A report on some highlights from the Irish Variety in Chemistry Education


The 9th Irish Variety in Chemistry Education meeting was held in Dublin Institute of Technology last week. Fourteen talks were crammed into the day and a brief summary of the main themes are below, along with some useful links and references to follow up.

Peter Childs opened the meeting with a perspective on the state of teaching and learning chemistry in Ireland.1 In this he outlined several issues facing chemistry teachers at third level, which will resonate with many outside Ireland. These included the difficulties around the language of chemistry,2 the prevalence of misconceptions,3 and the lack of engagement of third level lecturers with chemistry education research.4 On a similar note, Maria Sheehan gave the first keynote, and her talk included information on the chemistry syllabus at school level, and what we could expect at third level from students who had and had not completed chemistry before.5 It was interesting to note that chemistry at school does not capitalise on using contexts, in a manner which biology and physics taught at the same level appear to have. Students with different levels and abilities featured in John Keary’s talk—his work showed that students receiving lower assessment marks tended to over-estimate their grade, whereas those receiving higher marks tended to under-estimate the actual grade.

How can we address teaching and learning issues in chemistry? Luckily, the meeting provided several examples and ideas. Laboratory education was one of the three themes discussed. Anne O’Dwyer discussed the implementation of inquiry-based labs in undergraduate chemistry. Her exploratory study investigated what undergraduates, postgraduate demonstrators, and academic staff thought about the inclusion of IBL in the laboratory. Students reported that while the labs required more work, they were more interesting and required deeper thinking. Demonstrators, 4 out of 5 of whom had no experience in inquiry based teaching and learning, thought that the method would have a positive effect on their own research skills. Lecturers agreed that the approach had positive outcomes, but cited some barriers such as cost and time. Recommendations for proceeding with including the approach in the curriculum were outlined. Teri Donaghy described the use of a systematic online personalised feedback grid for advanced laboratory practicals which used rubrics and audio feedback for students. The rubrics ensured some consistency among different assessors was maintained. Mike Bridge spoke about the development of an online workshop for large numbers of first and second year students, whereby students would complete the induction to safety in advance of the laboratory work.

Transferable skills were the second theme of the meeting. Julie Dunne spoke of a community engagement project, where chemistry students assisted in the analysis of soap made by a local artisan manufacturer to identify why some soap spoiled.6 Including the method in the curriculum meant that students were applying their specialist subject skills on real projects and receiving course credits for the work. Samantha Pugh discussed the “Chemistry: Idea to Market” developed with funding from the RSC7 and “Chemistry: Making a Difference” developed with funding from the Higher Education Academy. These involved the integration of some commercial awareness into the curriculum and again, related the students’ specialist knowledge with expertise drawn from innovators and industrialists involved in the project. Trini Verlasco-Torrijos spoke about her implementation another RSC-funded resource “Molecules against Malaria8 which they used as part of a suite of student learning activities in communicating and applying chemistry to context-based scenarios.

Finally, technology was the third theme of the day. Interestingly, these all had a peer-element to them. Christine O’Connor spoke about her development of a PeerWise community with a group of first year chemists9 and found that students submitted and answered more questions than required. Barry Ryan spoke about his integration of PeerWise with in-class clicker work and assessment by MCQs. Student-generated PeerWise questions were used in class and students had a second chance to discuss answers in groups.10 Eileen O’Leary demonstrated the use of Socrative App that eliminated the need for physical clickers in the classroom.11 And Suzanne Fergus answered several questions from the sceptics in the room (myself included) by exploring the student comments on the PeerWise questions submitted by their peers. She demonstrated that students were quite good at spotting where questions could be improved, or where they were too easy for revision. She recommended that a workshop be given to students on how to write suitable questions as part of the induction to PeerWise (see also ref. 9). Simon Lancaster finished off the day with a discussion on the use of technology in chemistry education, including getting students to prepare a screencast of a particular topic (“vignette”) that can be used as a class revision tool;12 the use of screencasts to give students effective feedback on their presentations; and on the use of Twitter for professional development. There was a shout-out for the Chemistry Education Links Scoop (thanks Simon!) and a promise to Storify the entire meeting’s tweets, which had the hashtag: #ivice14. True to his word, you can read Simon’s Storify here.

Exhausted, but well-informed, the audience left looking forward to the UK Variety meeting, which is being held in Durham in August.

My thanks go to the meeting sponsors (National Forum for Enhancement of Teaching and Learning and the Royal Society of Chemistry) as well as Dr Bill Byers for his enthusiastic support of the Irish Variety since the beginning. Next time we will celebrate the 10th meeting.  

Notes and references

  1. For a fuller exploration of this topic, see the recently published article: Childs (2014) The state of chemical education in Ireland, Irish Chemical News, 1, 16-25. Available online at http://www.chemistryireland.org/html/ichemnews.html.
  2. Peter used the example of the “Montillation of Traxoline” to illustrate how novice learners might view a new chemistry topic – see https://twitter.com/S_J_Lancaster/status/463636392783147008.
  3. See: Sheehan and Childs (2011) Pre-Service Irish Science Teachers’ Misconceptions of Chemistry, ESERA Conference Proceedings, available at: http://www.esera.org/publications/esera-conference-proceedings/science-learning-and-citizenship/strand-12/.
  4. For a discussion on this topic, see the recent EiC blog article: The Impact of Innovations in Teaching.
  5. Childs and Sheehan (2009) What’s difficult about chemistry? An Irish perspective, Chemistry Education Research and Practice, 10, 204. [Article Link].
  6. See the Students Learning with Communities project page at this link.
  7. See Learn Chemistry: http://www.rsc.org/learn-chemistry/resource/res00000948/chemistry-idea-to-market For a related resource: “Commercial Skills for Chemists”, see http://www.rsc.org/learn-chemistry/resource/res00000953/commercial-skills-for-chemists-introduction-and-overview.
  8. See Learn Chemistry: http://www.rsc.org/learn-chemistry/resource/res00000933/molecules-against-malaria.
  9. For more on PeerWise, see the 2013 EiC article Student Generated Assessment: http://www.rsc.org/education/eic/issues/2013January/student-generated-assessment.asp.
  10. See Ryan (2013) Line up, line up: using technology to align and enhance peer learning and assessment in a student centred foundation organic chemistry module, Chemistry Education Research and Practice, 14, 229-238 [Article Link].
  11. See www.socrative.com
  12. For more on this topic, see the recent EiC article: Beyond the Presentation: student authored vignettes: http://www.rsc.org/eic/2014/03/student-vignette-presentation.