Variety in Chemistry Education Meeting, 2012

Variety in Chemistry Education is one of my favourite conferences which I attend annually (2010 and 2011 reports here). This year’s meeting was held along with the Physics Higher Education Conference, providing the catchy Twitter hashtag #vicephec. The meeting was opened with a keynote by Prof Martyn Poliakoff, inorganic chemist from Nottingham, but better known to 102,403 YouTube subscribers as the star of the Periodic Table of Videos series, which have been viewed over 25,243,185 times. Prof Poliakoff received the 2011 RSC Nyholm Prize—awarded every other year for Education. He spoke about the development of the videos, working with video journalist Brady Haran to create 120 videos with over 4 hours film time in a little over a month. The urgency was caused by the pending end of a financial year! After completing the periodic table, they continued to work on videos (everything from concrete to Viagra). What struck me most though from this presentation was the sense of collaboration—a world-renowned scientist sharing his knowledge with that of a skilled video journalist. Hopefully it is a collaboration that might inspire others. Prof Poliakoff’s talk—which was personal and beautifully delivered—ended with a special tribute video to Ronald Nyholm (one of the two men behind VSEPR theory), which I suspect had even the quantum physicists choking back a tear.

With the onset of presentations (15 mins) and bytes (5 mins), it became clear that the organisers had carefully thought about the programme, with clear themes emerging. The first of those is the increasing use of technology in education. These included several talks on supporting in-class learning using multi-media resources. Simon Lancaster (UEA) spoke of a trial regarding flipping the lecture, and on a similar concept, David McGarvey and Katherine Haxton (Keele) spoke about pre-lecture activities they developed for their students (See September 2012 Education in Chemistry for a full article on pre-lecture activities). Dylan Williams talked about using multi-media clips for supporting lectures, and David Read on some fantastic worked answer videos for allowing students to engage in self-assessed work (during the summer, which they liked!). Technology continued into workshops on screencasting, wikis and online practicals.

The keynote from David McGarvey (Keele), the 2011 RSC Higher Education Teaching Award winner, stayed with the technology theme. He has used a wide range of technologies to support innovations in laboratory practicals, presentation skills and most impressively, audio feedback. His work on feedback—especially interim feedback—is inspiring. We were spoiled with a preview of this talk at the Irish Variety in Chemistry meeting earlier this year, which I wrote about here. I always come away from his talks with  lots of great ideas, so well thought out, and a concern that he can’t be sleeping much if he is working on so many great innovations at once.

Another theme that arose was that of student support in terms of college experience. Transition from school to college, international students, and distance learning students all have specific issues. An example was the talk by Gita Sedghi (Liverpool) spoke about supporting international students so that they integrated and interacted fully in their new environment, with a suite of supports such as pre-arrival planning, peer mentoring and student monitoring (interviews).

Context and problem based learning continues to be popular, and the recent focus by the RSC and the HE-STEM programme has generated several new resources available to use. These included an excellent package on costing and developing a fireworks display developed by Gan Schermer (Bath), a scenario on the theme of energy by Dylan Williams (Leicester) and talk on the process of redesigning a traditional hardness of water practical to give a multi-week C/PBL scenario for first years (Karen Moss, NTU). Two workshops on this theme were on designing ill-conceived problems and on developing commercial skills for chemists.

The third keynote was given by Paul van Kampen (DCU). This excellent talk outlined his personal journey in becoming a science education researcher as well as being a scientist. It was interesting as he highlighted what aspects of being a scientist could translate into education research, as well as illustrating what was different in the two research fields—for example the inability to “control” the sample in a science education “experiment”.  Many in the audience are actively at the boundary of scientist/science educationalist and the talk was a useful marker in the considerations around designing, implementing and validating educational materials. His talk also highlighted the great advantage of co-hosting the meeting with physicists; as even though we are based in the same city, we as chemist and physicist had never previously met. The closing forum agreed the experiment of co-hosting was successful, and if #vicephec13 is half as successful as this busy, informative, and entertaining meeting, it is a must-see on next year’s calendar.

Some highlights

  • There is a kid in us all: “We made chlorine gas!” Over-excited delegate after the Microscale Chemistry workshop (delivered by Bob Worley, CLEAPSS/Brunel)
  • Useful tip: Use personal whiteboards as a low-tech version of interactive teaching (Simon Lancaster, UEA)
  • Talk that changed my mind: A trio of talks on Peerwise, including Kyle Galloway (Nottingham) whereby students developed quiz questions to help each other study. Students liked having questions specific to their course, and enjoyed writing questions.
  • Simplest idea is the best: Katherine Haxton (Keele) on getting students to do a screencast instead of an oral presentation. It is self, peer, and tutor assessed. Some excellent meta-cognitive concepts included in this well designed innovation.
  • Time saver: Stephen Ashworth (UEA) on using Excel to generate a large number of questions for online VLEs with specific feedback. CONCATENATE is my new favourite Excel function. Absolute genius.
  • Change to teaching: More interim feedback, David McGarvey’s work on using interim audio feedback illustrates what can be achieved.

The entire meeting’s tweets have been added to Storify, which includes many links and references to resources and websites mentioned. I plan to compile a list of these and add them here.

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