Chemistry Trio at Colorado State University Wins Science Magazine Prize for Innovative Undergraduate Laboratory Module

Note to Reporters: A copy of the Science essay is available at

Memo to the Colorado State University students taking Chemistry 112: Come prepared to think.

Students in the course are challenged to use experimental evidence to figure out what’s happening with atoms, molecules, and ions – unlike most traditional laboratory courses that tell students what results to expect.

Dawn Rickey, an associate professor who co-developed the concept for the Model-Observe-Reflect-Explain (MORE) lab modules as part of her doctoral work, has done research showing that students’ understanding of science is improved when they engage in these activities.

Rickey’s essay about the teaching approach and the newest CHEM 112 laboratory module “Exploring Gold Nanoparticles” – developed with Ellen Fisher, chair of the Chemistry department, and Colin Blair, a former graduate student of Rickey’s – recently won the Science magazine Prize for Inquiry-Based Instruction. The essay, titled "Discovering Nanoscience," appears in the Friday, Aug. 31 issue of Science.

About 1,400 students take the entry-level Chemistry 112 course at CSU in any given year.

“You have students discover things for themselves as opposed to telling them how things work,” explained Rickey. “They’re constructing explanations and revising explanations of what’s happening based on evidence as opposed to traditional instruction – where you tell students the models and what’s expected to happen and they confirm it by doing experiments in the lab.

“Students learn to think more like scientists. Research shows that students understand the ideas better if they learn them through inquiry.”

Science created the Prize for Inquiry-Based Instruction for introductory college science courses and advanced high school courses to “encourage innovation and excellence in education by recognizing outstanding, inquiry-based science and design-based engineering education modules.”

In February, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology submitted a report to President Obama on how to produce an additional one million college graduates with degrees in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education. One of the five recommendations was “advocate and provide support for replacing standard laboratory courses with discovery­based research courses.”

At CSU, Rickey has designed the Chemistry 112 course so students articulate their own ideas about what they think is happening on the molecular level and then conduct experiments to test their ideas. Students then reflect upon the evidence they collect, and use it to support or revise their initial ideas.

Rickey’s former master’s student at CSU, Colin Blair, who has since graduated, helped develop and teach the Science prize-winning module in which undergraduate students construct their own evidence-based models of gold nanoparticles.

Blair adapted and tested experiments that would help students learn a technique that is often used by scientists who study nanotechnology. In addition, using gold nanoparticles, students design a pregnancy test to identify synthetic urine samples with pregnancies.

“In the real world, they’re going to be facing problems no one else has seen and thought about,” Blair said. “They need to know how to solve those problems and that’s something you don’t get from a traditional lab.”

“These teaching methods have been shown to be more effective for learning,” Rickey said. “If we can successfully produce more high-quality science and engineering majors, that is likely to improve the country’s competitiveness.”