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May 13, 2023


Culture Editor JMU's Beer Chem lab allows students to brew beer while learning

Culture Editor

JMU's Beer Chem lab allows students to brew beer while learning about the chemistry behind it.

In a college town, someone can find beer at local breweries, house parties and probably in most off-campus apartments. However, on JMU's campus, beer can also be found in an unexpected place: a chemistry lab. And no, students aren't allowed to drink anything they make.

In 2017, professors Daniel Blumling and Christine Hughey in the Chemistry and Biochemistry Department created a new general chemistry lab. They, along with other professors, thought there was a better way for students to benefit from a three-hour, one-credit lab class.

The goal was to create a research-like experience for students taking a general-level class, Blumling said. After having meetings with their department, Blumling and Hughey nailed their idea — the science of brewing beer, or "Brew Chem," as they call it.

"We wanted students to be able to do something new, something that hadn't been done before," Blumling said. "And in chemistry, that's really hard to do."

It also made sense, Blumling said, because almost everything they’d use in the lab is food-grade, meaning it's non-toxic and safe to consume, so the equipment would be familiar and safe for students to work with.

Junior Mary Osazuwa took Brew Chem last spring as a biology major before switching to a psychology major, which, she said, was unrelated to her taking the lab. She said if she continued in the bio program, the class would’ve been beneficial because it was more research-based, where students ask their own research questions and perform experiments to explore their questions.

Osazuwa was initially drawn to the class because of the beer aspect, she said, but not because she necessarily liked drinking it — she thought the science behind it was fascinating.

"It is nice to have that hands-on approach, to be able to do that conditional research method when it came to creating beer," Osazuwa said.

After the lab was approved for the chemistry curriculum, Blumling and Hughey piloted the first sections of the class in the fall of 2019 before the COVID-19 pandemic.

The launch didn't come without challenges.

One difficulty, the professors said, was scaling down the brewing process. Beer is usually brewed in large quantities — much more than what students would need to make in the lab. Blumling said he worked to trim the process down to a more appropriate level while Hughey's expertise came in when deciding how and what processes and molecules would be analyzed.

The students only end up making about 50 milliliters, or one-eighth of a can of beer, Blumling said.

"There's less of a focus on the beer and more on brewing science … which is what we want," Blumling said. "We didn't want to be a class that celebrates beer."

Despite the beer-making volume obstacle, the lab grew in popularity. In the spring of 2023, there are 20 sections of Brew Chem with up to 24 students in each section. Blumling said he's seen firsthand how much students enjoy the class because they’re able to work in teams.

To receive concrete critiques, Hughey and Blumling, along with other professors and graduate students, wrote a paper on the implementation process of Brew Chem in which they collected student evaluations. After sorting feedback into positive and negative comments, they found students had an overall positive experience. Student's felt the class was hands-on and entertaining, they could be creative, create their own experiments and see the real-world effects of what they were doing in the lab, according to the research paper.

However, Osazuwa said while her experience was positive, she doesn't really understand why Brew Chem was incorporated into the curriculum.

"Sure, it was a fun, cool experience to be able to ferment beer and stuff out of, like, nothing, but I don't think it really added into the lecture component of that class," Osazuwa said.

The authors of the paper conducted a similar study that was also included in the final research paper. Pre and post tests were given to students in the Brew Chem lab and to those in the traditional lab to compare the test results. The test asked students to self-report how well they felt they could formulate a hypothesis, design an experiment, choose an appropriate experimental method, organize data and draw conclusions from that data. In all these tested areas, students’ performance increased after taking the Brew Chem lab.

Osazuwa said Brew Chem, with its more hands-on approach and the novelty of the beer, is definitely different from the more traditional labs. She said other labs can feel repetitive and boring, but brewing beer makes students more engaged.

Another thing Blumling said he's proud of is how the students are working in the lab for the whole two hours and 15 minutes as opposed to being given a set of directions to follow, completing the lab in 45 minutes and then struggling to understand the science later on.

"We keep them in the classroom where we as instructors and scientists can help them understand this process and grow from it," Blumling said, "which I think is a really valuable thing."

Hughey echoed this, saying "very little" work is done outside of the lab, and the lab's designed so students can get the majority of work done during lab time. She also stressed the importance of respecting students’ time and understanding this is only a one-credit general chemistry lab required for science-based majors.

Hughey said she thinks research-based lab experiences are the future of science programs, referring to other JMU biology labs that also take on this kind of approach — like a plant sampling lab, where students go to the Edith J. Carrier Arboretum and collect plants to take DNA samples.

Overall, Blumling and Hughey said the creation and implementation of Brew Chem has been positive. These professors have shown students there's a whole new way to use beer — and it can benefit their GPA, too.

"It's fun for the students, and it's fun for us," Hughey said.

Contact Avery Goodstine at [email protected]. For more on the culture, arts, and lifestyle of the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the culture desk on Twitter and Instagram @Breeze_Culture.

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