200th Blog Post

This is my 200th blog post. Now I should say that, while I am impressed with that number, given that it is over seven years since Róisín Donnelly and Muireann O’Keeffe gently broached the idea of starting a blog, it is not a fantastic output rate: to borrow Kevin Bridges joke about losing 4 stone over 10 years, I don’t think I’ll be writing a book on how to blog.

I’m going to avoid the kind of post where I reflect on my blogging, think about what I’ve learned, and look with renewed wistful enthusiasm to the future: fail better! I’m also going to avoid my usual call to encourage others to blog, as my conversion rate is low. (Briefly: yes you have something to say, yes you can write, yes it is worth the time, and you’ll only be threatened with litigation once).

So instead I will celebrate by highlighting a few blogs I like to go to for my chemistry/education fix. I should say this isn’t meant to be encyclopedic, but rather the blogs that, when I see a new post, I will make time to read it. I have previously done more formal summaries for Nature Chemistry and Education in Chemistry.  (I see you have to pay $18 to read the Nature Chemistry one! Holy Mother of Jerusalem how did we get to this state?)

Read these blogs:

Katherine Haxton: Possibilities Endless – I love Katherine’s blog; it’s always a dose of pragmatism and reality, mixed in with something useful. She’s honest and funny and it is all very refreshing;  This is also one of the very few blogs left in the world where people seem to leave comments.

Blogs about chemistry teaching and evidence based practice

  • David Paterson: Thoughts on chemistry and education – think this is a newish blog. Given its title, its appeal is apparent. And it doesn’t disappoint. It’s clear that the author is someone who thinks very seriously about teaching and his blogs are wonderful summaries and conversations about those thoughts.
  • Kristy Turner: Adventures in chemistry education on both sides of the transition between school and HE – just like the title, Kristy is someone with a lot to say and this blog is one of the outlets she uses. Always some good insight and highlighting things you mightn’t have thought of.
  • Niki Kaiser: NDHS Blogspot – This is an amazing website and growing resource. I can’t actually keep up with it but Niki and others post stuff of on lots of aspects of teaching chemistry; cognitive science being the strand I follow. Very useful.

Blogs about chemistry education research and ongoing projects

This category is sadly not well occupied. How wonderful would it be to get updates and insights into the work people are doing. We tried with our badging lab skills site, and it got lots of interest, so despite promising not to, I do really encourage people to do it. Two nascent blogs in this category offering real hope are:

  • Stephen George-Williams Investigating the effects of Transforming Laboratory Learning – Stephen is updating about his PhD project which is centred around lab education. I think this is a great idea and it will be interesting to follow to see the kind of data gathered and the kinds of processes done with it.
  • Nimesh Mistry Mistry Research Group – Nimesh is also blogging about his observations as part of research in his group. His latest one documents questions students ask in the lab, and plans to think about how he will use those observations in planning lab design. More please!

I’m sure I have forgotten some and hope that if I have, I am reminded, so that I can apologise most profusely.



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.

Chemistry Education Conferences in Europe

Some European chemistry education conferences occurring over the coming year – if you know of any others, please let me know and I will update

#Chemed Links this week

Links are now compiled on a rolling basis on scoopit – you can see them there are they are added. This week I added:

  • Amended the iPad app list to include “goREACT” – an interactive periodic table where you can react elements together. Based on an exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry at Chicago.
  • Learning styles persist, despite being debunked – here’s a useful article.
  • Was reminded of my article on Constructivism in Chemistry, and since writing that found Keith Taber’s work (including a free chapter download) to be very useful and informative.
  • Interesting article on GCSE coursework that might be of interest to chemistry teachers including those meeting at this weekend’s ChemEd Ireland at LIT.
  • Similarly, a nice article on role of Public Analyst, with some interesting case studies.
  • A nice wiki showing students’ contributions to building up some fundamentals of a periodic table.
  • David Read has attacked a beast of a paper (in a good way) on chemical bonding in textbooks highlighting the main findings for practitioners.

#ChemEd Links this week

Thanks @RI_science, @DocWithTheSocs, @SellaTheChemist, @mmeureka, @walshmarie

iPad Apps for Chemistry Education and Other Weekly Links

I put out a call for useful apps for chemistry education yesterday and these came in.* If you have any more ideas, let me know and I will add them.

  • New: goREACT – an interactive periodic table where you can react elements together. Based on an exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry at Chicago
  • ChemDraw – very useful and easy way to draw pretty structures on iPad. Intuitive to use.
  • Merck periodic table
  • Socrative – Clicker type app. There’s a teacher version and a student version. Limited to 50 students. Responseware similar but requires subscription.
  • Evernote, Notability, iDo Pro, Explain everything, iAnnotate, Show Me – useful for writing/annotating/recording video.
  • Idocea – teacher organiser

Other links this week:*

Thanks to @doc_kristy, @STEMPedR, @sdb, @S_J_Lancaster, @tinaoverton, @walshmarie, @marksmithers, @RSC_EiC, @ChemistryWorld, @simonpbates, @RSC_Science

Weekly #ChemEd Links

I am planning to summarise some useful links I come across each week. How long will this last? Probably two weeks.

Flipped teaching gathering apace:

  • An EiC article on flipping lectures by Simon Lancaster and David Read 
  • A paper in CERP on student attitudes to flipping lectures
  • An annotated list of flipped class tools and resources from The Peer Instruction blog

Thinking about chemistry education:

  • Marcy Towns editorial in J Chem Ed which includes some issues for consideration in chemical education research [free access]
  • I started a journal club! Gaining some interest and open to ideas as to how it works. This week I looked at a great paper on building a study skills session into the curriculum to develop metacognitive strategies. Suzanne Fergus added a useful note to say that the “Rule of One” was useful to give to students regarding reviewing material: Recap 1 hour, 1 day, 1 week. I also learned from her about the Ebbinghaus forgetting curve.

Accessing resources: