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Simon Lancaster in a lab
Professor Simon Lancaster CChem FRSC

As professor of chemical education at the University of East Anglia, Simon pursues his research interests and innovative, technology-based approaches to teaching and learning.

Early instincts

As professor of chemical education, Simon’s innovation with interactive teaching styles at the University of East Anglia (UEA), Norwich, has not only challenged the old fashioned academic stereotype but seen student engagement and understanding improve. He believes that everyone is inspired to study chemistry from an early age; he questions, “What is the baby’s instinct to put everything in their mouth if it’s not a genetic urge to analyse?”. Throughout his school years, his personal interests grew from “the recognition that it is chemistry that has the power to describe the origin and fate of everything around us. That and a legitimate excuse to set alight to things!”

After completing his undergraduate studies at UEA, he continued on to his PhD and was awarded the RSC Laurie Vergnano prize for the best contribution to inorganic chemistry by a young researcher, for his work on early transition metal alkyl cations and their role in polymerisation catalysis. On completing his PhD, Simon moved to Leeds where he became a research officer, but soon returned to UEA to take up a lecturer of inorganic chemistry position. 

Many hats 

Simon Lancaster lecturing

Simon’s role as a pure academic researcher evolved into one with diverse responsibilities. As director of admissions, he recruits and selects new students, as well as teaching the fundamentals of inorganic chemistry. “I am also fortunate enough to have a roving brief from the university to show how the lessons we have learnt from teaching chemistry can be applied.”

Pioneer of using virtual online environments, capturing lectures and flipped teaching at UEA, Simon has helped transform the traditional lecture to an interactive platform for students to enhance their engagement with the subject. “The 50 minute monologue in which the notes of the lecturer are transferred to the notes of the student without passing through the brains of either (which is a paraphrase of a famous quotation with disputed origin) is a waste of the students’ time, the lecturer’s time and the lecture theatre space.”

“Lecture capture through screen casting allowed me to provide resources students could view in advance. The use of audience response handsets (clickers) provided a means to collect the responses of every student. Combining these practices results in lecture flipping, and by utilising peer instruction, one can pose much more challenging and valuable questions within the flipped lecture environment.” 

Simon Lancaster's student in a lectureSimon not only adopts innovative teaching at UEA but has spoken on teaching matters across the UK, and was awarded the RSC Higher Education Teaching Award in 2013 for his efforts. Simon is also an avid user of Twitter, both in teaching and personally; with more than 3000 followers, he has branched out his lecture material and provided additional channels for student engagement.

“Human beings didn’t evolve to be passive absorbers of our surroundings. We evolved to be active participants. Chemistry degrees have long emphasised the practical skills to make and analyse compounds and mixtures. My job is now to put constructivist and analytical skills at the centre of education and displace the dependence on memory.”

Adopting the approach

Simon’s work is a refreshing look at how teaching of the chemical sciences is being brought into the 21st century. In a world where we are dominated by technology and the internet, gone are the days of the sole use of traditional lectures. “There is a huge body of evidence that demonstrates unequivocally that active learning and teaching is more effective than passive lectures.” He advises other academics to take a similar stance, “if you want to engage your students more, you have two choices. Firstly, reduce the amount of content and use the freed time for challenging interactions addressing concepts, and secondly, flip part or your entire course. Find an alternative means to deliver the content.”

Simon Lancaster's active teaching methods

With academics not usually the best model for the student cohort, Simon agrees that “in reality they too learnt little in lectures, but compensated by working hard independently. I am all for asking students to develop as independent learners but I don’t think that means we need to waste everybody’s time with the classic lecture format.” Simon is confident that his colleagues will follow suit; he says "all my colleagues would employ exactly the same approach to designing their scientific research. When I get the chance to make that point and show how easy the step to active learning and teaching is, they adopt the approach.”

Using the periodic table as a metaphor, he advises his students: “If you embark on a career you are going to make lots of discoveries and encounter huge variety. But you’ll learn to find the patterns and the fundamental understanding that you acquire will allow you to make sense of it all.” Simon has seen a huge change in how his students respond to his interactive lectures, “students now see contact time as more worthwhile, more constructive and dare I say it, more fun!”

Words by Jenny Lovell
Images © rache.co.uk/Rachel Smith
Published October 2014

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