Virginia Tech has announced that it will suspend operation of its Mobile Chemistry Laboratory (MCL) for the 2004-05 academic year due to lack of funding.
Since late 2000, the mobile laboratory has transported modern chemical instrumentation, computers, chemical equipment, and lab space to Virginia high schools lacking adequate laboratory facilities. Its use has spurred higher scores on the state's Chemistry Standards of Learning (SOLs). Despite its academic success, the program has not garnered program support from the state, though it has been requested for several years. Due to termination of federal grant support along with General Fund reductions to Virginia Tech's budget, the university is no longer able to support the program.
"Over the past five years, the Mobile Chemistry Lab has been an important part of the university's outreach program for Virginia's public schools," said John Dooley, vice provost for Outreach and International Affairs. "Its success in contributing to gains in SOL scores and heightened appreciation for the sciences is impressive. We're hopeful that recognition and appreciation for these successes will lead to the necessary investments to allow us to restore its critical services in the future."
Occupying a 78-foot tractor-trailer rig built at Volvo's New River Valley plant, the MCL has visited approximately 40 schools in Southwestern Virginia, Southside Virginia, and inner-city Richmond. It has been the site of more than 40,000 student-conducted experiments, and approximately 8,500 students have regularly used the program. Overall, it is estimated that more than 18,000 students have been introduced to the MCL's high-technology classroom on wheels.
"While universities in other states have attempted to reach out to high-school chemistry teachers, no university has done it the Virginia Tech way." said Larry Taylor, head of the Department of Chemistry. "From the outset, the department [of chemistry] knew that we did not want a traveling magic show that would impress but not motivate and teach the student as well as the teacher. The concept of visiting area high schools on a regular basis with a high tech laboratory, which is better than anything we have in freshman chemistry on campus, is truly novel. In addition to being scientifically and pedagogically sound, the Mobile Chemistry Laboratory is an economical way in which to bring quality instruction to all parts of the commonwealth."
The curriculum developed for use on the MCL supports the chemistry SOLs and serves to increase student knowledge of chemistry. Since its inception, the MCL has favorably affected student learning and SOL pass-rates. On average, schools participating in the MCL program saw a 20-point gain during the MCL's first year of operation, and 19 schools whose average pass-rate was previously 15.6 points lower than the state average saw their pass-rate rise to 1.2 points above the state average.
An outreach project of the Department of Chemistry, College of Science, Outreach and International Affairs, and the Virginia Tech Foundation, the MCL was conceived, designed, and implemented by Barbara B. Bunn, an instructor in the chemistry department, to provide top-level laboratory space for students, as well as innovative approaches to teaching chemistry. The lab targeted public schools with limited chemistry laboratory resources.
All high school teachers using the MCL are trained at summer workshops, and more than 60 teachers have been trained since 2001, while nearly 40 teachers have been trained in advanced workshops.
The MCL's team members besides Bunn, the DuPont Traveling Teacher, are Project Director Gary L. Long, who oversees the curriculum, organizes teacher workshops, and coordinates all MCL activities; Shad Derozier, a regional teacher and workshop director; support technician Mike Johnson, who organizes the chemical materials and equipment for the summer teacher workshops; Hunter Clayton, who drives the MCL and oversees its maintenance; and Vera Good, the project's administrator.