Expert Insights

So my approach to teaching is that I want students to be actively engaged with the material throughout the lectures, all the tutorials, all the workshops or whatever, and so I’m not giving didactic lectures, I’m not using lots of PowerPoint slides.  I’m giving them information. I’m describing things to them, but then I give them lots of examples and lots of things to do, lots of activities to do. 

It always seems like we're starting from further behind than a lot of the other sciences are because they seem to know less about chemistry when they get here.  If I say ‘think of a famous physicist’ you probably already have thought of three.  Then you could go outside and ask someone to think of a famous physicist and they'd probably think of at least one of the same ones.  You do the same thing with biologists.  If I say to think of a famous chemist … that's within chemistry circles, we can't do it.  We can name one but you know if you go out there and say, ‘Who is this person?’ they've got no idea.  So for some reason … we've never … chemists have never been able to popularise our topic, our content.  We've never been able to make it exciting enough that someone who is not studying it still wants to know about it.  And so I do think we've got a bigger challenge, for whatever reason.  Maybe there's something about chemistry that makes it less enjoyable, I don’t know.  There's definitely been an ongoing issue for us that it's not … people just don't know anything about it... Most people know Einstein's theory of relativity.  You don't see that really in everyday, go, "There's the theory of relativity at work." Newton's Law, sure, you see those and you … but, yeah, everybody knows Einstein.  And a lot of … I'll call them lay people, I don't like the term, but non-science people, could probably give you a hand wave explanation of what the theory of relativity is about, which is a pretty abstract thing.  I mean, if we think of the equivalent types of things in chemistry that are that abstract, nobody has a clue.  We teach them in third year to the remaining hard core people that are left. 

So you shouldn’t be rigid, you shouldn’t be rigid in what you’re going to do.  It’s always stunned me that people say you should know where you start a lecture and where you’re going to finish, and if you get to that point and you finish ten minutes early you then should just finish.  I’ve never worked on that principle.  I never know where I’m going to start because I never know where I’m going to finish, right.  So where I finished the lecture before is where I start the next day, I haven’t got a set content.  If a student asks me an interesting question and I get the feeling that they want to know that answer I’ll go off for five or ten minutes or three or four minutes answering it, and if I don’t get to the end of where I thought I was going to get to, too bad I’ll do it next time.  So you go with the flow, you don’t go with a rigid thing ‘I’ve got to get through these 15 slides today and if I don’t the world will end,’ because it won’t.

It is vitally important for their understanding of chemistry that they understand that molecules are three-dimensional things and that they have a spatial requirement in that they have a shape of their own and that shape will change.  They can't do higher level manipulations without an understanding of three-dimensional nature of molecules.

So the strategy is to reflect, to change things, to be flexible, to talk to them but not talk down to them, and certainly I would say to any young lecturer don’t be writing the lecture the night before. Know what your course is because then you can jump back and forth as you talk about something.  You can say yeah we talked about this a week ago or something like that, you know. Know what you’re going to talk about, the whole thing, because then you can put it all together as a package.

The difference between chemistry as it happens in a flask, chemistry as we show it on paper or in a textbook and helping students to understand that these are representations and they're conceptual frameworks that we use to understand our discipline and so helping them put those two pieces together.

I started lecturing before I did my Diploma of Education and I would have recommended to all of the lecturers to do it because it really helped me in my teaching.  Mind you, I already had a bit of experience, I don’t know, you know, the chicken or the egg type thing.

I find that some students pick up what the mole concept is from the idea of grouping numbers of things that are every day size. 

I think it’s a key teaching topic, also because it’s teaching students to look at data and to interpret data, to assess which part of that data is going to get them to the answer and which part is exquisite detail that they can come back to later on. 

I think what I try to get students to see is that we use models and you use a model, while it works. Then when it doesn’t work you develop a more sophisticated model, and what we’re doing now is developing a more sophisticated model of the structure of the atom, of bonding between atoms. So they find that difficult, the fact that you’re putting aside the model you used previously and developing a more sophisticated one. I think that’s something, it just knocks their confidence a bit. I think we’ve got to convince them that, actually, what your teachers told you at school wasn't wrong, it’s just that this is more sophisticated, that science is all about building models to explain reality.

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