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 3 comments chemical education

Campaign for Clear Code starts here!

I’m concerned about the software that’s installed on my electronic devices.

You should be worried as well.

Have you really considered what you are opening yourself up to every time you download a new app or install an upgrade?

Have you thought about what all those faceless software giants are doing with the code that they are busy sneaking onto your phone?

Do you have any idea what they are slipping directly into your pocket? It certainly isn’t good for you. After all its not you they care about. All that really concerns them is profit, pure and simple. They want you coming back for more, why else would they make those damn games so additive?

Screen Shot 2015-05-08 at 21.26.12

And has that code even been tested properly? They claim it has, but why then does big software continually release patches and updates?

Just stop for a minute and ask yourself this. Do you really know what you are putting on your computer when you downloaded Candy Crush? Have you ever seen the code?

Take a look at this.

if(tic[f][z]==’ ‘)
goto x;

Understand it?

No, me neither.

Want to know where that snippet of code came from? Its just a small part of a computer program for tic-tac-toe. And if a game as simple as that has stuff like that in it then imagine what’s in Candy Crush, Angry Birds or even Powerpoint?

And it gets worse. Because some computer programer, in the pay of cooperate giants, writes this sort of thing before processing it into something that might not even contain recognisable words! The software companies call this ‘compiling’ and afterwards its bears no resemblance what-so-ever to the natural code.

I, for one, won’t stand for this sort of thing being foisted on me by big-software any longer.

Now is the time to take a stand.

I call for a campaign for clear code.

Basically, if a 10 year old child can’t code it then it has no place on my devices.

From this point onwards I’m reverting back to simple code that anyone can understand. I’m using nothing more than Scratch running on a nice wholesome Pi. I urge you to do the same.

And don’t even get me started on anti-virus software. Much better to share infected USB sticks around.

By May 8, 2015 3 comments fun, opinion, Uncategorized

What has Chemistry got to say?

The XKCD comics have been keeping me entertained and informed for years.

But sadly, in the latest comic, Chemistry seems rather quiet.

So how about some suggestions for the next panel, where Chemistry finds a voice?


By May 5, 2015 2 comments fun, Uncategorized

Reagent pencils, turning chemistry into child’s play

If you’ve ever sat opposite a doctor and wondered what she was scribbling on her notepad, the answer may soon not only be medical notes on your condition, but real-time chemical preparations for an instant diagnostic test.

Thanks to the work of a team of researchers from California Polytechnic State University, recently published in the journal Lab on a Chip, chemicals formed into pencils can be made to react with one another by simply drawing with them on paper. The team may have taken inspiration from colouring books for their take on a chemical toolkit, but their approach could make carrying out simple but common diagnostic tests based on chemical reactions – for example diabetes, HIV, or tests for environmental pollutants – much easier.

The project started with an established technique called paper-based microfluidics. This uses the capillary effect of paper to carefully mix together what are called reagents – those chemicals mixed to form a reaction, or to measure the presence or absence of a substance. The capillary effect in action is easily seen by dropping two inks of different colours onto a piece of tissue paper. As the liquid is absorbed by the paper the colour drops spread out until they merge with one another and form a colour blend. In the same way two or more reagents can be mixed with water on a strip of paper.

Colouring-in chemistry.
Lab on a Chip/RSC

In this case, the difference is that the reagents aren’t added to the paper via droplets. Instead they’re applied via pencils, meaning that without specialist equipment anyone can set about creating chemical reactions by simply using them on the paper.

The team made the reagent pencils by pulverising a mixture of graphite (just as you’d find in normal pencils), test reagents and polyethylene glycol, which helps to keep the reagent dispersed throughout the mixture, as is used for the same reason in toothpaste. They compressed the mixture into pellets and mounted them into mechanical pencil holders bought from the high street stores.

The reaction paper pad was created by using a waxy ink to print small connected enclosures onto filter paper. The reagent pencils could be used to colour in these areas within the enclosures – when water was added to the paper, the reagents dissolved and, confined by the waxy ink, were forced to diffuse towards one another and react.

Real world uses for real world problems

The team demonstrated a potential use of the reagent pencil technique by using it in place of a common test used by diabetics to check their blood glucose levels, which involves reacting a pinprick blood sample with a chemical solution and examining the result.

One pencil was constructed with a mixture of enzymes, one called horseradish peroxidase (HRP) and the other glucose oxidase (GOx). A second pencil contained a reagent called ABTS. When combined in the presence of glucose these react together to give a blue-coloured product. Comparing the results from their pencils on the pad with the more traditional dropper method used by diabetics the team found the results were identical.

An example of how chemical reactions using pencils can provide instant results.
Lab on a Chip/RSC

The image shows, on the left, the reagents applied via droplets of solution. On the right, the reagent pencils were used. The top row shows the paper at the beginning of the test, the bottom row the result. Applied to the left enclosure, the sample solution carries the two reagents together which react. The coloured product produced is, as shown on the graph, identical between the two methods.

This is of course extremely easy to set up. Traditional diagnostic tests require training, while this pad and pencil system requires no more than skill than required to colour within the lines. The reagents are extremely stable once made into pencils – usually they would degrade in a matter of days as liquids, limiting how and where the tests can be made. However the reagent pencils showed no sign of degrading after two months.

So this pencil tool kit has obvious advantages: a kit of reagent pencils, much like a box of colouring pencils, is easily transported, without the chemicals degrading. Kits could be designed with particular tests in mind – and the reaction mix can be adjusted by applying more or less, without the need or equipment to make-up complex solutions. There’s scope to monitor environmental pollutants, carry out diagnostic tests in remote locations – not to mention teach chemistry in primary schools.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

By April 30, 2015 4 comments general chemistry