What is Small-Scale Chemistry?

Small-Scale Chemistry is an innovative, holistic, digital, user-friendly, transparent, quantitative, and cutting edge approach to engage students in experimental chemistry. It provides a solution to most of the problems associated with laboratory instruction. Small-Scale Chemistry is the outcome of over 30 years of research and testing and has been used for 15 years in the first year chemistry program (over 3,000 students each year) at Colorado State University and other institutions such as Pennsylvania State University and Oregon State University. Small-Scale Chemistry involves the use of non-traditional methods, apparatus, and techniques that have been developed in microbiology, molecular biology, and nano-technology research. The thrust of this research has been to obtain and analyze the maximum amount of information, in the simplest way, at the lowest cost, safely.

Small-Scale Chemistry Philosophy

The essential features of Small-Scale Chemistry are:

  • A scaling down of chemical reagents to volumes and masses one thousand times smaller than those used in traditional labs.
  • A shift from glassware to modern polymer or plastic materials in transfer, storage and reaction devices.
  • The use of multi-sample observational tools which allow rapid, intuitive preparation, variation and comparison of chemical systems in all phases: gases, liquids and solids.


All of the equipment for Small-Scale Chemistry is extremely inexpensive as it is designed for single use and disposal, but the student can re-use it. A complete set of apparatus costs under $10 and is available through common distributors of scientific material.

Well trays and microliter burets

Why Small-Scale Chemistry?

Almost all post secondary science courses include a required laboratory component. Enrollments in these laboratory courses, particularly first year general chemistry courses, are very large, perhaps exceeding 500,000 students nation-wide, and are increasing yearly. These increases are due to an increasing number of college age students and significant increases in the number of students taking first year chemistry courses in community colleges and technical schools. It is important to emphasize that less than 2 percent of these students will major in chemistry and that only about 25 percent will take more than one year of chemistry.

Unfortunately, there are many problems associated with teaching quality instructional chemistry laboratories, most of which are directly responsible for the high cost of these courses. (Click here for a discussion of costs of traditional instructional laboratories). In spite of the high costs, most accreditation organizations insist on first year laboratory instruction. Most faculty strongly believe that in an experimental science like chemistry, students should develop a good grounding in laboratory work, and most students enjoy their lab experiences. In fact, a consensus has developed among science and technology educators and industry leaders that quality laboratory experiences are crucial to the recruitment, retention, and development of all students, including those in non-science areas such as business and law. It is time to analyze and establish a clear account of the direct and indirect costs of laboratory science and to introduce a creative and innovative alternative to the traditional first year chemistry laboratory.

Why Small-Scale Chemistry?

Small-Scale Chemistry has proved to be much more cost effective and safer for the student, the instructor and for the institution. The generation of wastes is reduced dramatically and disposal costs are almost zero. The source reduction principles of “Green Chemistry” are designed into all of the experiments. The small quantities of chemicals used results in a significant reduction in solution preparation time and small inventories reduce storage costs. Scaled down inventories also allow for “Just-in-time” ordering. In Small-Scale Chemistry, we rely on the power of chemistry itself, in the form of molecular probes, to develop instruments which students can quickly build, use and apply. These molecular sensor systems can probe the emission and absorption of light, heat and electrons, which report the binding and linkage of atoms, ions and molecules. Using this approach, we have developed one dollar pH meters, balances, potentiometric probes, spectrometers, gas chromatographs, and thermal probes. The laboratory in Small-Scale Chemistry (i.e. the place) is an 81/2″ x 11″ plastic file protector covering a stiff plastic sheet and a wide variety of inserted templates designed for specific experiments. This observational platform is called a “lab-top”and it allows chemistry to be carried out in virtually any location and environment. The Small-Scale Chemistry approach allows educators to break free of the myth that doing modern, meaningful chemistry necessarily requires very expensive tools.

Vama Robinson Discusses Small-Scale Chemistry

Small-Scale Chemistry is a simple, yet sophisticated approach to reducing the costs of teaching laboratory chemistry. After adoption of Small-Scale Chemistry in the first year chemistry program at Colorado State University, consumable costs were reduced from approximately $70,000 to $3,000 and waste disposal costs of $10,000 were virtually eliminated. We have taught lab courses in ordinary classrooms and designed low cost work stations for integrated laboratory courses. The technology, scale, safety and low cost of Small-Scale Chemistry make it possible to increase the student/instructor ratio, further lowering costs and increasing efficiency. All this has been done without sacrificing rigorous content, sound pedagogy, or student interest. In fact, many areas of chemistry that were previously inaccessible for cost or safety reasons can now be included in student coursework. The costs of transition from the traditional approach to Small-Scale Chemistry are extremely low, primarily because of scaling factors. The simplicity, elegance, flexibility, and low cost of Small-Scale Chemistry allows any instructor to develop a complete lab course tailored to address student and institutional needs in a short time and with minimal resources.

Catherine Etter Discusses Accessibility

Small-Scale Chemistry Solutions Videos

An Integration of Theory and Practice

What You Can Do With Small-Scale Chemistry

Solutions and Reactions: Small-Scale Chemistry in the Community College

Being There: Students Learning Chemistry

Small-Scale Chemistry Textbooks

Thompson, Stephen, CHEMTREK: Small-Scale Experiments for General Chemistry, Prentice Hall, 523 p., 1990. (PDF version) (Printed copy available at the NSEOC Library)

Thompson, Stephen, Jacqueline Resseguie, and Lynne Judish, Laboratory Technical Manual for CHEMTREK, 2000. (PDF version) (Printed copy available at the NSEOC Library)

CHEMTREK Equipment List (PDF Version)

Waterman, Edward L. and Stephen Thompson, Small-Scale Chemistry Laboratory Manual–Teacher’s Edition, Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 335 p., 1995. (Printed copy available at the NSEOC Library)

Waterman, Edward L. and Stephen Thompson, Small-Scale Chemistry Laboratory Manual–Student’s Edition, Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1995.

Thompson, Stephen and Joe Staley, Powerful Pictures, 357 p., 2005. (PDF Version)

Benefits of Small Scale Chemistry

Cost Comparison for Small-Scale versus Traditional Instructional Chemistry Laboratories

Introduction and Methodology

This report is intended to provide cost data for those interested in Small-Scale Chemistry methods for educational laboratories. Interested parties may include chemistry department chairs, teaching faculty, laboratory coordinators and technicians, deans for instruction and other administrators.

Aiming to develop a realistic strategy for assessing and comparing the costs for instructional chemistry laboratories we developed took the following steps:

  1. A survey of the content of first-year, two-semester, science major courses as represented in five best-selling chemistry texts including those authored by Chang, Lemay and Brown, Burton, Jones and Atkins.
  2. A survey of approximately 70 syllabi from Chemistry courses at community and technical colleges across the United States to determine what topics were typically included in the laboratory content of the course.
  3. A complete costing of Small-Scale Chemistry (SSC) laboratories and experiments carried out in a current integrated laboratory/lecture program at Colorado State University and also at a similar program at Front Range Community College, Larimer campus, using CHEMTREK as a laboratory manual.
  4. A complete costing of Traditional Chemistry (TC) laboratories and experiments which correlated with the content of the Small-Scale laboratories and experiments. Based on the results of the surveys mentioned above, common traditional experiments were selected and then taken from a representative and recent best-selling laboratory manual (Olmstead and Williams.)
  5. Costs were compared and additional data on costs was gathered to further elucidate the information.

In order to achieve a reasonable and realistic comparison of costs, we defined three categories for chemistry laboratory consumables, equipment and instrumentation, which reflect the rationale for purchasing and the studentís use of materials. They are:

  1. Capital laboratory equipment, defined as materials which are purchased for initial laboratory set-up including items typically found in a “student drawer” (traditional) or “student kit” (SSC) and used more than three times during a semester.
  2. Consumables, defined as the chemical reagents and other non-reusable items depleted while conducting experiments.
  3. Equipment purchased for specific experiments and used only once or twice during a semester, but that is necessary to carry out experiments on a specific topic. This category includes a five percent breakage rate calculation.

Kathy Carrigan Discusses Cost Benefits

The cost comparisons between SSC and traditional approaches were based on experiments as detailed in the two representative laboratory manuals. The topics covered in these experiments reflect content typically delivered during the lecture portion of a first-year chemistry course. It is important to emphasize that the choice of what to include in the laboratory portion of the course depends on many factors such as: what equipment is already in-house, the cost and ease of acquiring new equipment, the background and interest of the laboratory instructor, and the availability of lab technicians and other support staff. Informal surveys and discussions with many community college and university faculty suggest that a minimalist approach often occurs. Experiments are often conducted in a “dry-lab” format or are simulated, or they are really demonstrations, or they are conducted very infrequently, perhaps once every 3 or 4 weeks. Problems are often exacerbated by the fact that adjunct or part-time faculty are often hired at the last minute to teach labs. Therefore there is a great variety in the laboratory programs of traditional first-year chemistry courses. For comparative purposes, we have attempted to define a typical set of experiments based on our surveys.

The Small-Scale approach allows students to do more chemistry and to do experiments that cannot be done by traditional methods either because they are too dangerous or are far too expensive. Also included in the cost data is information for Small-Scale Chemistry experiments, used at Colorado State University, which do not have a counterpart in a traditional laboratory course.

Summary of Capital Laboratory Equipment Costs

The traditional chemistry laboratory at most universities and community colleges is organized around the use of an inventory of macroscopic, ëclassicalí equipment kept in student drawers or lockers. Students are often asked to pay for any breakage of this equipment and draconian measures are used to ensure that this occurs. Storage and tracking of the inventory represents an extremely insufficient and expensive mode of utilizing apparatus and space. The design and construction of instructional laboratories is often dominated by the necessity for large numbers of storage drawers or lockers. The cost of purchasing this inventory of traditional equipment is over $50,000 per 25 students or around $800 per student. This does not include the cost of securing and storing the equipment or replacing broken or lost items. Even if a multi-use system is created, the cost of purchasing and replacing broken glassware is prohibitive. In contrast, the SSC laboratory kit costs $24 per student. At Colorado State University, we are able to store equipment for 100 students in a small cupboard. Many students opt to keep their kit and bring it to the laboratory each time. Front Range Community College is able to recycle 75% of each SSC kit each semester, reducing their cost to $6 per student. In summary, the cost for a TC student ëdrawerí of equipment is roughly 32 times higher than the cost of a SSC ëkití and this comparison does not include the cost of storing and securing the equipment.

Capital laboratory equipment costs for the other expensive instrumentation such as balances, spectrometers and pH meters is much less for SSC because students often build their own instruments. The number of other instruments required, such as analytical balances and hot plates, can be reduced because of the small footprint of containers in SSC and the ease of weighing and heating small amounts. In summary, the total cost for the basic inventory of laboratory instrumentation is about four times higher for traditional chemistry than Small-Scale chemistry.

Jolanta Lelinska Discusses Cost Benefits

Summary of Consumable and Experiment Specific Equipment Costs

The Laboratory Content, Consumables and Experiment Specific Equipment Cost Correlation data was based on a standard classroom size of 25 students and experiments as represented in CHEMTREK and CHEMISTRY: THE MOLECULAR SCIENCE. Content correlation was achieved for 14 major topic areas, but often there was not a correlating traditional experiment for topics covered in many SSC experimental series presented in the CSU course. The total consumables cost for 2 semesters of SSC are $4 per student, compared to $109 per student for the traditional course. Total experiment specific equipment costs for SSC were $42 per student versus $1063. It is 25 times less expensive to do SSC than TC. We analyzed the costs for the additional SSC experiments (approximately 42 experiments organized into 7 chapters) that do not have a traditional correlation. These were an additional cost of $1.27 per student for consumables. The cost of traditional experiments covering the same content is not available because they are not done due to exorbitant instrumentation costs and safety concerns.

Notes on Other Costs not Detailed in this Report

The cost of treating waste generated by instructional laboratories and the cost of properly disposing of non-treatable hazardous waste is a rapidly growing concern. The environmental costs of educational laboratories that do not comply with proper disposal methods are escalating, although hard to specify. Many educational institutions, especially those in small towns, are often the worst polluters of local water systems. Traditional Chemistry experiments generate gallons of waste. State and federal environmental agencies are increasingly enforcing compliance in the disposal of this waste and this will present an additional cost to these departments.

The design of SSC experiments incorporates several important principles that reflect the application of the green chemistry philosophy to the instructional context:

  1. Personal and environmental safety was designed into experimental work in the developmental stage rather than the execution stage.
  2. Resource consumption was kept to an absolute minimum and at the same time student engagement and learning were maximized.
  3. Inventories of waste, hazardous or otherwise were maintained by students as an on-going, integrated part of the learning process.
  4. Alternative strategies for chemical synthesis, analysis and application were devised which emphasized the use of less material, less risk at each process step, and re-use and recycling of material at all levels.

The results in terms of cost-saving are significant. SSC courses typically produce so little waste that most of it can be treated on-site and disposed properly and easily. One section of 25 students in a SSC lab generate less than 1 pound of waste per year that requires disposal by Environmental Health Services. This amount represents less than .001% of the total hazardous waste generated per year by all departments at Colorado State University.

Another important cost not detailed in this report is that of studentís safety and the cost of liability for instructional laboratories. TC labs, due to large quantities of chemicals used and the prevalence of sharp glassware, generate enormously greater risk than SSC laboratories. Epidemiological studies of instructional laboratories reveal that the three most common injuries are cuts from broken glassware, burns from bunsen burners, and chemical burns from concentrated acid spills. It was beyond the resources of this study to assess the costs associated with the treatment of student injuries and the liability costs in both insurance coverage and potential lawsuits. It is important to note, however, that in over 30 years of use at Colorado State University, no student has required professional medical treatment and no legal action has been initiated as a result of using Small-Scale Chemistry.

Dale Scoggin Discusses Environmental Issues and Waste