I visited the VicePhec17 event the other week. This is a meeting of University Chemistry and Physics lecturers who take education and education research seriously. I am an intruder at these meetings being a secondary (high) school chemistry and safety adviser, not an academic, but many of these University chemists are outreach officers. If school students find it difficult to get out to Universities, these scientists can bring the brilliant Spectroscopy in a Suitcase, careers advice and research advances to school students. Of course they do not do slime experiments and H2/O2 explosions because they know that school chemistry teachers have covered all this in their lessons. Anyway, at least these outreach officers are attempting to crosslink between School and University chemistry.
I went to a VicePhec meeting 4 years ago to introduce the microscale approaches and those who came to a 1-hour workshop (nearly 20!) enjoyed it and some have use it in their teaching. So at least I am tolerated as old eccentric nerd. Much has happened since then; my attention has moved from being safety and expense orientated to improving “teaching efficiency”, “how chemistry can be explained” and making practical chemistry even more enjoyable. It was from attending Chemistry education meetings that changed my attitude. My little exhibition at VicePhec showed the paramagnetic effects on a bubble of oxygen and complexes/precipitates (video) in “puddles” as well as the propene preparation (video), electrolysis of molten lead bromide (video), the Hoffman Voltameter and the colorimeter.
A lesson in a school is very tight on time, not only for teaching time but also for the preparation of chemicals and equipment, the cleaning of equipment and disposal of waste. When devising a procedure, whether standard or microscale, I have to think of teaching efficiency. Teachers should carefully time their lesson giving adequate time for introduction, practical time, CLEARING UP, and discussion. Everything needs to work smoothly. Have you had a lesson when a solution is not made up correctly, the tongs have been vandalised and they do not close properly or the Bunsen burners are blocked with iron filings? You know the problem; it throws you completely. This is why teaching efficiency is so important in schools. It is also a reason for me not being a great lover of completely open-ended investigations. I am also conscious overloading the short-term working memory. Robin Millar wrote[i] “…a practical task should have a limited number of intended learning outcomes. It is easy for practical tasks to become too complex, so that students get lost in the ‘noise’ of the bench.”
At these Chem Ed meetings, there are several buzzwords floating about. I can erect “scaffolds”, build “platforms”, embed “MOOC with Pythons”, “blend“ and “flip and even post flip” my material. The buzzwords going around my head are “cognitive overload” and “misconception”. (Can you have an immaculate misconception?)
Now everyone seems to think practical work is “a good thing”, especially in chemistry where macro-events can be quite beautiful, startling, noisy etc. Numerous reports by learned bodies and government, imply how it grabs the attention of students so we must continue. At parties and in the pub I get regaled with the most horrendous chemistry incidents with sodium and other chemcials! (The comments are usually followed about them not understanding what was going on but it was fun which makes you see why I do not like that ”f” word in teaching.) My view was reinforced by a great article from Mark Lorch of Hull University.
Then come those in education research who say practical work is vewied as "not proper work" and has a very limited effect on the understanding of the subject. Countries can attain high ranking in PISA tables without doing much or having all the experiments demonstrated or on video. However, was this “limited effect” a problem of a poorly designed experimental procedure? Also, it is not just chemistry but questioning any student after completing a practical element in other subjects whether it is modern languages, drama and history will show up short comings in understanding by that student. (I have directed school plays and opera, I know). We have to be careful here. Limiting practical work is music to the ear of any accountant involved in education who thinks labs and technicians are a waste of money.
What I am trying to say is that the technical quality of the actual practical procedure provided needs to be researched as much as the outcomes on the student.
Mixing technical issues with Chemical Education research is tricky. I sense there is an issue with the inclusion of practical chemistry, especially the technical part, within such meetings as ICCE, ECRICE, and BCCE meetings. It ranges from the complete ban (safety reasons are cited but having no practical does reduce costs in employing lab staff, using more rooms, etc) to still regarding that practical chemistry is all about big bangs, fire, sparks, balioons, giant soda bottles, 2-litre conical flasks etc, and practical demonstrations are there simply to entertain. Practical aspects of the subject can be shunted to the side rooms or unreasonable starting times. Good demonstrations do need time to perform which is which why the exhibition presentation or 1-hour workshop is better than a 15-minute rush at such meetings. Unfortunately I have seen these times used as extra coffee breaks and general chat times, even by the organisers of such events.
At the Hands-on Science meeting in Braga, Portugal we had a science Fair with a mixture of Portuguese academics and teachers, school and university students and a large gathering of international visitors. Some of us sat there with a table consisiting of examples of our research and results. I had my mini experiments; no one came. The small hovercrafts, racing cars and experiments with bells, balloons etc, captured everyone’s imagination. Nothing else to do but grab attention, so I made my dynamite soap bubbles with just 9 ml of hydrogen and oxygen from my Hofmann and lit it producing a high pitched but loud bang. The children came to see me with their teachers and parents. So I then did microelectrolysis, chromatography, cracking etc as well, and I was busy for 2 hours. Everyone had fun and learnt something.
At the VicePhec meeting in York we had a Labsolutely Fabulous (great name!) session with a mixture of Chemistry and Physics lecturers interested in University education attending. Some of us had a bench consisting of examples of our research and results. I had my mini experiments; no one came. Friends were meeting each other after a year and having a chat about their jobs etc. Nothing else to do but grab attention, so I made my dynamite soap bubbles with just 9ml of hydrogen and oxygen from my Hofmann and lit it producing a high pitched but loud bang. The academics then came to see me. So I then did microelectrolysis, electrolysis of a molten salt, cracking etc as well, and I was busy for 2 hours. Everyone had fun and learnt something..
[i] Millar, R. (2004). The Role of Practical Work in the Teaching and Learning of Science. Paper prepared for the Committee: High School Science Laboratories: Role and Vision, National Academy of Sciences, Washington DC. York: University of York.