Finding out about Learning Analytics

I’m attending the JISC Learning Analytics network meeting (information), which is giving a good overview on the emerging development of learning analytics, and its integration into higher education. Learning analytics aims to harness data about students interactions and engagement with a course, whatever can be measured, and use that in an intelligent way to inform and empower students about their own academic journey. Of course, one of the major questions being discussed here is what data is relevant? This was something I explored when looking at developing a model to help tutors predict student performance and identify at-risk students (see CERP: 2009, 10, 227) but things have moved on now and the discipline of learning analytics looks to automate a lot of the data gathering and have a sensible data reporting to both staff and individual students.

There was an interesting talk on the rollout of learning analytics from Gary Tindell at the University of East London, which described the roll-out over time of a learning analytics platform, which might be of interest to others considering integrating it into their own institution. He identified 5 phases, which developed over time:

  • Phase 1: collecting data on student attendance via swipe card system. This data can be broken down by school, module, event, student. Subsequently developed an attendance reporting app (assuming app here means a web-app). This app identifies students whose attendance falls below 75% threshold and flags interventions via student retention team. Unsurprisingly, there was a correlation between student attendance and module performance.
  • Phase 2: student engagement app for personal tutors: this pulls together data on student attendance, module activity, use of library, e-book activity, coursework submission, assessment profile etc and aims to privide tutors with a broader profile of student engagement.
  • Phase 3: Development of an app that integrates all this data and calculates a level of student engagement based on a weighting system for identifying at risk students (those at risk of leaving). Weighting can be changed depending on what is considered most important. It allows students see a level of engagement compared with their cohort.
  • Phase 4: Research phase – intention is to use data to inform the weightings applied to student engagement app. Initial correlations found highest correlations for attendance and average module marks. However, more interestingly, multiple regressions suggest all engagement measures are significant. They have developed a quadrant based model that identifies low engagers to high engagers, and provides an indicator of student performance. One of the key measures is previous student performance – but is that a student engagement measure??
  • Phase 5 – currently in progress, developing 3 different sets of visualisations of student engagement.
  1. Compare individual engagement with UEL school and course
  2. Provides student with an indication of where they are located in terms of student engagement
  3. Provides an indication of the distance to travel for a student to be able to progress to another quadrant.

The next steps in the project are about aiming to answer the following questions:

–          Can we accurately predict student performance based on a metric?

–          Can providing students with information on their level of engagement really change study patterns?

It’s the last point that particularly interests me.

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Rethinking my views on LGBT in STEM

I’ve never been sure where I stand with the association of sexuality and professional status. I’ve always leaned towards the side of considering it a private matter, not something to be either concealed or promoted. It is a personal identifier, not a professional one. Yet I’ve agreed with the notion that, as one clever person put it to me recently, if it helps someone, then it is a good thing. Maybe I’ve just been reluctant to be the one helping.

Recently there was an LGBT-focussed seminar day, where scientists and engineers came together to present their work and discuss issues around being LGBT in STEM. While I didn’t attend, I did follow the tweets and it has prompted some thought and several incidental conversations since. I wondered why all of these extremely clever people thought this to be an issue of great importance, while I was sitting on the fence.

I came out in the last year of my PhD; the imminent void facing me probably prompted a desire to remove at least one future concern. My main memory from that time is the terrible sadness I felt when a very lovely colleague asked me why I hadn’t said so before. They were bringing another colleague to a gay club every Sunday and I could have joined them. The utter futility of all those years of secrecy seemed such a waste.

So when I started my post-doc, I was an out person. On my first day, there was a query about a partner and who she was, and I mentioned a he, and all was well. I’m not sure whether it is on purpose, but ever since I’ve opted to tell the most trusted gossip I can find early on, and any awkward pronoun conversations are avoided evermore. I even managed (accidentally) to get it into my interview presentation at Edinburgh.

So why don’t I see it as an issue? It’s probably because it’s never been an issue for me. My memory of not being out has faded as it is half a lifetime ago. My experience has only been in academia, which has always been an actively supportive environment. That’s my frame of reference.

There can be no doubt that there are issues around supporting LGBT people in a university environment. It’s well documented that at school level, there is significant stress and trauma and associated mental health problems regarding LGBT pupils. And there are workplace studies that discuss the reticence of employees and the associated discomfort of coming out in an unsupportive environment. So while there is not much research for UK (although see here for a good article) it would be folly to think that in between these two phases of life, that there are not issues for our students at university which are worrying.

And it is sad to think that at a time when they should be most free to express and explore, and focussing on my thermodynamics notes, some of my students are instead worrying about how to distract their peers from conversations about what happened at the weekend.

So back to that fence: is it my role to advocate? What does that even mean? I am uncomfortable about the term ‘role model’. Conversations in the last while have certainly changed my thinking, in that I am now leaning towards the feeling that doing something is a good idea, but now I’m not quite sure what that something should be.

Some useful links from the LGBT STEMinar:
Dave Smith’s keynote: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8p937rh2xBY
Elena Rdz-Falcon’s keynote: https://youtu.be/Sws5EHtY6eU
Good blog post on this seminar: https://labandfield.wordpress.com/2016/01/16/why-the-lgbtsteminar-succeeded-was-needed/ 
Tweets from the day are under the hashtag #LGBTSteminar

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PhD Studentship in Chemistry Education

3 Year PhD Studentship in Chemistry Education

Supervisor: Dr Michael Seery School of Chemistry, University of Edinburgh

“Learning analytics to enhance the student learning experience in chemistry”

Learning analytics is an emerging discipline considering the measurement, collection and analysis of data about student learning with a view to improving their learning experience. This project involves the design and development of a learning analytics system for chemistry so that students can continually monitor and reflect on their progress, with a view to actively improving their understanding throughout their studies. The project builds on work on using students’ prior chemistry learning to examine future performance (Chem. Ed. Res. Pract., 2009, 10, 227-232) and assessing the impact of learning resources on student performance (Brit. J. Ed. Tech., 2012, 43(4), 667–677).

The project is fully-funded for 36-months starting in September 2016, covering UK/EU tuition fees and an annual stipend at the EPSRC standard rate (in the region of £14,200 in academic year 2016-17).

Applications are sought from UK/EU candidates with an excellent track record in chemistry or chemistry education with an interest in higher education and the use of technology in education. Experience with e-learning software and statistical processing packages is desirable but not essential. Applicants must have or are expected to receive by the start date a 1st class or an upper 2nd class honours degree (or equivalent).

To apply, applicants should send the following to michael.seery@ed.ac.uk:

  • A cover letter detailing interest in the position and any relevant experience.
  • A curriculum vitae.

The successful candidate will be required to apply through the EUCLID system as outlined at http://www.chem.ed.ac.uk/studying/postgraduate-research/applications-and-entry-requirements.

Deadline: 1st Feb 2016

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Date for #chemed diaries: Methods in Chemistry Education Research 20/5/16

Methods in Chemistry Education Research #micer16

Burlington House, 20th May 2016, 11 – 4 pm

This one day conference is being organised in response to a growing demand and interest in chemistry education research in the UK. The meeting will focus in particular on methods; the practicalities of how to do chemistry education research. Invited speakers with experience of completing and publishing discipline-based education research will give talks on particular methods, relating the methods to a theoretical framework, the research question, and discussing the practicalities of gathering data. Approaches to publication will be outlined. Each speaker will be followed by an extended structured discussion so that attendees have time to discuss further issues that arise. The meeting is being organised with the journal Chemistry Education Research and Practice which is free to access at the URL: www.rsc.org/cerp.

Attendance is free thanks to the support of the RSC’s Chemistry Education Research Group (www.rsc.org/cerg) and Tertiary Education Group (www.rsc.org/tertiaryeducation).

Session 1 (sponsored by the Chemistry Education Research Group)
In the first session, speakers will discuss their approach to education research with an emphasis on particular theoretical frameworks (e.g. grounded theory) and how this framework influences their method in addressing a research question.

Lunch

Session 2 (sponsored by the Tertiary Education Group)
In the second session, speakers will discuss their approach with an emphasis on gathering data (e.g. focus groups), the reasons for these approaches in the context of the research question, and the considerations in interpreting this data.

Further information and a final list of speakers will be circulated early 2016.

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Significant omission from my top 10 #chemed post!

0. Text messages to explore students’ study habits (Ye, Oueini, Dickerson, and Lewis, CERP)

I was excited to see Scott Lewis speak at the Conference That Shall Not Be Named during the summer as I really love his work. This paper outlines an interesting way to find out about student study habits, using text-message prompts. Students received periodic text messages asking them if they have studied in the past 48 hours. The method is ingenious. Results are discussed in terms of cluster analysis (didn’t study as much, used textbook/practiced problems, and online homework/reviewed notes). There is lots of good stuff here for those interested in students’ study and supporting independent study time. Lewis often publishes with Jennifer Lewis, and their papers are master-classes in quantitative data analysis. (Note this candidate for my top ten was so obvious I left it out in the original draft, so now it is a top 11…)

I’ve now included this in the original post.

Scott Lewis CERP

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My ten favourite #chemed articles of 2015

This post is a sure-fire way to lose friends… but I’m going to pick 10 papers that were published this year that I found interesting and/or useful. This is not to say they are ten of the best; everyone will have their own 10 “best” based on their own contexts.

Caveats done, here are 10 papers on chemistry education research that stood out for me this year:

0. Text messages to explore students’ study habits (Ye, Oueini, Dickerson, and Lewis, CERP)

I was excited to see Scott Lewis speak at the Conference That Shall Not Be Named during the summer as I really love his work. This paper outlines an interesting way to find out about student study habits, using text-message prompts. Students received periodic text messages asking them if they have studied in the past 48 hours. The method is ingenious. Results are discussed in terms of cluster analysis (didn’t study as much, used textbook/practiced problems, and online homework/reviewed notes). There is lots of good stuff here for those interested in students’ study and supporting independent study time. Lewis often publishes with Jennifer Lewis, and together their papers are master-classes in quantitative data analysis. (Note this candidate for my top ten was so obvious I left it out in the original draft, so now it is a top 11…)

1. What do students learn in the laboratory (Galloway and Lowery-Bretz, CERP)?

This paper reports on an investigation using video cameras on the student to record their work in a chemistry lab. Students were interviewed soon after the lab. While we can see what students physically do while they are in the lab (psychomotor learning), it is harder to measure cognitive and affective experiences. This study set about trying to measure these, in the context of what the student considered to be meaningful learning. The paper is important for understanding learning that is going on in the laboratory (or not, in the case of recipe labs), but I liked it most for the use of video in collection of data.

2. Johnstone’s triangle in physical chemistry (Becker, Stanford, Towns, and Cole, CERP).

We are familiar with the importance of Johnstone’s triangle, but a lot of research often points to introductory chemistry, or the US “Gen Chem”. In this paper, consideration is given to understanding whether and how students relate macro, micro, and symbolic levels in thermodynamics, a subject that relies heavily on the symbolic (mathematical). The reliance on symbolic is probably due in no small part to the emphasis most textbooks place on this. The research looked at ways that classroom interactions can develop the translation across all levels, and most interestingly, a sequence of instructor interactions that showed an improvement in coordination of the three dimensions of triplet. There is a lot of good stuff for teachers of introductory thermodynamics here.

3. The all-seeing eye of prior knowledge (Boddey and de Berg, CERP).

My own interest in prior knowledge as a gauge for future learning means I greedily pick up anything that discusses it in further detail. And this paper does that well. It looked at the impact of completing a bridging course on students who had no previous chemistry, comparing them with those who had school chemistry. However, this study takes that typical analysis further, and interviewed students. These are used to tease out different levels of prior knowledge, with the ability to apply being supreme in improving exam performance.

4.  Flipped classes compared to active classes (Flynn, CERP).

I read a lot of papers on flipped lectures this year in preparing a review on the topic. This was by far the most comprehensive. Flipping is examined in small and large classes, and crucially any impact or improvement is discussed by comparing with an already active classroom. A detailed model for implementation of flipped lectures linking before, during, and after class activities is presented, and the whole piece is set in the context of curriculum design. This is dissemination of good practice at its best.

5. Defining problem solving strategies (Randles and Overton, CERP).

This paper gained a lot of attention at the time of publication, as it compares problem solving strategies of different groups in chemistry; undergraduates, academics, and industrialists. Beyond the headline though, I liked it particularly for its method – it is based on grounded theory, and the introductory sections give a very good overview on how this was achieved, which I think will be informative to many. Table 2 in particular demonstrates coding and example quotes which is very useful.

6. How do students experience labs? (Kable and more, IJSE)

This is a large scale project with a long gestation – the ultimate aim is to develop a laboratory experience survey, and in particular a survey for individual laboratory experiments, with a view to their iterative improvement. Three factors – motivation (interest and responsibility), assessment, and resources – are related to students’ positive experience of laboratory work. The survey probes students’ responses to these (some like quality of resources give surprising results). It is useful for anyone thinking about tweaking laboratory instruction, and looking for somewhere to start.

7. Approaches to learning and success in chemistry (Sinapuelas and Stacy, JRST)

Set in the context of transition from school to university, this work describes the categorisation of four levels of learning approaches (gathering facts, learning procedures, confirming understanding, applying ideas). I like these categories as they are a bit more nuanced, and perhaps less judgemental, than surface vs deep learning. The approach level correlates with exam performance. The paper discusses the use of learning resources to encourage students to move from learning procedures (level 2) to confirming understanding (level 3). There are in-depth descriptions characterising each level, and these will be informative to anyone thinking about how to support students’ independent study.

8. Exploring retention (Shedlosky-Shoemaker and Fautch, JCE).

This article categorises some psychological factors aiming to explain why some students do not complete their degree. Students switching degrees tend to have higher self-doubt (in general rather than just for chemistry) and performance anxiety. Motivation did not appear to distinguish between those switching or leaving a course and those staying. The study is useful for those interested in transition, as it challenges some common conceptions about student experiences and motivations. This study appears to suggest much more personal factors are at play.

9. Rethinking central ideas in chemistry (Talanquer, JCE).

Talanquer publishes regularly and operates on a different intellectual plane to most of us. While I can’t say I understand every argument he makes, he always provokes thought. In this commentary, he discusses the central ideas of introductory chemistry (atoms, elements, bonds, etc), and proposes alternative central ideas (chemical identity, mechanisms, etc). It’s one of a series of articles by several authors (including Talanquer himself) that continually challenge the approach we currently take to chemistry. It’s difficult to say whether this will ever become more than a thought experiment though…

10. Newcomers to education literature (Seethaler, JCE).

If you have ever wished to explain to a scientist colleague how education research “works”, this paper might be of use. It considers 5 things scientists should know about education research: what papers can tell you (and their limitations), theoretical bases in education research, a little on misconceptions and content inventories, describing learning, and tools of the trade. It’s a short article at three pages long, so necessarily leaves a lot of information out. But it is a nice primer.

Finally

The craziest graphical abstract of the year must go to Fung’s camera set up. And believe me, the competition was intense.

ed-2014-009624_0007

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Inquiry learning of chemistry in 19th century girls schools

Consider the following scenario:

Young children are delighted to be so regarded, to be told that they are to act as a band of young detectives. For example, in studying the rusting of iron, they at once fall in with the idea that a crime, as it were, is committed when the valuable strong iron is changed into useless, brittle rust; with the greatest interest they set about finding out whether it is a case of murder or suicide, as it were−whether something outside the iron is concerned in the change or whether it changes of its own accord

The British chemist Henry Edward Armstrong pioneered the use of what is now called guided inquiry in the late nineteenth century. His story is recounted in articles by Rayner-Canham & Rayner-Canham (2011, 2014). Armstrong was a chemistry lecturer a St Barts and was frustrated at the emphasis of examinations on memorization and definitions. Over the decade from 1870, he developed the means for students to explore chemical concepts in the laboratory. Armstrong wrote of his approach:

For the ideal school of the future I picture the teacher no longer giving lessons but quietly moving about among the pupils, all earnestly at work and deeply interested, aiding each to accomplish the allotted task, as far as possible alone

His approach was called the heuristic approach, and it was structured such that it was carefully guided (In contrast with what we might call discovery learning today). While Armstrong himself was antagonistic against women in science, he promoted his method with girl’s schools science teachers from private schools. (Science in most girls schools didn’t feature until the 1950s.) One such teacher, Grace Heath from North London Collegiate for Girls, wrote to Nature in 1892:

…pupils themselves are put into the position of discoverers, they know why they are at work, what it is they want to discover, and as one experiment after another adds a new link to the chain of evidence which is solving their problem

This school had a laboratory with room for 24 girls at a time. Elsewhere St Swithun’s chemistry laboratory was built after girls left a flask of chlorine open deliberately during a tour by the administrative council in an aim to highlight the lack of facilities. We can learn lots from the past…

As the twentieth century progressed, a debate about the role of science education for girls and opposition from Sir William Ramsey and others to the heuristic method led to the rise of the lecture with demonstration method.

Extract from Henry Edward Armstrong's book
Extract from Henry Edward Armstrong’s book: The teaching of scientific method (1903)
References
  • Geoff Rayner-Canham and Marelene Rayner-Canham, The Heuristic Method, Precursor of Guided Inquiry: Henry Armstrong and British Girls’ Schools, 1890−1920J. Chem. Educ., 2015, 92, 463−466.
  • Marelene Rayner-Canham and Geoffrey Rayner-Canham, Chemistry in English academic girls’ schools, 1880-1930Bull. Hist. Chem., 2011, 36(2), 68-74.
  • Armstong’s book is available on the Internet Archive: https://archive.org/details/teachingofscient00armsrich

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The feedback dilemma

Read the opening gambit of any educational literature on feedback. It will likely report that while feedback is desired by students, considered important by academics, and in the era of rankings, prioritized by universities, it largely goes unread and unused. Many reports state that students only look at the number grade, ignoring the comments unless it is substantially different from what they expected. Often students don’t realise that the feedback comments on one assignment can help with the next.

Why is this? Looking through the literature on this topic, the crux of the  problem is a dilemma about what academics think feedback actually is.

Duncan (2007) reported a project where previous feedback received by students was assimilated and synthesised into an individual feedback statement that students could apply to the next assignment. Their observations of the previous tutor feedback highlighted some interesting points. They found that tutor comments were written for more than just the students, directed more at a justification of marks for other examiners or for external examiners. Many tutor comments had no specific criticism, only vague praise, and a significant lack of clear and practical advice on how to improve. Feedback often required an understanding implicit to tutor, but not to the student (e.g. “use a more academic style”).

Similar findings from analysis of tutor feedback was reported by Orsmond and Merry (2011). They reported that praise was the most common form of feedback, with tutors explaining misunderstandings and correcting errors. While there was an assumption on the part of tutors that students would know how to apply feedback to future assignments, none of the tutors in their study suggested approaches on how to do this. Orrell (2006) argues that while tutors expressed particular intentions about feedback (appropriateness of content and develop self-evaluation for improvement), in reality the feedback was defensive and summative, justifying the mark assigned.

So what exactly is feedback?

A theme emerging from much of the literature surveyed is that there are different components to feedback. Orsmond and Merry coded eight different forms of feedback. Orrell outlines a teaching-editing-feedback code for distinguishing between different aspects of feedback.  I liked the scheme used by Donovan (2014), classifying feedback as either mastery and developmental (based on work by Petty). I’ve attempted to mesh together these different feedback classifications and relate them to what is described elsewhere as feedback and feed forward. In many of the studies, it was clear that tutors focussed on the feedback comments well, but gave little or no feed forward comments.

Assigning various codings to general categories of feedback and feed forward
Assigning various codings to general categories of feedback and feed forward

While some of these categorisations are contextual, I think it is helpful to develop a system whereby correction of student work, and in particular work that is meant to be formative, distinguishes clearly between correction of the work and assigning a mark for that, with a separate and distinct section for what needs to be considered in future assignments. Of course, ideally future assignments would take into account whether students have considered this feedback. In chemistry, there must be potential in the lab report correcting system.

A final note: Orsmond and Merry describe the student perspective of feedback in terms matching up the assignment with what the tutor wants and using feedback as part of their own intellectual development, part of a greater discourse between student and lecturer. Feedback that emphasizes the former effectively results in students mimicking their discipline – trying to match what they are observing. Whereas emphasis on the latter results in students becoming their discipline, growing in the intellectual capacity of the discipline.

I’m interested in a discussion on how we can present feedback to students physically—how should we highlight what they focus on and how we monitor their progression so that the feedback that we provide is shown to be of real value in their learning?

References:

Pam Donovan (2014) Closing the feedback loop: physics undergraduates’ use of feedback comments on laboratory coursework, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 39:8, 1017-1029, DOI: 10.1080/02602938.2014.881979

Neil Duncan (2007) ‘Feed‐forward’: improving students’ use of tutors’ comments, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 32:3, 271-283, DOI: 10.1080/02602930600896498

Janice Orrell (2006) Feedback on learning achievement: rhetoric and reality, Teaching in Higher Education, 11:4, 441-456, DOI: 10.1080/13562510600874235

Paul Orsmond & Stephen Merry (2011) Feedback alignment: effective and ineffective links between tutors’ and students’ understanding of coursework feedback, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 36:2, 125-136, DOI: 10.1080/02602930903201651

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10 things to consider for a more accessible curriculum

By equipping our students in this manner throughout the year in formative activities, we can help them prepare more effectively for their summative exams.

The great work of AHEAD in Ireland in promoting Universal Design for Learning prompted me to develop the ethos of considering UDL in the chemistry curriculum here at Edinburgh. I was discussing with UDL expert Damian Gordon of DIT some of his thoughts on what lecturers can do to make their curriculum more accessible. True to form, Damian quickly generated 10 things to consider, and then a further 10. They’re brilliant checklists.

I’ve compiled 10 of my own below. The aim here is to say to any lecturer: while you are writing your lectures or thinking about assessments, here are some things that aren’t that difficult to do, but can make life a lot easier for lots of people.

1.      Welcome/induction/introductory lab information in video or podcast format.

The first week of any year can be overwhelming with new information. A short video highlighting the main points for beginning the year allows all students to review in their own time.

2.      Provide associated text (allowing text to speech options) for lecture notes.

When writing new lecture notes, put the main points of each slide in the Notes section. Exporting these annotations separately (File > Export > PDF (Options: Publish Notes)) means that students can use text to speech readers to hear associated notes with each of your slides. You can also use these notes as a script and subtitles if you wish to create a video summary of your presentation. Designing with multiple uses in mind minimises later effort.

3.      Figures/diagrams on lecture notes are beneficial but…

Figures and diagrams can help students survey a lot of information but need explanatory notes. If possible, include the source of the figure (webpage/book) on the slide so that students have the link to read more about its context. Figure captions, including reaction mechanisms etc, can include the main highlights so that they can be picked up by text to speech software. Links to learning resources (e.g. ChemTube3D, spectroscopy simulators) can allow students interact with diagrams further.

4.      Provide specific reading lists for your course in advance and annotate them briefly.

There is a balance between students developing the skills to find information and time wasted in navigating a large amount of text for specific information. Reading lists can point to chapters and sections in chapters. It’s especially helpful if you link particular topics on lecture slides to specific places in reading lists. This applies to lab manuals also. If you wish to fade this support over time, a first step might be to suggest words to look up in the index of a reading list book for a particular topic.

5.      Mind-maps facilitate organisation of thoughts.

Mind-maps are useful for getting an overall sense of a topic, course, or laboratory experiment. Encourage their use by students by presenting your course overview or laboratory experiment as a mind-map. They are easy to do on Microsoft, or there are lots of free online tools. In general, helping students develop their own visual representations of subject matter is a great way to develop their understanding.

6.      Surprises mean students can’t prepare.

An unplanned handout in lab class can be very stressful for students who need to prepare in advance.  Ensure lab manuals contain everything they need to have. Manuals presented electronically as individual experiments save time when using text to speech.

7.      Feedback versus feed forward.

When correcting work consider the difference between making corrections to justify the mark or “for the record” (feedback) and the take home messages that you want the student to think about the next time they try a similar task (feed forward). Often these two different messages are confused, and there is too much information to discern the headline points. A summary statement or key point to take away can be useful for feeding forward. Grading forms on electronic submissions allow this to be done well.

8.      Academic writing and presentations.

The reading and writing activities necessary in academic writing and presentations add an extra burden onto the process of crafting an essay or presentation. Offer your student the opportunity to give you a pre-draft verbal overview of how they intend the article or presentation to look (perhaps develop a mind-map). If you notice a written draft with substantial mistakes, aim to focus feedback on improving the chemistry, and suggesting that the student gets an independent reader to help with the spelling and grammar for the final copy.

9.      Tutorials.

If there is always just a few students who speak up in tutorials, arranging it so that students work in sub-groups of three to four can help. Letting them report back periodically means that there is more chance to keep an eye on progress, while everyone is getting involved.

10.  Formatting issues.

Be aware of specific issues regarding design of learning materials. Colour slides with an off-white/cream background and a sans-serif font (e.g. Calibri, Arial, or open source font considering readability (http://www.dyslexiefont.com/en/dyslexie-font/)) are helpful. Note however that these fonts must be installed on PCs where you will use them e.g. a computer in a lecture theatre. A list of suitable common fonts is at: http://www.dyslexic.com/fonts.

11. And finally… Text to speech software on all lab PCs.

Lab PCs should have text to speech software installed, with appropriate files for each lab available for any student wishing to avail of them. Free software for this purpose includes “Free Natural Reader” (http://www.naturalreaders.com/).

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Is all this talk of how we lecture just academic?

It’s getting harder to remember what my final years as an undergrad were like, but I can just about remember this. We had lectures in blocks, usually of 5, which ran in a series, one after the other. Each course involved a lecturer rolling in and giving their best for 5 lectures. The style was what we now consider passive, that’s not to say they were bad. Ones I remember most were those involving demonstrations (from my future PhD supervisor), and the ones with brilliant and passionate explanations from my lecturer on quantum chemistry, who really wanted us to understand. In most cases, notes were erratic, in some, they weren’t so great, so then you just went to the book and made up your own notes, and all was well. PowerPoint was used by some younger staff, but you could count them on one hand.

I was reminded of this in the last while, because I am wondering whether all this talk of lecturing style is worth the effort. There now seems to be two camps, with firmly entrenched beliefs about their preferred style and little hope of common ground. But if you are a student finishing 5 lectures on a topic in October, which will be examined the following May, is it important? Yes, you might remember that a particular topic was interesting or engaging. Yes, the lecture itself may have helped in understanding of a topic, and I don’t dismiss efforts to create an active classroom to facilitate those moments. I try to create them myself. But if you are a student with several honours papers to sit, months on from the lecture events, what’s going to matter most is how you study, and what materials you have to study with.

Instead of considering how we deliver a lecture, is it better to consider how we deliver a lecture course? We say at university that we expect students  to do independent work. That the notes are just a skeleton. As a student, I remember being confused by this—how much extra work was enough? Students want to work hard but can need direction. So why not structure the course so that it scaffolds the independent work to do? VLEs can host the (skeleton) notes, review quizzes, tutorial reviews, links to further and supplemental reading, prompts for thoughts and discussion, glossaries, and on, and on. Each of these have a specific purpose, integrated into the course with a particular pedagogic purpose. There is an overall design to the course.

By examining usage of these we can get a measure, way beyond a personal hunch of how brilliant we each are at lecturing, of what is providing value to students. If students watched my tutorial review and tried the quizzes scored less than those who didn’t, something is wrong. Our approach to teaching becomes data driven, and we can derive some metrics of value. The lecture was a central and important part of this, but it is part of an overall framework of resources that we provide to students as part of our lecture course. Our discussion on lecture quality moves away from how good a lecturer is to how comprehensive a lecture course is.

peanuts-cartoon-about-listening

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Why I love the lecture (at academic conferences)

There is a narrative that goes like this: most educators promote active learning. Educators present at conferences. Therefore they should use active learning approaches at conference talks. Practice what they preach, and all that.

I disagree. I love a good lecture. Good lectures can be memorable and informative. Yes, that was me stifling back a tear when Martyn Poliakoff gave his Nyholm lecture at Variety. Yes, that is me falling in love with chemistry again every time I hear AP de Silva talk. And yes, that was me punching the air at the final Gordon CERP talk by [redacted] at [redacted].

Requesting audience activity at conferences is confusing the process of learning by students on a module with identified learning outcomes, with learning by an academic who define their own learning outcomes when they look at the book of abstracts. Worse still, it is confusing learning by novices with learning by experts. As experts, we are in a position to go to a lecture and immediately scoop up information that is relevant and useful to us. We have the prior knowledge and expertise to call upon to place quite complicated information in context. That’s what being an expert is. The purpose of the presentation is to place the work in context of the speaker’s overall research programme; bring what might be several publications under one umbrella, and present it as a narrative. Argued with good data. Links to publications for more information. Hopefully with a few jolly anecdotes along the way.

Audience participation is a folly. Consider an education talk where the speaker requests the audience to have a chat about something that’s being discussed and predict what’s next, or offer ideas. Academics are blessed with many talents, but we’re not social beasts. The little chat is prefaced with social niceties as we try to get over the fact that we have to speak to other humans, followed by some discussion on what we’re meant to be talking about as we were too busy checking our Twitter feed to see what people said about our talk earlier. Of course, some amazing gems might come out in the feedback to the presenter. But are they really things the presenter isn’t aware of? Was it worth the time? I don’t think so.

I say this with hand on heart, as I have given a lecture at a conference which relied on audience participation. It was a lecture on the flipped lecture, and I agreed with conference organisers that it would be a fun thing to immerse the audience in a flipped experience. As a Friday morning keynote after the conference dinner the night before, the slot made sense. It was great fun and we had some great discussion – but was there anything that came back from the audience that I couldn’t have discussed in my talk? Probably not. It was very popular (thanks Twitter) and I did learn lots, but that’s not the purpose of the conference. Speakers aren’t there to learn. They’re there to inform. Especially keynote speakers – hey we paid for your fees y’know! Now let’s all discuss this over coffee.

(c) The New Yorker
(c) The New Yorker

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William Cullen and the early teaching of chemistry #oldtimechem

They don’t make student satisfaction quotes like they used to in the old days:

Dr Cullen was always at pains to examine his students from time to time on those parts of his course that had already been delivered; and wherever he found any one at a loss, he explained it anew, in a clear, familiar manner, suited to the capacity of the student.”

William Cullen
William Cullen

This quote was from a former student of William Cullen, who took up the Chemical Lectureship at Glasgow in 1747. He held the first independent chemistry lectureship in Britain and Ireland, with chemistry previously being what we today consider a service course to medicine. Funding for the post came by delaying the appointment of a Professor of Oriental Languages. Cullen was provided with money to set up his laboratory, and spent £52 “building furnaces and fitting up a laboratory and furnishing the necessary vessels for it”. The vessels were identified in a letter from Cullen’s brother-in-law who was trying to source a suitable glass-blower: a tabulated retort, a double-necked receiver; a quilled receiver, a funnel, and a connecting tube. Books requested by Cullen at the same time included Johann Heinrich Pott’s Excertitationes Chymicae, published in Berlin in 1738.

What did Cullen teach? A syllabus from 1748 survives, and shows that this was an exciting time for chemistry. Lavoisier was only 4 years old when Cullen took up his Lectureship, and the subject was still in its infancy. Cullen wished to expand it from the narrow confines of application to medicine, instead highlighting its application to a variety of areas of importance.  He wrote in one lecture: “it has been taught with very narrow view”.  Alluding to the agricultural and industrial relevance of chemistry, he continued:

It is the chemist who from these stones and earths procures malleable metals. It is the chemist who gives to these metals the degree of hardness, ductility, elasticity, or other property that fits the several purposes.

The syllabus contained an introduction to the history and use of chemistry, followed by a consideration of the doctrines of the primary causes of chemical reactions (“changes in bodies occurring in chemical operations”) and discussion on solution, distillation and fusion.  Particular emphasis was then given to three major subdivisions: salts (considering acid and alkalis), sulphurs (considering natural products), and waters (with mineral waters).

There was a strong emphasis on practical chemistry. Lectures often opened with a demonstration. Alarmingly, one included the preparation of nitric acid, and the regenerating of potassium nitrate, to illustrate the nature of ‘mixts’. Unusually, and probably uniquely, he encouraged inquiry by students, introducing voluntary practical classes. But Cullen learned a lesson then that chemistry lecturers have been learning ever since: if you don’t assess it, they don’t do it. He lamented in his final lecture to students that:

I proposed that during the course you should have acquired some knowledge [of experimental manipulation] in this way. The laboratory has been open to you, but I am sorry to find that so few of you have frequented it.

After a time at Glasgow, Cullen moved to Edinburgh, starting a course there on 12 January 1756.  Initially he was meant to take the Chair held by Plummer, but Plummer decided to hold on a little longer, and it wasn’t until illness struck him in 1755, that the way was paved for Cullen to become Chair of Medicine and Chemistry. His appointment was controversial: other names had been suggested for Plummer’s replacement, including joseph Black, who was Cullen’s stellar assistant at Glasgow.  But the Town Council, who had over-riding power of the University in accordance with the Charter of James VI, gave Cullen the nod. At Edinburgh, he continued expanding the breadth of the subject he taught. Indeed, his work on fermentation gives credit to the claim that he was one of the pioneers of biochemistry. As the opening quote illustrates, he was a popular teacher at Edinburgh, with student numbers in his classes growing from 17 in his first year, to 59 in the second. Up to 145 students attended his sessions.

Cullen was eventually replaced by Joseph Black, who had acted as his assistant for a course in Glasgow, and had moved to Edinburgh to complete his medical studies in 1752. After Cullen’s appointment to the Chair, Black went to Glasgow as a lecturer in chemistry, and returned to Edinburgh in 1766, replacing Cullen as Professor of Chemistry. Cullen himself was promoted to the Chair of Institutes of Medicine at Edinburgh. His two decades of teaching chemistry at Glasgow and Edinburgh were characterised by an interest in conveying the breadth of the subject and its variety of applications. He had the hallmarks of what we would today consider a reflective practitioner. In 1760 he wrote:

It will only be when the languor and debility of age shall restrain me that I shall cease to make some corrections of my plan or some additions to my course.

Published for the #oldtimechem theme running for the 2015 #Realtimechem week

Sources:

  1. G. W. Anderson (1978) The Playfair Collection and the Teaching of Chemistry at the University of Edinburgh 1713 – 1858, The Royal Scottish Museum: Edinburgh.
  2. P.D. Wightman (1955) William Cullen and the teaching of chemistry, Annals of Science, 11(2), 154-165.
  3. P.D. Wightman (1956) William Cullen and the teaching of chemistry—II, Annals of Science, 12:3, 192-205

Web sources:

Glasgow Chemistry: http://www.gla.ac.uk/schools/chemistry/aboutus/history/williamcullen/

Edinburgh Chemistry: http://www.chem.ed.ac.uk/about-us/history-school/professors/william-cullen

The Cullen Project: http://www.cullenproject.ac.uk/

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This week I’m reading… Changing STEM education

Summer is a great time for Good Intentions and Forward Planning… with that in mind I’ve been reading about what way we teach chemistry, how we know it’s not the best approach, and what might be done to change it.

Is changing the curriculum enough?

Bodner (1992) opens his discussion on reform in chemistry education writes that “recent concern”, way back in 1992, is not unique. He states that there are repeated cycles of concern about science education over the 20th century, followed by long periods of complacency. Scientists and educators usually respond in three ways:

  1. restructure the curriculum,
  2. attract more young people to science,
  3. try to change science teaching at primary and secondary level.

However, Bodner proposes that the problem is not in attracting people to science at the early stages, but keeping them on when they reach university, and that we at third level have much to learn with from our colleagues in primary and secondary level. Instead of changing the curriculum (the topics taught), his focus is on changing the way the curriculum is taught. In an era when textbooks (and one presumes now, the internet) have all the information one wants, the information dissemination component of a lecture is redundant. Bodner makes a case that students can perform quite well on a question involving equilibrium without understanding its relationship to other concepts taught in the same course, instead advocating an active learning classroom centred around discussion and explanation; dialogue between lecturers and student. He even offers a PhD thesis to back up his argument (A paper, with a great title, derived from this is here: PDF).

Are we there yet?

One of the frustrations I’m sure many who have been around the block a few times feel is the pace of change is so slow (read: glacial). 18 years after Bodner’s paper, Talanquer and Pollard (2010) criticize the chemistry curriculum at universities as “fact-based and encyclopedic, built upon a collection of isolated topics… detached from the practices, ways of thinking, and applications of both chemistry research and chemistry education research in the 21st century.” Their paper in CERP presents an argument for teaching “how we think instead of what we know”.

They describe their Chemistry XXI curriculum, which presents an introductory chemistry curriculum in eight units, each titled by a question. For example, Unit 1 is “How do we distinguish substances?”, consisting of four modules (1 to 2 weeks of work): “searching for differences, modelling matter, comparing masses, determining composition.” The chemical concepts mapping onto these include the particulate model of matter, mole and molar mass, and elemental composition.

Talanquer CERP 2010 imageAssessment of this approach is by a variety of means, including small group in-class activities. An example is provided for a component on physical and electronic properties of metals and non-metals; students are asked to design an LED, justifying their choices. I think this fits nicely into the discursive ideas Bodner mentions. Summative assessment is based on answering questions in a context-based scenario – picture shown.

In what is a very valuable addition to this discussion, learning progression levels are included, allowing student understanding of concepts and ideas, so that their progressive development can be monitored. It’s a paper that’s worth serious consideration and deserves more widespread awareness.

Keep on Truckin’

Finally in our trio is Martin Goedhart’s chapter in the recently published book Chemistry Education. Echoing the basis provided by Talanquer and Pollard, he argues that the traditional disciplines of analytical, organic, inorganic, physical, and biochemistry were reflective of what chemists were doing in research and practice. However, the interdisciplinary nature of our subject demands new divisions; Goedhart proposes three competency areas synthesis, analysis, and modelling. For example in analysis, the overall aim is “acquiring information about the composition and structure of substances and mixtures”. The key competencies are “sampling, using instruments, data interpretation”, with knowledge areas including instruments, methods and techniques, sample prep, etc. As an example of how the approach differs, he states that students should be able to select appropriate techniques for their analysis; our current emphasis is on the catalogue of facts on how each technique works. I think this echoes Talanquer’s point about shifting the emphasis on from what we know to how we think.

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My Education in Chemistry blog posts

A lot of my bloggery is now on the Education in Chemistry blog, and I will keep a running table of contents of them here.

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Discussing the role of Inquiry Based Learning

My two recent blog posts on the Education in Chemistry blog have generated a lot of discussion around inquiry-based learning in particular, and “innovative” methods in general. It is really well worth looking at some of the comments. There are two posts, opening gambits are below:

The case against inquiry based learning… 

Writing recently in The Irish Times, William Reville, emeritus professor of biochemistry at University College Cork, stated that newer teaching methods employed in the UK and Ireland are ‘sharply inferior to the older teaching methods they supplanted’. His article highlighted a 30% difference between educational scores in China, where whole-class teaching is employed, and those locally, where child-centred methods are used.

 

The case for inquiry based learning...

In my previous post outlining the case against inquiry-based learning I referenced William Reville’s critique of modern education methods. In a letter responding to that Irish Times article, teacher Ciara McMackin wrote:

If I intended to educate my students to be best able to follow instruction, regurgitate information and to excel in a 19th-century factory-style working environment … then certainly, modern teaching methods are not my best option.

Comments on this blog post are closed as it makes sense to compile them on the EiC blog.

 

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Mobile phones for analysis in school and undergrad laboratories

 “Although the majority of scientific workers utilize photography for illustrative purposes, a survey of the literature shows that only a limited number fully appreciate its usefulness as a means for recording data.”

So wrote GE Matthew and JI Crabtree in a 1927 article of Journal of Chemical Education.[1] Photography has come on since then, when they cautioned readers on the properties and limitations of photographic emulsion for quantitative purposes. Now it is much simpler, and there are many applications of photography using a mobile phone camera and a suitable app. I’ve summarised five of these below.

1. Colorimetric Analysis[2]

This is a paper I have written about before. It essentially allows a Beer-Lambert plot to be performed from a mobile phone picture of a series of solutions of different concentrations of a coloured dye. The practical is extended to Lucozade. The original paper suggests the use of PC imaging software, but good results can be obtained with a mobile phone RGB colour determination app such as RGB Camera. Some more detail on that process is in the earlier blog post.

Graphical abstract from J Chem Ed.
Graphical abstract from J Chem Ed.

2. Colorimetry for chemical kinetics[3]

Image: J Chem Ed
Image: J Chem Ed

This recently published paper extends the idea outlined above and uses colorimetry for kinetic analysis. The experiment is the hydrolysis of crystal violet with hydroxide ions. A similar set up to that described above, except the camera is set to acquire images every 10 s automatically. The authors describe the analysis protocol well, and suggest a mechanism for reducing data analysis time. The app mentioned here (for Android) is Camera FV-5 Lite. The supplementary information has detailed student instructions for image analysis. A very clever idea.

3. A variation on flame photometry for testing for sodium in sea water and coconut water[4]

Image: J Chem Ed
Image: J Chem Ed

This is a really excellent idea where the flame test is monitored by recording a video on the mobile phone. Stock saline solutions from between 20 to 160 mg/dm3 were prepared and used to build a calibration curve. The flame colour was recorded on video. To do this, the phone was fixed approximately 40 cm from the flame, with a white background 40 cm in the opposite direction. Distilled water was sprayed into the flame to record the blank, followed by the calibration solutions and the analytes (sea water and coconut water). The videos were replayed to find the point at which the light was most intense. Again, the authors go into quite complex PC imaging analysis; a simpler option would be to pause the video at the point of greatest intensity and take a phone screenshot for analysis. RGB data can be obtained, subtracting the baseline (distilled water). I want to do this one!!

4. Determining amino-acid content in tea leaf extract[5] – using microfluidic analysis

Image: J Chem Ed
Image: J Chem Ed

Students prepare a microfluidic device using a wax pen on fliter paper. A 2% ninhydrin solution is prepared (full details in paper) and this is used as the sensor on the filter paper. Tea is boiled and extracted and small drops added to the microfluid wells. After a picture is taken, the RGB data allow for analysis of the glutamic acid present. Again the authors suggest desktop software, but there is no reason why an app can’t be used. The set-up involves ninhydrin and tin (II) chloride, so is probably best for university students.

The microfluidic device is interesting though for students at all levels. Essentially any pattern can be drawn on filter paper with a wax pen. The paper is heated to 135 °C for 30 seconds, and the wax melts through the paper, creating hydrophobic walls. The main author also has a just published RSC Advances paper where the microfluidic devices are prepared using an inkjet printer, and used as a glucose assay, so this is right on the cutting edge.[6] 

5. More microfluidics: analysis of Cu2+ and Fe2+ using colorimetry[7]

Another paper on microfluidics, but this one more applicable for the school classroom. Microfluidic arrays are prepared by cutting designs into Parafilm sheets and enclosing them between paper, and then aluminium foil, before passing through a laminator. Analysis as before is by RGB determination of the spots formed, again the paper’s SI gives a good overview of the analysis protocol for students.

Image: J Chem Ed
Image: J Chem Ed

References

[1] G. E. Matthews and J. I. Crabtree, Photography as a recording medium for scientific work. Part I, J. Chem. Educ., 1927, 4 (1), 9.
[2] Eric Kehoe and R. Lee Penn, Introducing Colorimetric Analysis with Camera Phones and Digital Cameras: An Activity for High School or General Chemistry, J. Chem. Educ.201390 (9), 1191–1195
[3] Theodore R. Knutson, Cassandra M. Knutson, Abbie R. Mozzetti, Antonio R. Campos, Christy L. Haynes, and R. Lee Penn, A Fresh Look at the Crystal Violet Lab with Handheld Camera Colorimetry, J. Chem. Educ., Article ASAP, DOI: 10.1021/ed500876y.
[4] Edgar P. Moraes, Nilbert S. A. da Silva, Camilo de L. M. de Morais, Luiz S. das Neves, and Kassio M. G. de Lima, Low-Cost Method for Quantifying Sodium in Coconut Water and Seawater for the Undergraduate Analytical Chemistry Laboratory: Flame Test, a Mobile Phone Camera, and Image Processing, J. Chem. Educ.201491 (11), pp 1958–1960.
[5] Longfei Cai , Yunying Wu , Chunxiu Xu, and Zefeng Chen, A Simple Paper-Based Microfluidic Device for the Determination of the Total Amino Acid Content in a Tea Leaf Extract, J. Chem. Educ.201390 (2), 232–234.
[6] Chunxiu Xu, Longfei Cai, Minghua Zhonga and Shuyue Zhenga, Low-cost and rapid prototyping of microfluidic paper-based analytical devices by inkjet printing of permanent marker ink, RSC Adv., 2015, 5, 4770-4773.
[7] Myra T. Koesdjojo, Sumate Pengpumkiat, Yuanyuan Wu, Anukul Boonloed, Daniel Huynh, Thomas P. Remcho, and Vincent T. Remcho, Cost Effective Paper-Based Colorimetric Microfluidic Devices and Mobile Phone Camera Readers for the Classroom, J. Chem. Educ. 2015, 92, 737−741.

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Flipped Conference Presentation Video Online

The last post described the AHEAD Conference Flipped Lecture presentation, which was itself a flipped lecture. Participants were asked to watch a video in advance of the conference and then the conference session itself discussed the themes emerging from that pre-lecture presentation. AHEAD have published the conference presentation, so if you want to watch the chaos unfold…

embedded by Embedded Video

YouTube DirektVideo: The Flipped Lecture: Using e-resources to support all learners

One of the nice things about using this method is that I was able to integrate comments from other educators made on the preparatory blog post into the conference presentation, which are now immortalised on this presentation… Circles within circles…

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What are your thoughts on lecture flipping?

I am giving a keynote at the AHEAD conference in March, and the lecture itself will be a flipped lecture on lecture flipping. The audience will be a mixture of academics and support staff from all over Europe and beyond, and the idea is that they will watch the presentation in advance (hmmmm) and we will then use the time during the actual conference presentation to discuss emerging themes. I will be highly caffeinated.

In order to address some of the issues around lecture flipping that face most educators, I would be interested to hear thoughts from lecturers and support staff on the idea of lecture flipping. Any and all of the following… please do comment or tweet me @seerymk:

  1. What do you think the potential of flipping is?
  2. What concerns you about the model?
  3. Is it scalable?
  4. In terms of resources, have you any thoughts on the materials prepared for lecture flipping in advance of and/or for lectures.
  5. How do you consider/reconsider assessment in light of lecture flipping.
  6. Any other genius ideas that I can rob…

 

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New book on Chemistry Education

chemistry-educationA new book “Chemistry Education : Best Practices, Opportunities and Trends” has just been made available online. It covers a range of current topics in chemistry teaching including a chapter on human activity by Peter Mahaffy, context based learning by Ilka Parchmann and flipped lectures by Eric Mazur. In addition, there are some chapters on aspects of chemistry teaching, such as that one on problem solving by George Bodner, laboratory teaching by Avi Hofstein and conceptual integration by Keith Taber. In fact the table of contents reads like a who’s-who of chemical education (some notable exceptions acknowledged).

Ireland is well respresented with two chapters from DIT – one on community based learning by Claire McDonnell, and one on e-learning and blended learning from Christine O’Connor and myself. A further chapter on the language of chemistry comes from UL.

I’m looking forward to getting the physical copy. The problem with many books of this nature is that their cost is prohibitive and therefore many people who would find it valuable can’t access it. It’s worth seeing whether pre-prints are available from individual authors or very often publications covering similar themes might be available. I wrote a survey of e-learning and blended learning for chemistry in the HEA New Directions journal recently (free to access), which covers some of the topics mentioned in our chapter.

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Eurovariety in Chemistry Education 2015

Registration is now open for the 2015 Eurovariety in Chemistry Education meeting, being held in Tartu, Estonia from June 30th to July 2nd.

Dates on the conference website are currently listed as:

  • Registration opens: February,1
  • Submission of abstracts opens: February 1, ends March 15
  • Acceptance of the papers: April 15

Conference Website: http://sisu.ut.ee/eurovariety/avaleht

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