Steve Haderlie has been a chemistry teacher at Springville High School for 29 years. At first glance, his classroom and laboratory are no different than any other typical high school science room: periodic tables, pictures of scientists, molecular models. But Steve has one tool that is rare, at least for now: Virtual ChemLab, software developed at Brigham Young University. ChemLab not only works as a pre-lab activity in his classroom, but it also serves to prepare the Advanced Placement students for the color identification and laboratory questions which appear on the national A.P. test each spring.
Although it should be admitted that there is no substitute for physically pouring liquids, ChemLab has several important advantages. According to Steve, Virtual ChemLab forces students to be creative in their thinking, and helps them move from just cookbooking to thinking on their own. And, as we all know, the ultimate goal is to develop students' thinking skills rather than grading how well they follow instructions.
Most students enjoy their virtual laboratory experience, but Steve's students did not all welcome the introduction to ChemLab with smiles and cheers. He estimates that approximately one-third of his students were initially frustrated. But, as all teachers know, persistence is key. One teaching assistant noted, "Rare is the student who has the ability (or even desire) to see why something is good for his or her learning . . . the teacher's job is to put the student through the motions, knowing that understanding will follow."
By the third lab, the students begin to experiment on their own and the nature of the questions begins to change. Steve notes, "With the ChemLab the students can see more chemicals. In class they will ask, 'What happens if I do this?' and my answer is, 'Well, go do it.' And they can and you don't have to worry about it. And that's really the whole point."