#ViCEPHEC16 post-conference musings

The highlights of Variety in Chemistry Education/Physics Higher Education Conference are many and varied this year. The conference felt like it was having a wee bit of existential angst, initiated by this EiC blog post (http://www.rsc.org/eic/2016/07/community-clique-conference) on whether the community at the ViCE bit was community or clique, propagated by discussions about the division between practice and pedagogy, and ultimately terminated by everyone really finding presentations of all types very interesting. That being said, I’m glad it is a 2-day conference – I don’t have another day in me at the moment. The programme is available: http://www.southampton.ac.uk/chemistry/news/events/2016/08/vice-phec/programme-vice-phec.page


I enjoyed the three keynote speakers. Each was different but equally valuable. I enjoyed seeing how much ChemTube3D has expanded (zeolites! Rh catalysed hydroformylation!) and that Nick Greeves was controlling his presentation via his iPad. I enjoyed the icebreaker activities run by Ian Bearden, 25 seconds saying everything you can think of on a specific prompt then swapping with your partner. It really got the room going morning after the conference dinner. And I thoroughly enjoyed David Read and Stephen Barnes’s presentation. While much of it was familiar, I feel I needed to be reminded of bits again to let it really sink in. Video model answers are on my to-do list!


I went to the ‘Fear of Words’ workshop focussing on qualitative analysis of data led by Rachel Koramoah. I was very glad this workshop was put on – C/PBL and TBL were the other choices and I find both too prescriptive for my tastes. Perhaps I like reinventing the wheel after all. Anyway, qualitative analysis is analysing things without numbers or stats. Rachel took us through a focus group technique involving postit notes, an individual task and a group task, all relating to a specific question. It was a really useful technique and one I plan to use in the future. She then led us through the basics of coding the data to get a sense of the issues raised. Really good workshop. Perhaps next year we need someone to hand-hold us through good basic stats…just to balance up the quant vs qual see-saw.


I saw lots of other great talks, and found the vast majority very thought provoking. A few that stand-out though:

Anna Wood et al used lecture capture technology to quantify how interactive a flipped lectures were. Anna also recorded her talk as a screencast and was available to answer questions via Skype which worked well.

Richard James Lewis talked about bringing research group ethos into taught master’s courses and I took from that that our MChem 4th year modules would be best taught around a table. Seems like a minor thing but could be useful in facilitating discussions.

I loved NearPeer, a webbased presentation and quizzing solution. Barry Ryan demonstrated it for his presentation and it was very interesting technology. Again, perhaps one to try on the 4th year MChem module.

There were a few on organic mechanisms and to be honest, mechanisms started to make some sense. If I had experienced some of the approaches being used, I think I may have liked organic more.

I liked Felix Janeway’s talk on getting students to predict the grade their work will obtain. Over or underestimates were a useful way of flagging where more support was needed and that’s a dimension to assessment that I can agree with.

I had seen Simon Lancaster’s talk before but again, refreshing my memory made more of it sink in. I did go off and do a project slightly differently when I saw his talk in June and adapted one of his students’ methods (categorising questions by Bloom’s taxonomy – somewhat blunt but reasonable effective to ensure you test across a range of question types).

I very much enjoyed Ross Galloway’s talk – it actually takes courage to stand up and say ‘the effect we saw last year? We replicated the study and its not there and we don’t really know why’. It was a great example of being able to present incomplete or uncertain work and made me think that Variety needs a ‘work in progress’ session where people can present and receive feedback on ideas. That might be a great way to find collaborators as well.

And finally, Laura Patel presented on an adjustment made for a student with disabilities who directed lab work remotely. The student instructed a lab helper who wore a camera and microphone. It is entirely possible to be an exceptional chemist without being able to carry out practical work directly: the analytical skills are all there. Sometimes I feel frustrated that the practical element of chemistry is held in such exquisite regard by the majority of chemists: it isn’t the be all and end all. I liked the fact that the affordance of technology allowed this student to carry out practicals in this manner and have some control over how the experiment (and therefore data) was gathered. I think that such an adjustment would be feasible in an industrial setting (particularly if the chemist progresses to a managerial role). We shouldn’t let our passion for lab work (where it exists – I ain’t got it) overcome the notion that people can only become chemists and appreciate chemistry if they’ve done lots of it. Frankly, inclusivity is more important than subject specific snobbery.

The last points there are not intended to come over as a rant but perhaps have – I blame the train ride home (at least an hour before I get home)!



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