Expert Insights

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.

And it’s taken me a long time to discover what sort of teacher I actually am.... I had a colleague who said to me, ‘oh you’re a narrative teacher’.  I said, ‘I’m a what’? ..... I tell stories, essentially.  I tell stories.  I turn everything into a story in some way... and again, analytical chemistry lends itself to that.  That you can link it to stories that are in the media, personal experiences, my own personal research experience.  The student’s own experience.  So it’s shared.  So while I thought I was a straight forward didactic teacher, you know I just stood there but I’m not, I asked students, ‘alright who’s got experience of this’, and then I use a narrative form to get that across, and it seems to work.

When they come in I give a very simple quiz which we do using clickers, the sort of anonymous audience response systems, and I just test a few multiple choice questions, just testing their understanding of some of those terms and then when I notice that there’s, well, anything more than 10 or 15% of students who don’t correctly understand those terms then we go through a process of exploring what those terms are and why they apply to what they apply to and then I retest that a couple of weeks later.... I notice at the end of the year some of the students can lapse back into their old habits, so it’s something that I am going to need to think of continuing to reinforce.

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.

[Analytical chemistry] is probably one of the things that’s easiest to tie back to their own experiences.  Because it’s very easy to link the idea of the importance of chemical measurement, is actually pretty easy to get across. You just talk about what is sports drug testing, road side testing, when was the last time you went to the doctor to get a path test.  These are all forms of analytical chemistry.  So I have a significant advantage over some people [teaching other topics] in being able to imbed it in their experiences.  Everybody has some kind of experience we can draw on to say, yeah that’s analytical chemistry.  The difficulty is of course to ensure that misconceptions don’t creep in.

We teach way too much stuff.  We teach way too much stuff that we used to teach because students didn’t have the resources available to them that they’ve got now.  I mean if you look at the resources - they’ve got textbooks, they’ve got electronic media, they’ve got Sapling. They can do the problems in their own time in a guided way with something like Sapling. We don’t have to do it, all we’ve got to do is give them the framework to solve the problems.  And I think we often misunderstand how much we should give them because I think we underestimate the value of letting them solve problems in a guided way with things like Sapling.  And I think, you know, in the old days we’d just do problem after problem after problem, which is as boring as anything.

The actual curly arrow mechanisms are in a way themselves cartoons, how they map to the reality in the way that a Micky Mouse might map to real life.

Too often I think students and others think that analytical chemistry is just that measurement step.  When you use the AA, when you use the ... and doesn’t take into account, well all of the other stuff, what’s the actual problem you’re trying to solve?  What are you actually trying to do, sampling, measurement, validating your results? Because only then when you’ve got a result, only then does it actually become information.

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.

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.

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