Reflections on Variety in Chemistry Education/Physics Higher Education Conference 2017

This year’s conference started on Thursday 24th August 2017. I did not attend the lab events on Wednesday because I think a 2-day conference is sufficient – I get seriously ‘conferenced out’ after a while and I’d rather focus on the talks. I did arrange to arrive in time for Wednesday dinner so as to avoid early trains and a very long day by arriving on Thursday.

This was also the first time I attended a conference seriously aware that I had limited energy and that I needed to take care not to over do things. There were a few challenges in that regard, simple things like getting between venues, accommodation, dining rooms, and bus stops was harder, as was standing for several hours in a poster session. It’s quite eye opening when you notice that you struggle to do things you previously took for granted. The only advice I have for people organising conferences, is to be really explicit in delegate information before arrival about distances between things, requirements to take buses, and to give serious thought to how much seating is available during sessions such as posters and lunches.

I enjoyed many of the sessions, and a lot of the talks. I found several talks highly frustrating, particularly those that could easily play into the unconscious bias held by many. These included the keynote on gender differences in the physics force concept inventory, and the closing keynote on perspectives either side of A-level/university chemistry teaching. Here’s the thing: unconscious bias afflicts us all both as recipients and as people who hold them. One particularly insidious one is the bias that those who teach in HE often have towards those who teach in secondary.I’ve heard a lot of academics disparage teachers of chemistry at A-level, particularly around ‘teaching to the test’.  I do not doubt that many HE teachers view incoming students through a deficit lens – they focus on what the students can’t do rather than respecting the enormous hard work and effort and learning that has taken place in secondary (and further education). And let’s be clear, I don’t mean all HE teachers but I’d rather focus on what our incoming students can do and acknowledge the diversity inherent in the secondary and further education sectors, and the enormous pressure on both teachers and students. I disliked that the keynote could feed those attitudes by drawing greater attention to the issues.

My (annual?) issue with the gender thing. Males and females performed differently on a test that was developed to see how much students understand about some physics stuff. It wasn’t designed to investigate gender, and if it shows a difference in male/female performance, we should absolutely investigate and be concerned. But we have to be really careful how we do this and make sure that we’re using the right research tools and asking the right research questions. We also have to be really careful to explore gender sensitively which means considering all aspects of gender, rather than treating it as a male/female binary.


Moving on from that, there was an interesting talk on teaching tips for making a more inclusive teaching environment. I think that’s something we all need a reminder of from time to time but I would have liked a few more concrete suggestions on things that work. PDF format is variable and not all versions work for screenreaders…OK then, which way of generating a PDF is best? That sort of thing. And it would be really good to share ideas about how to convince all those who teach in HE to adopt practices that make teaching as inclusive as possible.

The poster session didn’t really work for me – there were two rooms, with many of those in the first room unaware of the second room. There were also very few seats and that made it very very tiring. I had several very good discussions with people over my posters but never really made it round them all. Fortunately the majority of the posters were shared electronically beforehand and this allowed me to review them at my own pace. There were still lots of people I wanted to talk to in the poster session but I never found them – and by the time lunch was served, I was out of energy.

There is also some question over what Variety in Chemistry Education conference is for. What type of chemistry education thing. To me, the strength of Variety is in the variety: I go to see great chem ed ideas presented, but I also enjoy presentations that steer more strongly towards chemistry education research. I like the mix and I wouldn’t want to see that change. I do, however, have one caveat: I dislike intensely anything presented that has not been sensibly evaluated. And to evaluate a teaching innovation, one must carry out the activity with students. I’m OK with the evaluation being done purely from the perspective of the teacher, I’m OK with the evaluation being done from all perspectives. I’m not OK with unevaluated activities being presented. I suppose I should comment on the role of Variety in seeking collaborations, or putting a flag up to say you’re doing a certain thing and would anyone like to help. That’s what oral bytes are for, nothing longer. I would call on future organisers of this conference, and those who scrutinise the abstracts to ensure that evidence of evaluation is clear.

I’ll also note that I have no intention of attending the pre-conference activities. 2 days of conference and dinner the night before is sufficient for me, and I don’t need to attend more.

We also had a chat on Twitter the other night about whether we should facilitate the attendance of undergraduates who’ve done chemistry education final year projects. I think it would be good to see undergrads attending Variety and if their work is of sufficient standard to justify submitting an abstract for a presentation, then great stuff, what an opportunity! I would not, however, reduce the ‘standard’ expected of that abstract or subsequent presentation. So I’m not in favour of giving undergraduates (or any other group) more chance of getting a presentation slot just because of what they are.


This post has been several drafts in the making, I’m still not happy that I’m articulating what I want to say very clearly, but right now I’m done with it and am hitting publish! Time to move on!


3 thoughts on “Reflections on Variety in Chemistry Education/Physics Higher Education Conference 2017

  1. Really interesting to read your thoughts, thanks! I really wanted to go this year, but am glad that I didn’t – the distances between venues/accommodation and lack of seating would have made it too difficult for me.
    I agree with you on the evaluation – as I said on twitter there are conferences where you can present ‘I did this’ without saying much about how it went. I think VICE/PHEC is stronger for encouraging people to evaluate their innovation- and I would argue we should push towards at a least a proportion going a step further and coming under the banner of ‘pedagogical research’

  2. Hi Anna,
    It wasn’t as big a distance as last year’s from venue to accommodation, but no where near as accessible as Nottingham was. I think there was the opportunity to arrange transport around if you needed it but without knowing how far things were, it was difficult to know whether to accept that or not.
    I think I agree with you about pushing for a proportion of presentations to come under ped res – perhaps that’s one way of splitting the parallel sessions in future.
    And sorry for the delay in getting your comment up – wordpress decided you might be spam for some reason!

  3. Hi Anna & Katherine,

    My only concern about splitting up ped res into a separate session is that you effectively make two mini-conferences; one for the “practitioners” and one for the “researchers”. But agree on everything having some kind of evaluation and do think that needs to be part of abstract screening…

Comments please!