Expert Insights

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. 

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.

Try to show students that the fundamental form of matter is energy. Then that this can be represented as particles with mass or as waves (wave functions). Then try to show them that we use the model particle/wave that best helps us understand different phenomena. In class I often do this by asking questions about wave mechanics in particle terms. eg. If a 2s orbital has a node how can the electron pass accross it? Then explain to them the limitations and advantages of each approach.

I want them to get the big picture about what analytical chemistry is about in terms of solving an analytical chemistry problem.  They need to know the big picture rather than just focussing on the measurement step.

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 really important that people mark assessments.  Mark, and see what the students actually end up knowing.  Because they can pretend to themselves that students have understood everything, but if they actually have to mark the exam papers, or the quizzes, or whatever it is, they actually are confronted with the students actual knowledge.  I think that’s really influential.  The second semester of teaching, when you think you’ve explained things well, and then 90% of the class have not got it, then it’s not the students fault at that point, it’s probably your fault.  So I think that assessment is really important.  Not only for the students, but also for the marker.  I think you can learn a lot from marking.

The concept of a continuum is, I think, really important in chemistry and… what I see is that students come up with this issue of things being black or white.  They struggle with this concept of the in between stuff.

I remember when I was taught this, that the only definition we were given was Le Chatelier’s actual definition, or his principle, and I remember reading that language and going geez, that’s really hard to follow as a student, so I used to always try and present that and then break it down in to a more simple sort of version that I thought would be easier to understand.

I changed my method of teaching to be a team-based learning approach where in fact as teams they are responsible to each other within the team for their level of engagement or for what they put into that team and if they don’t put in what the team thinks is useful then they get marked on that, their peers mark them on how much they’re contributing to the team’s goals.  So rather than me as the educator saying you need to do this and you need to do that, in fact the system is such that as a team they’re responsible for a certain outcome and the team must achieve that outcome and so they need to work together.  For the students who don’t put in as much as the team expects of them then there is peer pressure to increase their level of input and their engagement and if the students don’t then the team members get a chance to reflect upon that and give them a sort of team work score.

When we’re teaching ideas in chemistry, I liken it to hacking your way through a forest.  It’s all this detail.... and you can’t expect students to do the hard work of fighting your way through the forest or the jungle, unless they have a global view of where they’re going. What I mean by that is, the other factors that influence the way I teach intermolecular forces, is that I keep going back to applications in the real world.  How is it that geckos can crawl up a wall, and almost sit on the ceiling without falling off?  How is it they’re able to stay there with gluey legs or what?  But the interactions between their feet and the ceiling are just, how could they maximise the attractions between the molecules in their feet, and the molecules in the ceiling? So what I’m trying to do all the time is to show applications, powerful, interesting, hopefully, and engaging applications of the ideas that are important. So, for students to engage and to feel, ‘well this is worth hacking my way through the jungle of detail to be able to understand it’, is to zoom out and show them how this topic relates to all of the other topics.  It’s called scaffolding, and it’s a very, very important idea. So, the other factors are essentially the incredible number of other applications of this idea... that the power of an idea is its explanatory power, and when they can see just how important an idea is, in being able to explain all sorts of phenomena, they might be willing to care about it more.

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