A view from Down Under

Melbourne Seventh City of Empire, part of the Australia 1930s Exhibition at National Gallery of Victoria
Melbourne Seventh City of Empire, part of the “Brave New World: Australia 1930s” Exhibition at National Gallery of Victoria

I’ve spent the last two week in Australia thanks to a trip to the Royal Australian Chemical Institute 100th Annual Congress in Melbourne. I attended the Chemistry Education symposium.

So what is keeping chemistry educators busy around this part of the world? There are a lot of similarities, but some differences. While we wrestle with the ripples of TEF and the totalitarian threat of learning gains, around here the acronym of fear is TLO: threshold learning outcomes.  As I understand it, these are legally binding statements stating that university courses will ensure students will graduate with the stated outcomes. Institutions are required to demonstrate that these learning outcomes are part of their programmes and identify the level to which they are assessed. This all sounds very good, except individuals on the ground are now focussing on identifying where these outcomes are being addressed. Given that they are quite granular, this appears to be a huge undertaking and is raising questions like: where and to what extent is teamwork assessed in a programme?

Melbourne from the Shrine
Melbourne from the Shrine

This process does appear to have promoted a big interest in broader learning outcomes, with lots of talks on how to incorporate transferable skills into the curriculum, and some very nice research into students’ awareness of their skills. Badges are of interest here and may be a useful way to document these learning outcomes in a way that doesn’t need a specific mark. Labs were often promoted as a way of addressing these learning outcomes, but I do wonder how much we can use labs for learning beyond their surely core purpose of teaching practical chemistry.

Speaking of labs, there was some nice work on preparing for laboratory work and on incorporating context into laboratory work. There was (to me) a contentious proposal that there be a certain number of laboratory activities (such as titrations) that are considered core to a chemist’s repertoire, and that graduation should not be allowed until competence in those core activities be demonstrated. Personally I think chemistry is a broader church than that, and it will be interesting to watch that one progress. A round-table discussion spent a good bit of time talking about labs in light of future pressures of funding and space; and it does seem that we are still not quite clear about what the purpose of labs are. Distance education – which Australia has a well-established head start in – was also discussed, and I was really glad to hear someone with a lot of experience in this say that it is possible to generate a community with online learners, but that it takes a substantial personal effort. The lab discussion continued to the end, with a nice talk on incorporating computational thinking into chemistry education, with suggestions on how already reported lab activities might be used to achieve this.

Gwen Lawrie delivers her Award Address
Gwen Lawrie delivers her Award Address

Of course it is the personal dimension that is the real benefit of these meetings, and it was great to meet some faces old and new. Gwen Lawrie wasn’t on the program as the announcement of her award of Education Division Medal was kept secret for as long as possible. I could listen to Gwen all day, and her talk had the theme “Chasing Rainbows”, which captured so eloquently what it means to be a teacher-researcher in chemistry education, and in a landscape that continues to change. [Gwen’s publications are worth trawling] Gwen’s collaborator Madeline Schultz (a Division Citation Winner) spoke about both TLOs and on reflections on respected practitioners on their approaches to teaching chemistry – an interesting study using a lens of pedagogical content knowledge. From Curtin, I (re-)met Mauro Mocerino (who I heard speak in Europe an age ago on clickers) who spoke here of his long standing work on training demonstrators. Also from that parish, it was a pleasure to finally meet Dan Southam. I knew Dan only through others; a man “who gets things done” so it was lovely to meet him in his capacity as Chair of the Division and this symposium, and to see that his appellation rang true. And it was nice to meet Elizabeth Yuriev, who does lovely work exploring how students approach physical chemistry problem and on helping students with problem solving strategies.

Dinner Date
Dinner Date

There were lots of other good conversations and friendly meetings, demonstrating that chemistry educators are a nice bunch regardless of location. I wasn’t the only international interloper; Aishling Flaherty from University of Limerick was there to spread her good work on demonstrator training – an impressive programme she has developed and is now trialling in a different university and a different country. And George Bodner spoke of much of his work in studying how students learn organic chemistry, and in particular the case of “What to do about Parker”. The memory of Prof Bodner sitting at the back of my talk looking at my slides through a telescopic eye piece is a happy one that will stay with me for a long time. Talk of organic chemistry reminds me of a presentation about the app Chirality – 2 which was described – it covers lots of aspects about revising organic chemistry, and looked really great.

The Pioneer, National Gallery of Victoria
The Pioneer, National Gallery of Victoria

My slightly extended trip was because I had the good fortune to visit the research group of Prof Tina Overton, who moved to Melbourne a few years ago, joining native Chris Thompson in growing the chemistry education group at Monash. It was an amazing experience immersing in a vibrant and active research group, who are working on things ranging from student critical thinking, chemists’ career aspirations, awareness of transferable skills, and the process and effect of transforming an entire laboratory curriculum. I learned a lot as I always do from Tina and am extremely grateful for her very generous hosting. I leave Australia now, wondering if I can plan a journey in 2018 for ICCE in Sydney.

From Hokusai exhibition, NGV
From Hokusai exhibition, NGV. My interpretation of students managing in a complex learning environment

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