most able student might often act as a team leader, the moderate student tends to rise to the occasion. Our experiences have indicated that the self and peer assessment provides a driving force for all three students in the group to participate reasonable equitably in the project. Self and peer assessment allows the students to act in an adult and professional manner. Our experiences have indicated that they do show such a mature approach. There are safeguards in the system. In the event of one student being given particularly low marks, the other two students would be further interrogated to justify their reasons. The class supervisor is also very aware of the weekly input from all students. The assessment for the mini-project contributes 40% to the overall laboratory grade.

Student Comments

Typical comments made by the vast majority of students on their perception of the mini-project are:
"A pleasant change from set laboratory work. It makes for a more interesting laboratory and gives an insight to investigative work"

"The mini-project allowed us to show free thinking ability, learn problem solving techniques and gain an insight to working in a team"

"Learning to work in a team is helpful preparation for when we commence in the workforce."

"It was fun doing something different for a change. It prepared us well for our third year project.

"The mini-project was very interesting. The oral presentation was excellent as it gave me much more confidence in my communication skills"

Very occasionally we get a comment such as:
"There needs to be more time for the background preparation and the option for students to determine their own project"

"A choice in the project allocated would have made it better"

Typical comments of their views on the self and peer assessments system are:
"I thought that everyone in the group contributed equally to the success of the project"

"She was fun to work with, showed responsibility and often thought of alternative ways to overcome problems"

"A good worker, well organised and open to any suggestions"

"I played my part well, but overall it was a team effort"

Again we get the occasional comment such as:
"Although he did what was asked of him, his attitude and effort lacked a little"

"She was slightly lost at the beginning of the project in trying to understand what was required to fulfill the project"

The need for improved written and oral communication skills by Chemistry students has been outlined by many authors (9-12). We agree with Juhl (4) that the project approach provides the students with an excellent opportunity to write a formal report. We include abstract, introduction, experimental, results and discussion, conclusions, references and appendicies as basic necessities of this report. This will be the type of report required for their major final year project, that required by future employers, and for publication in professional journals. The inclusion of oral presentations in this unit some years ago arose directly from student requests. Our students each give a major oral presentation on a "Consumer Product" in an unit of the third year of the course. Their appreciation of this segment led to a virtual "demand" that more such presentations be allocated in the course. The mini-project seemed to be the ideal vehicle for meeting their wishes.


The mini-project concept provides an alternative teaching practice to routine weekly laboratory exercises, allowing for the students to experience a group working circumstance. It also helps prepare them for third year and postgraduate projects and gives a taste of what chemists actually do in the workplace. The self and peer assessment procedures give them the opportunity of acting in a professional and responsible manner, and motivates the more moderate students. Their written and oral presentation skills are also enhanced. Our students enjoy this activity, and it is highly commended by the School of Applied Chemistry's Advisory Board, which is primarily comprised of industrial chemists.

Literature Cited

  1. V. Merritt, M. J. Schneider and J. A. Darlington, J. Chem. Educ. 1993, 70, 660- 662.
  2. Demczylo, J. Martinez, A. Rivero, E. Scoseria and J. L. Serra, J. Chem. Educ. 1990, 67, 948-950.
  3. L. Kirk and L. F. Hanna, J. Chem. Educ. 1991, 68, 839-841.
  4. Juhl, J. Chem. Educ. 1996, 73, 72-77.
  5. G. Dunn, D. N. Phillips and W. van Bronswijk, J. Chem. Educ. (in press).
  6. H. Chan and A. W. M. Lee, J. Chem. Educ. 1991, 68, 647-649.
  7. F. Belliveau and G. P. O'Leary, J. Chem. Educ. 1983, 60, 670-671.
  8. G. Dunn, L. R. Mullings and D. N. Phillips, J. Chem. Educ. 1995, 72, 220-221.
  9. C. Werner, J. Chem. Educ. 1986, 73, 140-141.
  10. Van Orden, J. Chem. Educ. 1987, 64, 506-507.
  11. A. Bailey and C. Geisier, J. Chem. Educ. 1991, 68, 150-152.
  12. Beall, J. Chem. Educ. 1991, 68, 148-149.
Please cite as: Dunn, J. G. and Phillips, D. N. (1997). Introducing second year chemistry students to research work through mini-projects. In Pospisil, R. and Willcoxson, L. (Eds), Learning Through Teaching, p271-275. Proceedings of the 6th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Murdoch University, February 1997. Perth: Murdoch University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1997/dunn3.html

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