Developments in chemical education


I’ve just come back from the American Chemical Society’s (ACS) fall meeting in San Francisco, US. It was a very large meeting, and for a few days San Francisco was swamped with chemical scientists from all over the world. 
 
I very much enjoyed the talk by Sam Kean, author of The disappearing spoon, a series of anecdotes and interesting facts describing how each element of the periodic table relates to human history, mythology, the arts etc, and the lives of the scientists who discovered them. His presentation is based on the book, whose title refers to the classic prank of giving someone a teaspoon made of gallium (which melts at around 27°C) to stir their cup of hot tea. Kean described how he got interested in chemistry as he was fascinated by the mercury he extracted from broken thermometers. Interestingly, I share a similar memory from when I was young. My brothers and I would break the drops into tiny droplets and were mesmerised by the fact that the droplet would ‘magically’ reform. His mum, like mine, was at the time unaware of its toxicity. 
 
The presentation by David Smith from the University of York, UK, was also inspiring. Entitled ‘iTube, YouTube, WeTube: Social media videos in education and outreach’, it outlined an educational strategy based on YouTube to engage students with chemistry. As part of a module on polymer science, students are given the option to do a video or write a ‘magazine-style’ science article. Out of 180 students offered the choice, 35 opted for YouTube and made videos that are personal, informative, creative and entertaining. When surveyed, these students also fared higher in terms of their ability to recall related chemical concepts and scored higher in terms of their engagement with and enjoyment of the course. One very important aspect of this initiative is that it encourages students to think about alternative ways of communicating science in addition to traditional publishing. This approach also has the potential to reach out to a much broader and diverse community of potential learners. 
 
In another education-related talk, Antony Williams from the Royal Society of Chemistry looked at the opportunities undergraduate students now have to participate in the new environment of micropublishing and exploit the benefits of tools and services such as Kudos or Altmetrics. He pointed out that, while the requirements associated with the peer review process or writing structured publications are rarely made clear to students, there is an opportunity to capitalise on their already developed skills for networking and interacting with large audiences (for example via social media). He offered excellent advice about preparing scientific work and data for public consumption, which would  provide students with a citable scientific record. That could then be used as a reference in their CVs and fed into the new world of alternative metrics.  

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