Kitchen, the new lab


Be resourceful: Teachers can be creative in designing experiments with household items, cooking ingredients, fruits and vegetables. — 123rf.com

THE era of digital technology has provided us with many opportunities to achieve tasks we previously thought were impossible.

In tertiary education, technology has been used to create a better learning experience for our students. Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, educators globally were already adopting various forms of digital technology to engage students and stimulate their interests in learning.

The use of graphics, videos, animations and even gamification has proven to be more fun, engaging and interesting to students than traditional teaching and learning tools – which typically consist of words and diagrams.

Having had some prior online teaching experience, it wasn’t difficult for us to shift our classes and workshops online. However, for courses like pharmacy and other science-related subjects, the most challenging part of online learning is the hands-on practical sessions that require access to the laboratory.

How were we to migrate laboratory classes online? We were forced to think out of the box to develop creative ideas on delivery methods that did not compromise the learning outcomes.

I remember recording videos of lab practicals on how to make creams and ointments years ago. The videos were used as supplemental resources for students’ self-learning, on top of hands-on practical classes.

Students relished being able to replay the videos as it helped to reinforce the concepts learned. During the pandemic, the university was closed and lab access was prohibited. Watching videos alone would not have been sufficient in achieving the learning objectives. Hence, we explored bringing the entire hands-on lab practical lessons into the kitchen for first-year pharmacy students.

Students were given instructions on what kitchen utensils they needed – weighing balance, measuring jug and teaspoon – and cooking ingredients such as salt and sugar in place of the usual chemicals we have in laboratories. And, they would do the weighing, mixing, dissolving and calculations of solution concentrations in their own kitchens.

Despite the campus closure, we wanted to provide students with a fun and enjoyable experience of conducting experiments at home. It is well known that hands-on learning activities offer real-life experiences to students and improve the retention of information. Students should not be deprived of the joy of learning when classes are conducted online.

Online hands-on practical lessons are not limited to tertiary education. They can be easily extended to secondary and even primary school programmes. Teachers can be creative and resourceful in designing the experiments to make full use of household items, cooking ingredients, fruits and vegetables. While not every experiment can be conducted at home, the more straightforward tasks that do not involve specialised lab equipment are workable as home assignments.

For example, detergent and vinegar can be used as alkaline and acid, respectively; food dyes can be used as colouring agents; corn starch and ketchup can be used to represent different types of non-Newtonian fluids; liquid dishwasher and water can be used for teaching surface tension; syrup, water and oil can be used to create a solution with layers of different densities; and shampoo and corn starch can be mixed together to form clay. Cutting up a fruit and leaving it on the table can be used to explain the concept of oxidation.

Even a simple model of the human lungs can be built with just straws, balloons and recycled plastic bottles! The key is to identify suitable ingredients and tools at home to be repurposed in the experiments.

With Covid-19 still a threat, home-based learning is still ongoing as schools and higher education institutions reopen in stages. It will be interesting to see more creative and unorthodox teaching methods from educators across all levels and institutions as online lessons are expected to continue for some time to come.

School of Pharmacy senior lecturer Dr Alice Chuah Lay Hong teaches the BPharm (Hons) programme at Monash University Malaysia. The varsity’s “Transforming Education Through Trailblazing Innovations (TETI)” competition winner is an active researcher in pharmaceutical technology, nanomedicine, health and water literacy in rural areas. Her work has been published in international journals and book chapters. The views expressed here are the writer’s own.

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