chemical education

A tale of a tired lecture course. Flip it.




It dawned on me that no one cared. The proteins that I found so fascinating just didn’t seem to intrigue them as much as they did me. I thought the video of water molecules flipping as they passed through the channel of aquaporin was marvellous. But it hardly gleaned a reaction from the sea of faces staring blankly out at me. 

Screen Shot 2015-05-19 at 14.42.33

I left the lecture theatre and trudged back to my office. Wondering what was to be done with the course I’d tinkered with for years and never been happy with. Maybe it was time to just stop tinkering, throw it all away and start afresh?

The thought drifted away as I flicked through the, not insignificant, pile of emails that had dropped into my mail box during my brief absence from my desk. Top of the list was request to review a grant proposal.

And then inspiration struck, I could get my students to write grant proposals! That way they could explore the ideas and material that they are interested in without having my predilection for Major Intrinsic Proteins foisted on them.

So I set about a total revamping of the course.

  • The lectures slides went in the bin.

Well actually they got turned into screencasts. But they might as well have gone in the bin, because the students don’t watch them.

  • I gave the students examples of grant proposals that I’d written (ones that had got good reviews, even if they hadn’t been funded 🙁 ).
  • I supplied them with a load of references to papers that contained neat ideas.
  • And I gave a lecture with avenues of research that I thought were intriguing.
  • Then I provided them with a slightly altered version of a research council’s form and told them to complete it i.e they had to write a case for support, lay summary, justification for resources etc.
  • They worked in groups of 6-7 and set about their tasks.
  • The rest of the lectures I turned up to check on how things were going, guide the projects, tell them what I thought might work or not etc.
  • And come the end of the course I marked the proposals based on genuine research council criteria AND each group peer reviewed 3 other proposals using the same criteria. Group members also gave an effort mark to each other (so free loaders didn’t get an easy ride). And the final mark was made up from an amalgamation of my mark, the peer review and the inter-group mark.

The results were great. Some really fabulous ideas sprung up. I’ve had students ask me if they can actually work on their research projects during their final year dissertations, and I bet some of proposals would have made the quality cut off in real funding rounds.

Right, enough from me, I’ve just come across a great idea for a project I need to get into the next funding round. 😉

By May 19, 2015 2 comments chemical education

How LCDs work

A little video I put together to explain how liquid crystal displays work, using pasta, stair gates, wool, a hair dryer and some polarizing filters.

By November 10, 2014 6 comments chemical education

The Minecraft Chemistry Challenge

Minecraft is an truly awesome game. Think of it as digital lego set in a infinitely explorable world. But its real draw is that is encourages creativity on so many level. Players can build what they like, but also the code is open source, allowing creative coders to fiddle with rules and resources in the game. The result is a multitude of modifications (or mods in Minecraft parlance).

L5mDx

There are mods for every taste, including those who favour a spot of virtual  chemistry, in the form of Minechem. It allows for some surprisingly sophisticated chemistry. With a range of devises and tools everything in the world can be broken down into elements, and then reacted together to yield an incredible array of compounds.

As fun as Minechem is, my favourite mod of the moment is Printcraft. This allows the player to output anything they have built to a file that can be read by a 3D printer. And given that I have just assembled one of these wonderful contraptions (or ‘plastic tat generators’ as my better half prefers to call it), combined with my son’s Minecraft addiction means that my house is now slowly being invaded by virtual buildings turned real.

So I think I need something more meaningful to do with it. And so over to you. Build me something! Build me something original that’s related to the chemical sciences, be it useful, interesting or just plain cool. And I’ll 3D print (and send the designer) the best ones.

So here are the rules:

1) Construct something related to the chemical sciences in Minecraft, using the official printcraft server (use Minecraft 1.7.8)

Alternatively you can download the sever and run it locally or use the one I’ve set up (connect to IP 54.68.24.135:25565 using Minecraft 1.6.4)

2) Upload the STL file ,that printcraft spits out, to Thingiverse and tag it with 3DMineChem.

3) Add a link to your Thingiverse file in the comments below.

Lets see what we can come up with shall we?

P.S My ulterior motive is that I’m trying to come up with an Minecraft/chemistry workshop for school children and I need some inspiration and some beta-testers of my server.

By September 26, 2014 2 comments chemical education, fun

The Blogversation Continues: A New Approach to the Fear of Chemicals and for a Course of Action

This post is part of an on-going dialogue between chemists on Twitter in an effort to unite the chemistry community do something about negative portrayal of chemicals in a positive and productive manner. I responded to Renee Webster’s kick off post and we’ve gotten a lot of excellent feedback both on Twitter and from bloggers. I’d like to respond to all these amazing ideas by way of a response to bloggers Dr. Dorea Reeser (Chemicals Are You Friends) and Dr. Luke Gamon (A Radical Approach) who have upped the ante with their contributions to the blogversation. These posts are a wake-up call to the chemistry community by way of a completely new take on the situation.

Before I read these responses I wanted to figure out what to call the fear of chemicals in such a way that it didn’t lend itself to ridiculing people’s legitimate fear. I’ve argued that (#)chemophobia not only falls short of this but it perpetuates a negative image of chemicals. There was also the matter that (#)chemophobia inaccurately describes the way that the media and advertising capitalizes on this fear. I joined other chemists on Twitter in their search for alternatives but felt odd with our second attempt: (#)chemsploitation. Why is a term/hash-tag so important? I am of the opinion that it provides a way of checking that we do not damage our credibility with the way we represent ourselves. These responses elegantly change the focus on the debate on whether or not we need to get rid of (#)chemophobia.

Dr. Reeser explains that she avoids using the term chemophobia because it sends out the wrong message and because to those outside the debate and non-chemists, the term suggests something having to do with chemotherapy. She proposes the term/hash-tag (#)ChemMisConcept both to describe those that fear chemicals and those that perpetuate that fear. It meets all the criteria that I discussed in my previous response and has the added bonus of working in all contexts. The concept of chemical misconception(s) is as specific as it gets and this changes the way we approach the real problem: the fear of chemicals. This fear of chemicals is very real and rational considering that people have these misconceptions given the information they can access. Dr. Reeser reminds us that we have to acknowledge that chemical(s) include: dangerous substances which we should have a healthy fear of; substances where the danger depends on the dosage and those substances that are completely harmless. I agree that it is our job as chemists to explain which is which.

 

Dr. Gamon* agrees with Dr. Reese when he states that the energy that’s going into debating the word could be put to better use. He calls all chemists to take action with a cool head and in a respectful way and I couldn’t agree more. (#)Chemophobia just doesn’t serve this purpose and the term has outlived its use. Dr. Gamon reminds us that we are all brand ambassador, and I agree that we need to act like if we are going to take back the word chemical.

 

Dr. Gamon’s response agrees with a post Dr. Reeser directly cites, and I would be remiss for not addressing Chemophobia-phobia by Dr. Chad Jones* (@TheCollapsedPsi). Dr.Jones also suggest that we should hold ourselves, government agencies and other chemist/companies to higher standards. Education/information, policies and enforcement should be directly informed by evidence-based chemistry. I’d add that as chemists we need to make sure that this evidence is accurate. Dr. Jones and I don’t necessarily agree on our approach (we battle it out in #chemopocalypse, a podcast prosposed by @Chemjobber and had under the supervision of @ScienceIsntScary [link pending]) but I am 100% behind this idea.

 

Whether we have two terms to accurately define how people use the word chemical, is still insufficient to get chemists to act instead of react. In our pod cast, Dr. Jones warns that when we take on another term (say #chemsploitation) we run the risk of falling into the same attitudes as before. So as catchy as the catch phrases we have are, and whether or not we make sure to use them respectfully, they are still not inspiring action to reclaim the word chemical. Let’s retire them, accurately address the misconception and with taking back the word chemical.

 

Thus far @CompounChem’s marvelous info graphics are an excellent start. I enjoy them as a chemist and the non-chemists I’ve shown them to have loved understanding a little more about the chemicals that they enjoy every day (coffee, etc). They are a great way to start discussions. I am open to more ideas on how we can start educating folks about what chemical (and other appropriated words) really means, thoughts? What are some ways we can start doing this now? The more ideas we have, the merrier, and the more resources that we have to talk with different audiences. Do any non-chemists out there have suggestions for what they would like to see?

*The people that I refer to as doctors here have their doctorates or are close enough for me to respectfully add the title.
By February 10, 2014 6 comments chemical education