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Destroy, Build, Destroy



In new analytical chemistry class, students build their own lab instruments from scratch

by Tony Moore; video by Joe O'Neill

Conjure the classic image of chemistry students: They’re wearing crisp lab coats, staring at noxious solutions bubbling in beakers, taking measurements. Now picture them doing something else in the lab, something maybe unexpected: building their own instrumentation to take those measurements.

“One of the most useful skills you could have as a chemist is to know electronics,” say Professor of Chemistry Amy Witter, whose new analytical chemistry class, Destroy Build Destroy, has students constructing their own spectrophotometers. For the uninitiated, a spectrophotometer is a device used to measure light, allowing chemists to determine the concentration of chemicals in solution.

 “We are at the forefront of using this type of approach for teaching instrumental analysis,” Witter says. “Eventually, I’d like to make it into a class that they build instruments to take to the field.”

The practice of chemists designing their own equipment is a central tenet of the field of analytical chemistry, Witter’s specialty. And in Destroy Build Destroy, students are learning just how valuable the process can be toward developing a deeper understanding.

“Before this class, I didn’t really understand how [spectrophotometers] worked,” says Amanda Kale ’17 (chemistry). “[But] it’s really helpful, when you build it yourself. You have a much better idea of what’s going on than when you just push a button on a machine and write the value down.”

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Published December 2, 2016