Alexander Farnsworth and Dr. Jennifer Nielson, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry
For several years Dr. Jennifer Nielson has conducted research with her BYU team in Kampala and in Mbarara, Uganda. The research focuses on teaching chemistry concepts using simple experiments in Learning Chemistry through Experimentation workshops. Chemistry education in Uganda has generally consisted mostly of rote memorization with limited experimentation. Needed were lab experiences to help students and teachers acquire a solid understanding of chemistry principles and skills. However, inherent risks exist in laboratory work; therefore, safety became the next key component in chemistry education.
Safety training is often lacking in developing countries like Uganda. But because the Ugandan government is changing its national chemistry curriculum and including more opportunities for secondary school students to participate in lab experiences, we saw an opportunity to connect lab safety and chemistry education. In our role of assisting in the curriculum changes, we became aware of many current common lab safety violations. For example, students pipette by mouth, work with open flames in the center of classroom desks, and wear no gloves or goggles while performing an experiment. Research about chemical safety in African university laboratories found compelling evidence that there isn’t a culture of safety in the lab.1
Since the summer of 2013, our team of chemistry faculty, students, and alumni from Brigham Young University has had a successful collaboration with Makarere University, Kyambogo University, and Mbarara University in Uganda. Previously the team had designed and presented 2-day teacher development workshops for secondary inservice chemistry teachers and pre-service university students studying to become chemistry teachers in Uganda. The design of the workshop is very specific and uses best practices from professional development literature. Results from the workshops suggest that teachers have improved their teaching practice as a direct result of participating.
The workshop objective is to help teachers incorporate simple experiments in their classes and labs so their students can explore chemistry concepts and develop critical thinking and analytical skills. These experiments are not intended to teach technical lab skills. They are meant to help students develop a solid understanding of chemistry principles that would enable them to choose a career in chemistry or other science field with the skills to solve persistent social or economic problems.
Our BYU team was now prepared to launch phase four: Safety Procedures in Chemistry Education. Our core idea was that science activities are safe provided that students and teachers are aware of potential hazards and take all necessary and appropriate precautions. We used as our template “Guidelines for Chemical Laboratory Safety in Secondary Schools,” which was new safety materials developed by the American Chemical Society and published August 2016. The guidelines detailed procedures for the acronym RAMP: Recognize hazards, Assess risks, Minimize risks, Prepare for emergencies. In July of 2017, we incorporated a newly designed safety component as part of the workshops and focused on the procedures developed by the American Chemical Society.
The preliminary assessment through post workshop surveys showed that the teachers found the safety component important as well as helpful. Most participants expressed intention to implement the RAMP system in their teaching. We are waiting for further results from this coming year to evaluate the short-term implementation of RAMP by these teachers.
Also through the practice of writing out RAMP safety assessments for workshop experiments (Figure 1), participant understanding of the RAMP program was assessed. It should be noted that separation of ‘Recognize’ and ‘Assess’ steps proved difficult for participants, as well as understanding of ‘Prepare’ within the context of preparing for accidents and not lesson materials.
While the initial implementation of the new safety curriculum has been promising, final conclusions about the effect on educator application have yet to be determined. More data is required to confirm that the teaching of safety from our workshop is affecting safety practices within schools. The next step is to follow up with teachers who underwent the training and observe lessons in their classrooms. This step will happen in the coming summer of 2018. Our BYU team believes in investing in STEM education and in the bright future of the field of chemistry in Uganda.