Five suggestions for future VICEPHEC meetings

It is great news that there is going to be a Committee of Elders looking after future VICEPHEC meetings. Here are five suggestions on the structure of this conference:

  1. Structure discussion time – discussion time needs to be structured into the programme. A good rule of thumb is to have at least half of the time allocated to presentations as discussion, so a 10 minute talk should have 5 minutes discussion, a 30 minute keynote should have 15 minutes discussion. Discussions should be structured by Chairs, perhaps with prompting questions (in the case of keynotes) and questions on a theme (in the case of oral presentations). Where possible, allow for some think-pair-share talk before the Q&A and discussion with the group. If the conference is going to be streamed, discussions will be one of the main reasons to come along. Also, there is a pretty healthy backchannel at these conferences, with a bit of thought could be brought into discussions (e.g. up-voting question apps, etc).
  2. Simplify the presentation formats – at the moment we have keynotes, oral presentations, oral bites, and posters. People submit for one (e.g. a presentation) but get allocated another (e.g. a bite). The original idea of bites was that they would be a quick and easy talk about a “good idea” or something that people wanted to quickly share. But bites now are mostly mini talks, where presenters squeeze their 15 minute research talk into 5 minutes. Now that we have posters, let’s get rid of bites. Make all presentations 10 minutes long (+ 5 separate minutes of discussion). Keynotes for a one-and-a-half day conference should be 30 minutes (+ 15 discussion). Chairing needs to be ruthless. The poster session on Friday morning worked great, and perhaps giving poster presenters 60 seconds at the end of Thursday to pitch their poster would help attendees navigate to posters of interest the following morning.
  3. Have a single stream – perhaps most controversial (ooooh); I think the conference would benefit from a single stream. It keeps everybody together; keeps that sense of discussion going, and means the conference as a whole can start to generate some overall headline outcomes in advancing the disciplines, rather than just a series of lots of little things. I think the keynotes and oral bites sessions (given to one audience) show that single streams are beneficial. Parallel workshops do make sense, but given the shortness of the conference, one hour workshops are more appropriate.
  4. Guidelines for presenters – there is a variety in style and quality of presentations and for people new to the discipline, it would be useful to set out what different types of presentations are valuable, along with guidance on structuring these. This is especially important for people transmuting from bench chemistry type conferences into education conferences. This guidance should be available at abstract submission stage.
  5. Bring in external voices – I think it was useful having an external voice this year (someone not directly from chemistry or physics education) and perhaps that should be a continuing feature. What can we learn from leaders in other disciplines, learning and cognitive scientists, career guidance people, industrialists, primary and secondary educators, students themselves…? I’m guessing quite a lot.

What can we advise chemistry students about studying?

I’ve started a new blog over on University of Edinburgh’s new blog website – these are posts specifically focussed on chemistry education, looking at important and I hope interesting things from staff/student perspectives. The first one is: What can we advise chemistry students about studying? I’ve pasted the opening paragraph below.

The importance of actively considering study

A quick glance at the specifications for any university lecture course will show that while lectures, labs, and tutorials will make up the formal part of how we interact with students, usually more than half of the time allocated to courses is given over to independent study. This time is crucial for students to be able to work with the materials of the course, both for the purpose of understanding the material as part of their overall journey to becoming a professional chemist, as well as needing to demonstrate their knowledge and understanding in an assessment. Indeed, while study often has negative connotations – a chore, or something negative because of its association with grading – it is ultimately a pleasant experience. We choose to study because we enjoy indulging in a topic and finding out more about it.

How do students study? How should students study? While there is universal agreement on the need for study, we are perhaps less clear in higher education about what students do, and indeed what we should recommend to them. In this post I will review some of the literature on studying, and draw together some recommendations based on theories of learning, and research done in chemistry education and elsewhere… [continue reading on the ChemDoT blog]

A Framework for Learning in the Chemistry Laboratory

What is the key literature on chemistry laboratory education? What kinds of factors should be considered when designing laboratory curricula? An invite for a journal special issue gave me the final push to write something I’ve wanted to write for a long time addressing these questions. When writing it, I have in mind “typical academics”, who may be doing learning and teaching courses or people interested in broadening their reading about chemistry education. This special issue was a good place for it because it is a special issue in a “normal” chemistry journal, with the theme of chemistry education. Therefore the expected audience of the issue is the general body chemistry faculty. It was too good a chance to miss!

The article is now published. We set out our stall early with some guiding principles that we adhere to:

  1. The overarching purpose of laboratory learning is to teach learners how to ‘do’ science.
  2. Preparing students for learning in the laboratory is beneficial.
  3. Explicit consideration needs to be given to teaching experimental techniques.
  4. Consideration of learners’ emotions, motivations, and expectations is imperative in laboratory settings.

While I think this is helpful (obvs), it does expose the difficulty with considering changes to our laboratory curricula – there is a lot to think about! (We give a lot of things to think about in Table 1 of the paper). And after thinking, it takes a lot of work to implement change. I really think this is why laboratory curricula in chemistry are so resistant to change.

After explaining the four principles listed above with key references, we propose a framework, shown in the figure, which in our case at Edinburgh is oriented towards developing independence, skills, and capability to experiment (as in really experiment). Our way of doing this is to consider the progressive development of skills and competencies over the curriculum, and how each stage builds on the previous one.

framework for learning in the chemistry laboratory

We talk about each stage, with some suggestions. Initially I was reluctant to do this and indeed our original submission did not have these examples. There is so much in the literature that can be described as “good ideas in the lab” and I wanted to focus minds on prompting people to think about a model for their curriculum and not individual practicals they could add to their course without thinking about an overall framework. The reviewers and special issue editors came back with requests to add in some examples. I confess I first resisted – I really wanted to emphasise a curricular perspective. But the editors (patiently) argued that by showing some examples, we could illustrate how people might take existing published experiments and consider how to fit them into their pre-determined framework. I’m glad I was convinced that I was wrong and I think the paper is stronger because of it.

If you would like to read the paper in its full glory, head on over to:

Seery, M.K., Agustian, H.Y. and Zhang, X., 2018. A Framework for Learning in the Chemistry Laboratory.

Of course I am happy to provide pre-prints to anyone who does not have access.

Lessons from running webinars

We are now coming up to half way for the webinar series I launched this year. Webinars run monthly, thereabouts, and are on the theme of chemistry education research. I’ve never hosted webinars before so it has been interesting, and when the technology decides not to work, heart-stopping. Useful responses to a post (plea) requesting ideas/guidance are listed here. I think I have incorporated most of the suggestions.

CERGinar 2017 - 2018 Series

Some thoughts on format

What’s been a real pleasure has been the opportunity to hear speakers I love give a talk. This year, because I was testing the water, I chose speakers who I have heard and who I know will do a good job, and somewhat selfishly that I want to hear again. This led to a list of 42 names scrawled on my office noticeboard, and picking just a few of these was really tough.

Alison Flynn set us off to a stellar talk with a talk that ran the spectrum from methods of doing the research right through to implementation in teaching. This was really popular and meant that it addressed the difficulty of the breadth of audience types. Keith Taber made us think more about methodologies… are experimental approaches appropriate, and what are their limitations? Nathaniel Grove picked up on the format set by Alison, again looking at methods and then looking at implications, and this seems to be a formula that works. In both cases, this meant that a natural break in proceedings was a chance to have a mid-presentation set of questions. And that echoes something I have learned from MICER: people love to discuss. Opportunities for discussion compete with wanting to squeeze as much out of the speakers as possible, and the balance is fine tuned. For an hour slot, thought, 45/15 seems to work out. Nathan’s talk included the guest chair Niki Kaiser; this was really useful as it meant I could focus on technical matters, Niki asked questions, and it also means the whole thing is less “my” webinar series, but one of the community.

How to choose speakers?

As well as the criterion (this time around) of having seen all the speakers present, there was the difficulty of choosing just a few from my list of favourites. Donald Wink is the next speaker in the series. He gave a talk at Gordon CERP last year, which was stellar, probably the best talk I heard in a year of many conferences. It was one of those talks where you stop taking notes and just listen to try to absorb as much as possible. His clarity on discussing case studies is one that I think deserves a very wide audience. Then, we have Nicole Graulich, who won best poster at Gordon CERP, meaning she got to give a short talk at the end of the conference. I was left wanting to hear much more. Ginger is doing some amazing work around students writing, and Vicente… well we all want to hear Vicente. Both of these are again Gordon speakers. I thought that this range of speakers represented some well established figures, some newer to a wider audience, different aspects of chemistry, and a balance of gender. But I’m sure I can choose another set that will fulfill those criteria.

On and on?

Chemistry education research, as a young discipline in the UK, has two difficulties as I see it. One: there is no money. And two: as there is no money, people do a lot of this work in their spare time or squeezed into a very busy day job. That means that things like this tend to get squeezed, and it becomes difficult for people to attend. The purpose of these webinars was to act as a proxy for the academic seminars our colleagues will be used to in chemistry departments, except focussed on education.  I have to say I thought that attendance (because of point 2) would be very low, but it has been way above expectations, with lots of discussion in the chat area.

I’d be interested in hearing from people as to whether we should continue with a new series in the Autumn, and proposed ideas for format/speakers. In the mean time, do register for Prof Donald Wink’s seminar, 21st Feb. You won’t be disappointed.