Teaching and Learning Forum 97 [ Contents ]

Chemistry Demonstrators' Workshop

Mauro Mocerino, Peter Sheppard and Barry Thornton
School of Applied Chemistry
Curtin University of Technology


Laboratory classes are an important feature of most, if not all, chemistry courses. However, much of the supervision and instruction of undergraduate students in their laboratory classes is carried out by Honours and post graduate students. Traditionally, these student supervisors (demonstrators) have been given little or no training on how to effectively supervise or teach students and much of their knowledge is based on what they themselves experienced as students. Consequently, as a group, their perception of what is required of a laboratory demonstrator is often very varied. In the first year laboratory classes the demonstrators are usually Honours students who have had no experience of laboratory teaching. This is a major concern as it is the first year students who are least experienced in safe laboratory practices and therefore require most supervision. It was this concern in particular, which lead to the development of a "Demonstrators' Workshop" in which students were given training to be good demonstrators.

Course Structure

The course was presented as a full day workshop for people who were either teaching in laboratory classes or had intentions to do so and was attended by Honours and post-graduate chemistry students from Curtin and UWA. Students from Curtin who attended the workshop were given first preference for demonstrating positions, while UWA, students were eligible for the "Best Demonstrators' Prize" only if they attended the workshop.

The general objectives for the course were two fold. The first was to address the safety issues associated with laboratory classes and the second to provide the new demonstrators with some teaching hints/skills. Some specific points included identifying and avoiding hazardous situations, basic first aid, demonstrator's rights and responsibilities, what makes a good demonstrator and how to stimulate students.

The workshop commenced with a session which concentrated on safety issues, particularly how to avoid accidents. Rules and practices for safe laboratory conduct were introduced, and although, some of the more common safety rules were well known to the demonstrators a re-examination of the rules highlighted the importance of safety in the laboratories. Potentially hazardous situations were identified through a series of examples and scenarios. Some of these examples included a description of past accidents and a discussion on possible measures which could have been taken to avoid such accidents. Sources of information on the hazards of chemical substances were introduced, for example, laboratory safety texts, chemical hazards texts, videos and MSDS databases. Finally, the rights and responsibilities of the demonstrator were outlined. The issue of "duty of care" was of particular importance and was discussed in detail.

The question of what to do in case of an accident/emergency was addressed with some basic first aid. Comprehensive first aid was beyond the scope of the workshop and instead, emphasis was on what should be done by the demonstrator for the patient before the arrival of professional help. Demonstrators were instructed on what to do in case of a student collapsing, having a fit or an asthma attack. Preliminary treatment for accidents like cuts, chemical splashes and burns was also covered. The education session took the form of an open discussion in which all members of the group were encouraged to provide information on their views of various aspects of laboratory teaching. Some of the issues discussed included the questions "why have laboratory classes?" "what is the role of the demonstrator?" and "what makes a good demonstrator?" Responses to these questions were quite varied and produced very lively discussion and debate. The question of what makes a good demonstrator was approached from the perspective of asking the workshop participants to recall the best demonstrator from their own undergraduate experience and then explaining why this person was considered the best; that is, what were their qualities which made them stand out? During the discussions it became apparent that most people had different answers to these seemingly simple questions and this highlighted the need for laboratory supervisors to be flexible in their teaching approach. The workshop concluded with a short session of some "what would you do if.....?" scenarios. Again, these produced good discussion and some debate.

Course Evaluation

Feedback from the participants has indicated that the workshop was very useful and well organised. The course content and organisation received average scores of 4.1 and 4.3 respectively, on a scale of 1 to 5 (very poor to very good). Participants were also asked to provide some comments on aspects of the content for future workshops. The questions and the main responses are listed below.

What aspect of the course did you find most useful? discussion format (11),
what makes a good lab supervisor (9),
legal and safety issues (9)
teaching skills (8).
What aspect of the course did you find least useful? first aid (13) [too little information (7) and known material from first aid training (6)].
Would you have liked to receive more information on any of the topics covered in the course? Please specify. first aid (7),
safety/chemical hazards (4),
rights and responsibilities (3)
"What to do if..?" scenarios (2).
Was there anything omitted from the course which you feel should have been included? Please specify. communication skills (4) [giving effective prelabs (2), giving precise instructions (2)],
safety issues (4) [chemical storage (2), demonstrations of safety procedures (2)]
more academic staff involvement (3).


Given the very positive feedback from all involved, it is intended to make this workshop an annual event. Furthermore, since the content of the workshop is directly applicable to virtually all science laboratory classes, invitations to attend will be extended to other science departments within the universities in Perth. It is recommended that demonstrators attend the workshop at least once every two years to maintain their skills and knowledge.


We gratefully acknowledge financial support from the Quality Office at Curtin University for a grant from the Round 2 Quality Funds. We also thank Drs R. Bucat, B. Rohl, and M. Zadnik and Ms M. Smith for their valuable contributions to the success of this workshop.

Please cite as: Mocerino, M., Sheppard, P. and Thornton, B. (1997). Chemistry Demonstrators' Workshop. In Pospisil, R. and Willcoxson, L. (Eds), Learning Through Teaching, p227-228. Proceedings of the 6th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Murdoch University, February 1997. Perth: Murdoch University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1997/mocerino2.html

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