Variety in Chemistry Education 2011

Variety in Chemistry Education (ViCE) UK is one of those conferences. Unmissable, pragmatic, friendly, and always informative. I’ve gone every year since I started teaching, and love catching up with old friends and meeting new ones. Its value lies in the fact that it is based on presentations by chemistry lecturers on things they have tried in their own teaching—so it is a treasure trove of new ideas of things to try. This year we found out using clickers in David Read’s talk that 48% of attendees were first-timers, a good measure of a well-established and thought of conference. Like last year’s Variety (which I wrote about here), I came away with a real boost in motivation for the start of the new academic year.


The opening keynote is traditionally given by the RSC Higher Education Teaching Award winner which for 2010 was David Read. I’ve heard him speak before about school to university transition, outreach, contextualising learning, lecture capture, and more. His background as a school teacher now working in the university system gives him a good view on transition issues. He spoke, amongst other things, about going full circle in developing a really nice suite of resources on worked examples—first at A-level and then at undergraduate level—which aim to demystify the assessment process. The latter were made using Camtasia Studio, which accompanied video lectures of key aspects of chemistry causing difficulties. An example of these is on YouTube. There’s also a nice example of a department tour that I’d like to try myself for pre-induction information. Those interested in the forthcoming review of Leaving Cert Chemistry might be interested in David’s analysis of A-Level chemistry. As if that’s not enough, he also pointed us to an bank of copyright free images for use in lecture-capture in chemistry (physical chemistry at the moment). This is a busy man.

Simon Belt, from Plymouth, was awarded a UK National Teaching Fellowship and his entertaining lecture Karaoke Chemistry used the talk titles of several previous Variety talks since 1993 to show how trends in chemistry education were changing, slowly. This provided the background to addressing a wholescale programme redesign for chemistry programmes in Plymouth. The approach was novel—considering what outcomes were desirable, picking just five of the most important of these (usually quite generic – e.g. research skills, project management, lab skills, etc), completing an outcomes audit, gauging the level of the outcomes addressed (usually quite low or not at all, which as the speaker noted was unsurprising as the original design did not include those) and then identifying how outcomes could be introduced into the curriculum. The process took a year and is still ongoing. It was brilliant to see a live example of a meaningful programme redesign and how it could occur in practice, incorporating mechanisms to get all staff on board. Simon is one of the best speakers in the business, and he used pictures of singers to underline several of his points (hence the title of the talk).

Ingo Eilks from Bremen gave a talk on the history of the lecture. I was a bit disappointed not to see more about his work in rethinking how lectures can be given, although this work, at an early stage, should be interesting to follow.


Lots of presentations (15 mins) and bytes (5 mins), so it is hard to pick out ones to mention. In terms of themes, lecture capture is one of interest. It seems to be evolving, moving on from full lectures to shorter screencasts on topics that are causing difficulties. Simon Lancaster gave a talk on a collaboration with David Read (yes, him again) on chemistry vignettes which they are developing on a variety of topics; something similar is being developed at Leicester by Dylan Williams. Another theme was lecture or lab preparation, with our own talk on pre-lecture activities, and Gita Sedghi presented a talk on Liverpool’s VITAL pre-lab tutoring system. Visualisation is a component of this, and Liverpool’s excellent (and technically amazing) ChemTube3D project was well represented by Neil Berry and virtual experiments described by Charles Harrison, a student of David Read’s (yes, him, again). Jmol also featured in a brilliant talk by Nigel Young which had vibrations of molecules in tune with classic hits (open access but I can’t find the link).  Eleanor Crabb from the OU gave a great talk on supporting students using chat rooms and forums.

Following last year’s publication of Hanson and Overton’s Skills Audit, a lot of talks looked at professional skills, and all of them embedded the teaching of these skills into the chemistry curriculum. From writing chemistry books in an intensive week at Teeside to a communications module in Birmingham and a development of a suite of modules across a programme in Reading, there were lots of ideas for how to develop our delivery of these key skills. Kyle Galloway completed an impressive audit of student opinion of what they considered to be important key skills at various stages. There was a nice byte from James Gaynor on using wikis (with a useful reference: Educ. Assessment, 2006, 11(1), 1-31) which I would have liked to have been a full talk as he had some nice stuff to talk about on self- and peer-assessment, something which scares me greatly and I’d like to know more about it! My podcasting workshop reduced some people to song, better than tears I suppose. Lorraine McCormack nearly had us all in tears with an excellent talk on the gap between what Piaget says should be the cognitive development of our students and what her results actually find (for Irish students).

Ends of Eras

The Variety was the last one to be organised by the amazingly excellent UK Higher Education Academy Physical Sciences Centre which has closed following a reorganisation of structure at the HEA. We could only look on in envy at our UK colleagues with the support the Centre provided, and they were always generous in making their resources and workshops available beyond borders. It’s conferences like Variety that were the hallmark of the Centre, pragmatic and immediately useful, but backed up by a core of good research and scholarship. They will be missed. Variety will continue though under the auspices of the RSC Tertiary Education Group, which is good news.

Stephen Breur, editor of the excellent Chemistry Education Reseach and Practice journal wil also be missed, as he hands his editorship over to Keith Taber this week. CERP, and its predecessor University Chemistry Education are a place where reports on the scholarship and practice of teaching in chemistry had a good home. Stephen, along with his co-editor brought the journal into the ISI citations and saw it get an excellent impact factor—a real testament to the editors dedication to the promotion of the journal among all interested in chemistry education.

Twitter (#VCE11) featured prominently and a nice storyful (day 1, day 2) was compiled by @kjhaxton. Pathetically, I couldn’t tweet on Day 1 as I forgot my wifi code and on Day 2 I was just too, er, tired.

Looking forward to ViCE 2012 already! Got my kilt ready…