UCL: UCL Chemistry team wins award for students’ home science kits

A team of lecturers, lab technicians and students at UCL who worked together in developing and sending a new kind of chemistry set to students across the world during lockdown last year have been recognised with an award from the Royal Society of Chemistry.

Picture illustrating the Lab_14 collaboration
The team, whose project, called the Lab_14 Collaboration, represents a new way of thinking about undergraduate labs, has been awarded the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Horizon Prize for Education, which celebrates outstanding contributions to chemical science education.

The kits were comprised of a range of instruments – such as a pH meter, a clip-on microscope for a phone, kitchen scales, a digital thermometer and so on – which allowed students to measure the world around them and collect data to assess their findings. The focus was on improvisation with a mix of serious measurement and silliness built in.

Dr Liz Munday (UCL Chemistry), who helped look after the day-to-day running of the initiative, said: “Last year lessons were disrupted because of the pandemic. Our students couldn’t come in and make use of the university labs, so a group of us started an initiative which would help complete practical lessons from home.

“When lockdown struck, we didn’t want our students to be sat at home feeling disengaged or missing out on practical learning. The aim was for classmates to feel connected as a class, by carrying out the same experiments together despite being far apart.

“We purchased various pieces of chemistry equipment and put together kits which would allow our students to do measurements and different experiments at home. The boxes were shipped to students in the UK, as well as international students in locations such as China and Russia.”

Dr Munday added: “A lot of our lessons had real life applications. We’d assess the pH of tap water in different locations in relation to climate change, for instance. We asked students to measure global outdoor temperature, as well as calculating their carbon footprint.

“The feedback from students was so positive, they really appreciated being able to do practical lessons at home. An important aspect of Lab_14 for us was outreach. Students were able to show the science they were doing to family and friends and share the products of their experiments with those around them in households, for example, ice-salt mixtures are used to measure cooling curves of solutions, and the same ice salt mixtures can be used to make ice cream.

“This year our students are back on campus, but thanks to its success, we’re taking elements of the initiative forward. We’re continuing to provide kits to students so they can choose to do their own practical work or to make use of the university labs. A big part of the philosophy behind this is about making science accessible to everyone.”

illustration representing the Lab_14 Collaboration
Professor Andrea Sella (UCL Chemistry), part of the Lab_14 team, said: “We’re so delighted to have received an award, not least because it gives us an excuse for a party! Sure, parties are about celebrating success, but they are also an opportunity for our department to get together and chat. At a party ideas flow and who knows if something new will come of it, whether for teaching or research? New ideas are the way in which all of us learn, develop, and stay fresh.”
The Horizon Prizes for Education celebrate ground-breaking innovations and initiatives that mark a step change in education.

Judges were impressed by the reach of UCL’s work as packs were sent to students across the globe.

The Royal Society of Chemistry’s prizes have recognised excellence in the chemical sciences for more than 150 years.

Dr Helen Pain, Chief Executive of the Royal Society of Chemistry, said: “Our educators are some of the most important people in the sciences, nurturing and inspiring the next generation of talent who ultimately will help us further advance understanding of the world around us and help solve some of immense challenges facing the world today and tomorrow.

“The Lab_14 team have demonstrated an outstanding commitment to the chemical sciences, and it is our honour to celebrate their considerable contribution.”

The Lab_14 Collaboration was one of a number of innovative programmes at UCL that involved sending remote learning kits to students in the UK and around the world to ensure practical learning experiences could continue despite the restrictions of the pandemic. These programmes, used in 19 courses across seven faculties, were made possible thanks to £356,000 in funding.

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