Expert Insights

I think for a lot of people, before they started chemistry, especially if they haven't done any chemistry before, they've got no real understanding of the difference between macroscopic things and microscopic and atomic sized things. We all know how important that distinction is.

When you think of things in terms of energy you can represent energy … energy can be modelled as a particle, as matter.  It can be modelled using waves and then trying to talk about how we would use each model as it's appropriate for a particular situation.  It's the sort of things we observe might dictate which model we use to explain it, by recognising that in each case there is another model but perhaps just not as useful.  So maybe it goes back to just trying to show that everything that we do is a model, every model has its upside and its downside and that we usually only use a model that’s as detailed as it needs to be for the particular concept that you're trying to get across.  If you want to get across a concept of a car to someone who has never seen a car you don't probably show them a Ferrari or a drag racing car.  Maybe you show them a Lego style block and we do the same thing with our scientific models as well.  I guess trying to get across that idea that this is the model that we're going to use but it can be a lot more complicated.  I don't want you to think it's as simple as this but it's appropriate under the circumstance.  So I guess I spend a lot of time talking about things as models when I'm talking about quantum mechanics.  Our treatment in the first year, which is where I cover it, a little bit of second year but I don't take a mathematical detail treatment of quantum mechanics.  Someone else does that, so I really bow to them. So most of mine is non-mathematical, just simple mathematics and mainly conceptual type of stuff.  I guess some of the things I try and do to illustrate the differences between the models and the way that we use them is to ask questions in class that might be postulated in such a way that you can't answer it if you're thinking about both models at the same time.  So the one I like is where I show say a 2s orbital and the probability distribution of that node in between.  I talk about things that … there's one briefly, this plum pudding model which they all laugh about.  When you look at this 2s model there is a probability and a high probability, relatively so, that the electron can be inside the nucleus, if you think about it in particle terms.  Then talk about the nodes and so on and how they arise in quantum mechanics and so on and then ask questions like if the electron can be here and here but it can never be here how does it get there?  ...  I try and get across maybe the bigger picture, everything we're going to do from this point on (because we do this fairly early in first year)  - everything is going to be a model.  Nothing is going to be right.  Nothing is going to be wrong. Nothing is going to be exactly the way it is.  Everything will be just a model. You'll hear us saying things like ‘this is how it is’ or ‘this is what's happening’.  But really you need to interpret that as ‘this is a model and this is how this model is used to explain this particular phenomenon.

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.

I have one slide where I'm first demonstrating how we use curly arrows and that shows an arrow going in a particular direction from a nucleophile to an electrophile and emphasising that the arrow shows electrons moving - so it's got to start from where they are.  There has to be some electrons there for them to move.  So the whole screen goes black and comes up with a little orange box of 'never do this' which is an arrow starting from an H+, which has no electrons. The dramatic emphasis that the whole room goes dark and then it's just up there.

But if you’re honest, they’ll be honest right.  And I think that’s really important. If you b*gger something up and you really do make a blue or even a little blue, tell them.  Say ‘oh look this was wrong, you know this is what it should be’.  So that’s important - to be honest, to be upfront.  Recognise that we’re dealing, in 2015 or 2014, we’re dealing with OP1 to maybe 14. Recognise the breadth of that class. Don’t teach the top, don’t teach the bottom, teach somewhere in the middle, but try to make sure that you don’t lose the top ones and lose the bottom ones, which is very difficult to do and you only do it with experience.

In the workshops, the workshop idea as we run them is that you are out and about and amongst the students all the time in those groups, seeing what’s going on in the groups, seeing how they’re answering their questions.  They have set questions on sheets that they work through in groups and the groups of three just get one set.  They’re all working on them together and you’re moving in and out and around among the groups and seeing how they’re going.  In that circumstance you can quickly, having looked at three or four of your eight different groups, figure out where a particular issue would be and then that can be addressed on the board, it can be addressed with models or something like that.

So, it’s helping to bed down analysis, problem solving, doing the sort of detective work to get to an answer.  And the students also seem to quite enjoy having material presented to them in that way - here’s a spectrum, what do you think the structure is, because it’s a more active form of learning as well.  So I find I enjoy teaching it, and they respond well in terms of, they keep coming in and asking me for additional problems to practise on which is clearly evidence that they feel it’s challenging them.

In the lab it comes out in a variety of ways.  It comes out most commonly when the student gets to actually start doing their calculations and you ask them to relate that back to what they’ve actually physically measured.  And when they start doing those sorts of things you realise there’s a bit of a misplaced idea here or a misconception that you can deal with there.

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.

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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