Getting Creative with Chemistry – Karen Foss

While the COVID-19 pandemic has deeply impacted student learning experiences across the country, Senior Lab Instructor Karen Foss, hasn’t let it stop her from providing chemistry students with a quality learning experience. Foss has been a senior chemistry lab instructor at Cape Breton University for more than 30 years and is currently teaching Organic Chemistry 1 and 2 labs, as well as General Chemistry 2 labs.

When the pandemic caused classes to be moved online, Foss realized there would be a certain set of challenges to overcome in order to provide her students with an organic lab experience from the confines of home. No stranger to adaptability, Foss decided to gather the necessary materials to create a lab of her own and record videos for her students. “I borrowed lab equipment and glassware from CBU, but I needed a lab bench on which to conduct my experiments,” explains Foss. “I tried using an old desk but it was too low, so I placed the desk on four paint cans and then it was the perfect height to be a lab bench.” 

Foss also purchased plastic totes and prepared take-home kits for her students with all of the necessary equipment. “This allowed me to provide the hands-on learning experiences our students have come to expect at CBU,” says Foss. “I also made lab videos that outlined specific experiments for each of their practical exercises.” 

Face-to-face interactions with her colleagues and students is one of the things Foss misses  since the transition to online teaching. “I am very lucky to have a job where I get to meet, and then get to know, a new group of young people each year,” says Foss. “I greatly miss the positive energy I would get from my students in person.”

Despite the challenges of being physically separated, Foss believes her online organic chemistry students have shown excellent progress toward mastering the practical skills necessary to work in an organic chemistry lab. “The students seemed to really appreciate the lab component of the course,” adds Foss. “Some of them even thanked me when the lab was over!” 

One piece of advice Foss would like to give both online learners and students in traditional learning environments, is that you will do well if you work hard and ask for help when you need it. “The biggest hurdle that new students often have to overcome is their reluctance to ask for help,” adds Foss. “Faculty is the most underutilized resource for many students, so ask us for help when you need it!”