The Chemical Educator, Vol. 6, No. 2, S1430-4171(01)02474-7, 10.1007/s00897010474a, © 2001 Springer-Verlag New York, Inc.
Laboratory Inquiry in Chemistry. By R. C. Bauer, J. P. Birk and D. J. Sawyer. Brooks/Cole, 2001, 229 pp. ISBN 0-534-37694-0.
One of the best things about this book is the fact that it has been written at all. This laboratory manual is presented in a fashion devoid of the recipes common in the traditional expository style of books for the laboratory course. It is good inspirational stuff, and even if you choose not to use it as the manual for your class, it is well worth the read to see how methods can be changed. Perhaps beforehand one might read an article by Daniel Domin on the changing style of laboratory manuals (Domin, D. S. J. Chem. Educ., 1999, 76, 543–547).
The introductory paragraphs set the style. The roles of the individual, the group in which the students work, and the instructor are all defined. There is a lovely analogy asking if your college basketball team has one ten-hour practice a week, or several shorter ones. This drew a wry smile from the senior high school teenagers that we know!
Forty-two “investigations” of varying difficulty follow; the first one is the usual sort of safety discussion. Unfortunately it was clearly the weakest section. It did not really maintain the style promised by the opening pages, and perhaps some creativity could make this necessary topic rather less dull. Don’t be put off! The next investigation (yuk, what a horrible word; why can’t we still call them experiments? Is it politically incorrect these days?!) is much better. The scenario is described in a couple of sentences, followed by a short and informative section, “Getting Started.” Many of the scenarios are very well posed, giving the group of students the best chance to buy into the problem at hand. A fine example is included in no. 36, where the students are asked to prepare a bill for the client along with the report.
Reading part of the way into the manual, it was obvious that instructors could use some supplementary information. There was no reference to an instructor’s version of the manual within the book. The Brooks/Cole website (www.brookscole.com) does have a list of contents, but getting there is probably Investigation no. 43 of the book! There are some additional “Preface Notes to the Instructor” on the web page and the promise of instructor’s guides (1–16 as of January 26, 2001) hidden behind a password that was not immediately obtainable. Three sample guides were accessible, which contain the specific details (recipes and content notes) needed to teach that experiment.
Even though we are familiar with working with groups of students in the laboratory and with experiments sans recipe, more supportive tips on teaching in this style would help. For example, there is a page devoted to every experiment for the students to identify the percent contribution of each member of the group. There are several ways to use this type of grading system—perhaps a suggestion or reference to literature sources would be helpful. Probably, many instructors would like some encouraging ideas to prevent groups degenerating into an exercise during which one person performs the experiment while three watch. It would be easy to see that some of the experiments might encourage this tendency, as all of them have an analytical or physical measurement flavor. There are no syntheses, and organic chemistry is not introduced.
One might be forgiven for believing that the authors are writing themselves out of business by generating a manual with less information in it than most. On the contrary , by buying this book, one is paying for creativity and new ideas, not words. In fact, the number of pages could be pruned further to save a few trees. The book is designed with tear out pages, which really are not necessary. The rest of the format is fine and the layout is quite functional for a laboratory setting. By contrast, the quality of the photography is very disappointing, both in subject and reproduction. For a book of inspiration in the year 2001, it is sad to see triple beam balances and ancient visible spectrometers featured. We all still use these workhorses, but we like to dream of better times!
So to sum up, this book is thoroughly recommended for all laboratory instructors, teaching at all levels, to peruse. If you are used to using a commercial manual, then this one has a bundle of creative ideas for the introductory college/university level.