Expert Insights

I don’t like to be in a position where I’m stood at the front talking for 50 minutes. I like to be a in a position where I’m engaging with students, where they’re engaging with each other, where there’s a buzz, where there’s things happening, and it’s an active environment.

A lot of it is from colleagues.  Conferences are fantastic.  You know, your chemical education conferences.  I do go to a lot of those.

You could identify people and you use it in a constructive way.  But if you could show some identity, that you’re not a remote person up the front, that the big class is not anonymous, it just helps to break down that barrier.  And once they trust you and once they like coming, that solves a lot of other problems - behavioural problems, learning problems and so on.

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.

They [students] expect to either succeed or fail immediately or very quickly on particular problems. They do not see the process as a learning process.

So into the lectures I put kind of ad breaks, I suppose, short 'meet the scientist' breaks.  So we would have a photograph and fun facts about a scientist and various places we would have a stop, and I have told them that all of that information wasn't on the exam, so they knew that they could stop and just take a breather and then pick back up on the chemistry afterwards.  So that, I think helped, especially the ones that were just finding it all a bit kind of overwhelming. 

I know it's hard for them to 'suspend reality' and just accept a concept. They grasp for real life examples or metaphors which make sense to them. Students don't like the concept of something that can shift/change. They like one answer which is set and that's it, right or wrong - not 'shifts to the left/right'.

They [students] reveal great misunderstandings about the molecular world. So the difficulties and limitations are as a result of not spending sufficient time on getting them to think about this world, and spending too much time on doing. You know, we’ve got to spend some time, but you can’t spend too much time, I think, on a lot of the ideas that we do teach, and doing calculations and things that, really, no one else does. It’s really something that’s done almost like it’s make-work-type stuff.

I think we’ve all sat in lectures and gone, that was dreadful, so we learned quite a lot from understanding how not to do it as well as how actually to do it.  And of course the key is preparation and organisation..... whenever I go into a class knowing that I am beautifully organised, that gives you that extra confidence to project and to present, and you come away with that feeling that you know that the class has gone well and you’ve got the information across to the students in the way that you wanted. 

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. 

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