Summers End

The air around Keele has been distinctly Autumnal of late, and in between heavy rain, it’s quite clear that summer is done. Hopefully we’ll get an Indian summer for those last few rays of hope before the season properly turns.

It’s been a funny summer and quite busy. I’ve had work experience students, summer students, spent a week at the Chamboree making slime, done quite a bit of other outreach and am only now heading off on holiday. What I haven’t done is made any significant dent in the teaching prep for the coming semester (or made sufficient headway into the admin to-do list). In some ways I’m not entirely sure of what I have done with my time but in other moments I recall something that took up quite a bit of it. I also got a new kitchen, went to Cornwall for about 40 hours and did other home stuff.

The end of August brings the Variety in Chemistry Education/Physics Higher Education conference (VICEPHEC). This is the 5th year I’ve come to this conference and it is a highlight of the year. I sit here in Durham, after the first day but before the conference dinner. We’ve had a fantastic and thought provoking keynote lecture from Professor Simon Lancaster on the nature of lectures, engagement and peer instruction. Dr Kristy Taylor lead an informative workshop on A-level chemistry that saw us performing A-level practical work and getting in a little bit of a snit over the value of TLC. Other talks have involved PeerWise, assessing laboratories and ways of convincing students that engaging with feedback is important. I especially enjoyed Dr Barry Ryan’s talk on information literacy – he’s using some really creative assessments that sound like they would be fun to do. He also admitted to be a magpie at conferences, collecting sparkly ideas and assimilating them into his practice – I loved that notion.

As I haven’t quite started my teaching prep yet, it’s possible that some of the ideas I’ve heard today will make it in there. Usually I’m a bit frustrated after day 1 because I’ve already sorted out the assignments and lectures and I don’t want to re-do them. Then I forget by the following year what I intended. So what two things will I take from today?

1. Time to get better engagement in lectures and encourage more learning ‘there and then’ rather than presenting stuff to be memorised at a later point.

2. The lab safety quiz should include more on lab hygiene and not just focus on procedural safety stuff.  Probably need to include more ‘read this then answer questions’ bits.

There will probably more thoughts on this as I process things from today.


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Units Matter Part II

With that many mushrooms, it serves 4 what?

With that many mushrooms, it serves 4 what?

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Units Matter

units 1


Held by human being, 5'8" for scale.

Held by human being, 5’8″ for scale.

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Yesterday we were at the RAF Cosford Museum to run activities as part of the Chemistry at Work event for schools. We’ve been before and it remains a spectacular venue for outreach.cosford chem at work 1

Set up and ready to go!

Again we took our ‘Is Faster Better?’ activity, looking at catalysis through the catalysed decomposition of hydrogen peroxide. We introduced a new catalyst that introduced a degree of unpredictability to the whole experiment.

cosford chem at work 2

Keeping the test tubes at arms length!

We adapted this prep to use iron trichloride powder and 0.1M solution. During testing, the tiny quantities of powder and drops of solution created a fairly satisfactory result, compared to solid/aqueous KI and yeast. But ‘in reality’ both were fairly unpredictable. Clearly better catalysts provided your aim was good and the bulk of the stuff got into the peroxide-soap mixture, but if not, quite bizarre and unreliable. The good thing about comparing a microspatula tip of solid with three drops of 0.1 M FeCl3 (or 2M KI) is you can discuss quantity and dissolution as factors. You do have to be adaptable however when one set of reagents does something different every time!

cosford chem at work 3

Richard with a school group

The museum is still a wonderful place to do science outreach of any sort, surrounded by the planes, tanks, cars and missiles!

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The Reciprocal Space of Social Media

In a bit of end of semester navel gazing last week I was contemplating the usefulness or otherwise of blogging. The first website I ever ‘ran’ was back in 1997 and it’s creation coincided with having reliable access to a computer and the internet on starting university. While it is long gone (I do still have printouts!), it was what would now be classed as a blog. Then came a series of blog-like websites with photos and tales of travels and then I discovered blogging ‘proper’ in 2006. That’s a long journey but not as long as the journey from then to here. In total, probably 7 or 8 websites/blogs, some still active, some long gone (beyond even the reach of the way back machine). It’s strange to consider the various versions of me that has inhabited online spaces.

I was jolted from this brief reverie by a tweet from a colleague:

I suggest that all new (UK) academic appointments should be encouraged to engage with social media! Comments?

@Robajackson, Twitter, 8:02 PM – 23 Jun 2014

My first response (although not one I tweeted, for 15 years on the internet will teach you a thing or two about off the cuff responses*) was ‘oh dear goodness me no, the last thing the world needs is a whole bunch of self-centred young academics running around on social media’. I’m aware that this is a highly uncharitable view and my second response (again not one I tweeted) was ‘when on earth would they find the time, doesn’t @robajackson appreciate just how. much. there. is. to. do. these days as a new academic? My third response was a more refined version of my first response: ‘yes, OK, I suppose it has its benefits but please someone teach them that it is about reciprocity and community.

Back in the ‘old days’ of blogging, before RSS readers became de rigueur, keeping up with the chemistry/academic blogosphere took effort. I remember countless hours spent hopping from blog roll to blog roll and I’m pretty sure I had a pre-defined route around my little neighbourhood on the net. I commented significantly more, I engaged with my own comments significantly more, I discovered new blogs at a far greater rate (I have no evidence to suggest rate of creation of blogs is now lower but it is harder to find new blogs), and I payed more heed to the diversity of those blogs in appearance, form and style. Now they all appear through an RSS reader and they all look the same, form and style being dictated by the RSS reader of the day.  Feedly’s recent outage prompted me to return to the old ways and I realised that I’d missed it. Blogs felt a bit more of a community back then, more conversation orientated and with a heap of carnivals and like minded people taking on issues collectively, there was always a strong sense of inhabiting some sort of reciprocal space. I can still name the person (pseudonym) that left the first ever comment on my blog and I can still remember the incredulity that someone had found and read it.

Why does that matter and how does it relate to the tweet? Well social media is now more diverse and there are a lot of forms to keep track of. There are a lot of utilities out there to help stream the social media and homogenise it. And those utilities make the broadcast aspects of social media ever easier. Type something, and one click later it is on multiple sites. But that’s not the strength of social media and anyone who thinks it is an excellent opportunity for self-promotion is missing out on about 80% of the point. Social media was, is, and should be a reciprocal space where it is possible to forge and maintain relationships in a different way to personal interactions. But it is about relationships and reciprocity. Without that, we might as well give every young academic a megaphone and permit them to yell about their achievements once per hour.  That would be…tiresome!

So do consider engaging with social media but please do not think that it is an easy route to fame or ‘impact’. The tools are powerful and with power comes responsibility.  You have a responsibility to learn to use them effectively. You have a responsibility to ensure your actions through social media do not harm others (particularly students and colleagues**) or yourself. You also have a responsibility to engage with others, to share their stuff as you would hope your own would be shared. It doesn’t work right otherwise.

But if in doubt, just don’t bother.

*I now operate a think thrice tweet once policy!

**You might as well get this straight from the start: you use social media, you will stuff up something. It will get you into some kind of bother at some point. At least be smart enough to figure out how to avoid the massive reality check moments from the start and leave the stuff ups to the realm of minor border skirmishes. You need to figure out how to handle interactions with different groups of people (students, family, friends, colleague, professional contacts) and how you will pitch your social media persona to cope with this. Sometimes social media can feel like everyone you’ve every known in any context in one room all talking to you. Think about that.


Posted in Academia Nuts, Blog Theory, Science and Media, social media | 4 Comments

Maths for Chemistry

I attended the HEA Developments in Mathematics Support for the Physical Sciences one day meeting at Liverpool University back in April. Various speakers described how maths was tackled in their subject at their university (I was one of them, describing Maths for Chemistry at Keele’s (r)evolution over the past 6 years, you can find the presentation on my slideshare), and a lot of good discussion was had.
So why did we need to have a maths meeting for the physical sciences and what is the problem? Most academics who spoke described the wide range of mathematics qualifications that their incoming first year students have. Keele is no exception and we require a C at GCSE. Having recently become aware of different papers sat by GCSE students, I now understand that this may not be an appropriate entry level of maths as it allows students to avoid some topics that are quite important for studying chemistry at university level. Our first year cohort has maths qualifications ranging from the C at GCSE through to acceptance on a course to study Chemistry and Mathematics. What does this mean for teaching chemistry or physics? It means that we can make few assumptions about the level of prior knowledge our students have. It also means that no matter what maths support we put in place, some students will find it straightforward, others will find it very challenging. This is for a variety of reasons.

At this point I’ll note that I’m aware a few of my students read this. I do take great care about the language I use to describe our students, and I try to make positive generalisations. I’m not keen on applying deficit models of any subset of students [I find the language of ‘women underachieving’ to be extremely annoying] so I’m trying very hard here to make general points without trying to single out any group.

Why will a group of students find maths challenging? Many don’t have confidence in their own ability to ‘do’ maths. Many have had past experiences of maths that may mean they think that they cannot ‘do’ maths, as if it is some fixed ability that they have in a fixed quantity. Many made different subject choices post-GCSE and maths wasn’t one of them so there is a little catching up to do. But I do know that I have never met a student who had a fundamental inability to ‘do’ maths. I’ve met students (both while teaching and as a student myself) who were extremely resistant to trying maths, I’ve met students who wouldn’t put time in to practice but never a student who, by virtue of some intrinsic trait, couldn’t do maths. If there’s one area of science where a defeatist attitude really holds students back, it’s maths.

I loved Peter Khan’s talk ‘Studying a physical science in the language of mathematics’ in which he described maths as a language. Like all languages he said, it is best to learn it young and it takes a lot of practice to gain fluency. I came back to his words later that day as I read a joke about differentiation by parts and my maths language skills kicked in to translate the symbols into words to explain why I was laughing to someone else (admittedly it took a fair bit of explaining…). I haven’t really used that maths skill for 3 years.

So where does that leave those of us who teach the more physical side of chemistry, or really anything that requires calculators? I think we have to split maths into two broad areas. One is scientific numeracy where students have or develop the confidence to perform tasks in the chemistry context that use maths. A yield calculation, determining the concentration of acid in a titration, working out the mass of reagent to add, the ability to put numbers into an equation and manipulate the equation to obtain the answer, drawing a straight line graph…I could go on. Sometimes I think we confuse students by pointing out the little tricks they can use to check they’ve got the right answer. As I teach spectroscopy, I often give them ‘typical values’ for spectroscopic quantities. Perhaps that muddles the issue for those who are focussing on getting an answer first. So there’s the scientific numeracy and then there is the other maths stuff, things like calculus and the like.

The only thing I’m sure of is that unless a student is willing to try when it comes to maths, and be smart enough to try at the first opportunity given, some topics will be unnecessarily difficult.

Posted in Academia Nuts, Chemistry, Travels | 1 Comment

Sustainable Chemistry

One of our new 2nd year modules this year was Sustainable Chemistry and it was an opportunity to tackle elements of Education for Sustainable Development and bring in different assessments to develop broader skill. I thoroughly recommend combing the two as sustainability may be viewed as a non-traditional Chemistry topic but provides an excellent vehicle for all kinds of research into various topics and different assessments that are thought of as transferrable or employability skills.

My personal opinion, and I’m admittedly a novice when it comes to sustainability concepts in education, is that what we ‘do’ with respect to sustainability is insufficient and unimaginative. The 12 principles of green chemistry are a useful tool to a point and we used them in an assignment to ‘green’ a 1st year lab experiment, but they don’t go far enough. Nor does the odd lecture course in how various industries apply them to reduce their impact, although we included that as well. Environmental chemistry isn’t quite the same and provides useful knowledge and tools to help the students consider global impacts. But we can do more…!

Other nice assignments included getting the students to create an infographic, write a magazine style article, and do some presentations. If anyone wants more details of what we did, I’d be happy to share the assignment briefs.

At a conference last week (slides below, May 2014, with an earlier version from January 2014 on the scroll bar), I opined that sustainability was a lens through which every day chemistry could be viewed, and that I’d yet to find a textbook that adequately supports that. I’m working on some more creative ways to incorporate aspects of sustainability into other bits of my teaching including spectroscopy.

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Riper Flipping?

I’m still brooding over the issue of flipping lectures as discussed here.  Having discussed some related issues with a couple of handy colleagues, I’m struck (yet again) by the quantity of reinventing the wheel that goes on. Open education resources are a good thing…aren’t they? I use videos and stuff from the net in teaching a fair bit but I mostly feel like I’m cheating if I point my students to someone else’s screencast. On the other hand, I feel just fine pointing them towards the Periodic Table of Videos or the like. Perhaps it’s because those have content that is hard to reproduce and are produced to unachievable standards where as screencasts I should be able to do, right?

So as a ‘thought experiment’ for now, would it be possible to flip some of my lectures using freely available resources? That has to break down some significant activation energy type barriers to getting people to do it. What are the most likely problems?

1. Are there sufficient resources out there to cover the topics I need to cover?

Probably! For some of the ‘common’ courses I’d imagine there is nearly enough material out there. Probably a few gaps but those could be worked around. Enough isn’t the same as good enough so I’d expect to spend quite a bit of time viewing the resources and fitting them together into a patchwork course.  I would imagine that I’d find sufficient high quality resources to flip some of the course. But is it going to come across as strange to the students? And are the resources always available or are they likely to be taken down?

2. Are there substantial differences in content (e.g. conventions, terminology) that make the resources available inappropriate? 

For some topics I can see this would be a real problem. I might find some great resources on organometallics but find they use the ‘wrong’ method of electron counting for a good fit with our course. Perhaps the content is skewed in a way that doesn’t fit with my learning objectives. I dislike having to tell students to avoid sections of the textbook so telling them to ignore bits of the videos may cause me issues. So I probably need bespoke content at higher levels but for first year type content there may be sufficient and suitable resources.

3. How would the students ‘feel’ viewing a series of videos and screencasts delivered by strangers to them?

This is the wooly and important question, and one I can’t answer until I give it a go. As I see it, flipping hinges on the commitment of the students to do the pre-class activity (or to very rapidly understand that need in the first class). Are different voices and styles of content off-putting or more engaging? Sometimes hearing the same stuff in two different ways (mine and the screencast resource)  could be beneficial. Or it could confuse. I’d probably have to plan some evaluation alongside to figure this one out.


Is it do-able? At this point I think I’ll add it to this summer’s to-do list and give it a go. The challenge: can I find sufficient resources to flip a few sessions of a first year transition metal course? I should note that I have full lecture recordings for this and last year’s course but am still not particularly happy with the structure and order of content. I could edit them down into screencasts and perhaps that’s as good buffer to have right now – I can supplement what I can find with some of my own stuff as needed.

Posted in Academia Nuts, Science Online, Teaching | 2 Comments

The Phase Diagram of Teaching

I am somewhat…fed up…of some of the arguments made by academics at all levels within the ‘system’ with regard to teaching. There is, rightly or wrongly, an attitude that because everyone is ‘doing’ teaching, everyone is good at it.  I believe this is very definitely the wrong attitude, that not everyone is good at teaching, and I think that teaching is often overlooked when rewards are dealt out because of this. We do have to consider what we mean by good at teaching however and to aid discussion, I’ve constructed a phase diagram type chart. It’s rare that how I see things can be represented by a simple visualisation.

phase diagram of teaching

Exhibit A: The Phase Diagram of Teaching. Teaching vs Time, with a green common line, a red steep gradient line and a blue incrementally increasing line. There is also a black line at the arbitrary point of divergence of red and blue. The axes have no scale deliberately. [students, this is an informative figure caption]

When someone starts teaching in higher education they are around the green line. Precise gradients may vary but generally we hope they are positive. The green line doesn’t start at the origin to account for prior experiences. It is a small allowance because saying that because someone has experienced teaching and thus can teach would be a bit like saying because someone has visited a health care professional, that they are capable of treating heath problems. It’s a frame of reference and that shouldn’t be mistaken for genuine knowledge or ability. Simply considering time spent in academia similarly does not qualify one to teach, time spent teaching and thinking about teaching does. So why the two lines after a certain time frame? Well this is where things get tricky. The blue line represents academics who, having survived the initial years of teaching, maintain their teaching standard. They stay on top of most new developments once they become strongly embedded in mainstream teaching (currently I’d say those were online lecture resources, personal voting systems, peer assessment and probably lecture recordings), and incorporate the relevant ones into their classes.  To not do so would be to enter into a decline  in my opinion. It would be like still using OHPs to the powerpoint generation – there may be a place for them but unless well considered, it would not generally be appropriate anymore. Largely though, the blue line is about doing the same thing each year with minor revision and being satisfied (and hopefully receiving good feedback and good results).  It’s also about competently creating new courses as required and contributing well to the teaching side of departmental life. It is possible to achieve excellence through this route, but it is not what would be considered innovative or a route that contributes to pedagogical knowledge. The red line represents the early adopters, innovators and those willing to experiment and develop greater understanding of how students learn and adapt their teaching methods accordingly. Currently the topics in vogue seem to be lecture flipping, peer assisted learning, and probably those investigating mis-concepts and approaches to problem solving and employability (yes, largely I’m thinking about specific individuals within the ChemEd community as I single out those aspects). Make no mistake, these teachers are not just doing the same thing year on year and expecting results. They are actively challenging what a lecture is, feeling really quite dissatisfied with the conventional methods and seeking to find different and better ways to engage students in their studies. These teachers are also highly interested in students and concerned for their development. That’s a driving force in the dissatisfaction and urge to teach better and in more engaging ways. We joke sometimes about the student experience but it is at the heart of teaching innovation. There is an indeterminate period of time before the divergence. For some it may be as soon as they find their feet with the conventional methods, for others (and I have noticed this as  abit of a trend), there seems to be a point when dissatisfaction with teaching methods leads to a change in habit and approach. No time scale though, and I don’t discount the idea that all processes are equilibria and can revert given appropriate circumstances. It is but one depiction that makes sense to me. The research analogy for my phase diagram is that the blue line is the iterative or incremental research in the field. The red line is the innovative and exciting forefront of the field, high impact stuff. The research analogy is also useful in one critical way: when undertaking a new research project, most researchers would conduct a survey of literature to understand the current state of the field. There is an implicit understanding that new to me is not necessarily new to the research community. There is also an implicit understanding that literature is a useful source of knowledge to conduct research within the new area and that the researcher’s current tools may be insufficient. This does not translate that often into teaching practices where sometimes it seems like the ability to read the course textbook and write powerpoint slides are considered the only necessary skills for all teaching. I personally do not believe there is anything wrong with life on the blue line, teaching is a necessary part of the job and everyone has different priorities in how they allocate their time.  I would like academics to realise that there are limits on their interest in teaching and that is different to those of us who aspire to the red line. We aren’t doing the same things. Our approach to teaching is not just to do a few exciting things one year to win the departmental teaching award or gain popularity with the students, it is a deeper interest in developing effective practice. There is, however, no excuse for those who fall below the blue line and run the risk of failing to provide adequate teaching. And where does university officialdom fit into this? More chairs in learning and teaching, more recognition for those who are doing a damn sight more than churning out the same old powerpoint and exam questions year on year. Acknowledge and define the different approaches and reward accordingly through promotion structures and other means. Define the twin definitions of teaching excellence: those who do an excellent job within traditional means and those who do an excellent job of innovating.  Support the innovative teaching staff in the same way that research and enterprise innovation is rewarded. After all, if you consider tuition fees, teaching staff are responsible for fairly large income generation!

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Ripe for the Flipping

I realised yesterday, whilst battling through a big pile of work (bank holiday? What’s that?) that one of my 1st year lecture courses would be far more interesting flipped. I was preparing summary slides for a revision class and it occurred to me as I was summarising the key points that those would make excellent short screencasts and then the actual sessions could be more example lead.

And doing a couple of things in the revision class this morning that way confirmed it.

So what would I need to do from this point forward to get this course (10 lectures, 2 workshops of 1 hour each, 2 hour revision session) into shape for next year assuming I wish to flip it?

I’d need to prepare and record 5 – 8 short screencasts on the key topics. What I currently have in mind wouldn’t allow me to edit down the lectures from this year, nor would I wish for the students to watch a full lecture recording before each session.  Eights short (15 minute max) screencasts.

I’d need to take all of my current in-lecture worked examples, problem class questions and revision stuff and work out how to make them ‘rich’ examples. So insights into the key principles under discussion. I’d have to write detailed answer/notes on each, drawing in the additional concepts that needed highlighted. I’d view the examples as a means of drawing in screencast concepts and introducing exceptions and the like.

Let’s say it takes about an hour per screencast, then a further two hours per lecture hour to figure out all the examples. 8 + 20 = 28 hours. Then let’s say that we still need examples and problems for the students to work through themselves, and associated class test and exam questions. Easily another 10 hours of stuff right there. So that’s around 38 hours, before I even get to contact hours. 52 in total, not including marking or laboratory classes.

Supposing I just use the course ‘off the shelf’ as it were from this year? That will be a couple of hours tweaking lectures here and there, probably about 5 hours for assessment setting, then the contact hours (14 hours). 19 hours in total, not including marking or laboratory classes.

I love the idea of flipping this course, but I struggle to see how I can find the time to do it. This, more than anything else right now, is the single greatest barrier to doing anything new in teaching: I haven’t got enough time.  I suspect I’m not alone in this, and time to innovate has got to be protected to increase the quality of contact hours.




Posted in Academia Nuts, Teaching | 1 Comment