June 16, 2020
by Charis Lam, Marketing Communications Specialist
How one professor overcame the challenges of teaching chromatography remotely
When Widener University switched to online teaching, Chemistry Professor Scott van Bramer was stuck. He usually ran a chromatography lab for his upper-year students, where they designed their own experiments, taking shifts over an entire day to optimize an LC method. Without lab access, they lost this learning experience.
At first, Scott thought he would do the lab work himself: take the students’ plan, run the experiments, and show them the results. Not ideal, but at least students would get to make decisions and learn from real results. Then he learned that he wouldn’t have lab access either. For class material, that left “making things up and telling them [to the students]—but that’s really unsatisfying.”
To replicate the lab experience remotely, he looked for LC simulators. He found some online tools, but “there wasn’t really much going on there. There wasn’t much depth to what I could do in terms of changing parameters.”
Then Scott discovered ACD/Method Selection Suite. He’d heard about ACD/Labs before from using our ChemSketch software—which is free for educational use—and he contacted us to ask whether we could work with him to help his students. We sent him our software and some sample data.
Over videoconference, Scott shared a view of the software and data with his students. He brought up Method Selection Suite’s simulation tools and prompted the students to suggest changes to column length, temperature, gradient, etc. “All right, what should we try next?” he asked. And what effect did they think the changes would have? Then he ran the simulator. In seconds, his students saw the simulated chromatogram, and how it compared with their predictions.
“I think it helped them grasp what resolution means,” he said. “Conceptually that’s just a really difficult thing…and seeing it, seeing the peaks overlap or not…that worked really well.” His students were able to run far more “experiments” than they would have in the lab, since each simulation only took a few seconds rather than tens of minutes. They could also change parameters that weren’t possible in lab, because they had access to as many columns and solvents as the software had on record. “We were able to come up with a much more complicated, involved experimental design,” said Scott.
Of course, the students still missed out on the hands-on experience. As upper-class students, “they understand the value of doing [the experiment] yourself rather than watching somebody else do it. And they understand that having experience doing things will help them get a job when they finish.” No simulation can replace that.
Yet seeing professional simulation software—the same kind used in pharmaceutical and industrial labs worldwide—exposed the students to a novel experience that also reflected the working world. “It was pretty cool to have access to something that undergraduates wouldn’t normally see,” said Scott, “and that they wouldn’t normally learn about until they started working for a pharmaceutical company.”
Asked what advice he had for other professors teaching chromatography remotely, he laughed. “[I would tell them] not to teach remotely.” But if physical distancing continues or happens again, “I would be very interested in using this with the students again. I can’t think of another possible way for them to get at least some experience with experimental optimization and chromatography.”
Scott’s story is part of our mission to equip educators with online and computer learning tools. He used Method Selection Suite, which includes our LC and GC simulators. But we have many other software tools for online learning, covering drawing (free), naming, analytical-data processing, and prediction of NMR spectra, MS fragmentation, and physicochemical properties. To see all our resources, look at our software for scientific educators.