Expert Insights

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.

I like to approach chemistry as a different language, because it used symbols to convey ideas across, but they are not the reality.  When we draw a little stick structure, alcohol does not exist as I’ve just drawn it, it’s a representation.

You're learning a new language as well as new concepts. There's lots of vocab, so terms like electrophile and nucleophile and many others. So learning the language, learning the code that we use, the curly arrow code, and then starting to apply that in half a dozen or a dozen or so different contexts, different reactions.

So the first thing that I really stress that people do, is that they actually go and watch some classes.  I think that’s the most important thing.  When they’re coming straight out of a post doc, or they’re coming straight out of the Research Centre, and then, they’re told they’re going to be lecturing 300 first year students, they’ve got to go and sit in the back of the lecture theatres for a few weeks.... when I came over from the UK to here, and the class sizes are about three or four times as big, it was just a real help to be able to see what worked and didn’t work  – how little time the students were on task in quite a few lectures.  Where the lecturer would just be talking and be oblivious to this.  I think people just learn a lot by seeing good things, but they also learn a lot by seeing quite bad things going on.

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.

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 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.

It was a revelation to me in second year when [one of the top professors] said to me, "Buy a model kit." And so now I tell all my students.

And it’s so essential, if you are in the middle of a discipline, to have a really well developed sense of what your colleagues around you are teaching, so that you can make connections.

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.

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