Simon Lancaster reports on his visit to ICEC-2014 in Mumbai

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The Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) has a strong and growing presence in India, with a busy regional office in Bengaluru (Bangalore to those stalled in the colonial era, such as the airline industry). Their education coordinator, Ershad Abubacker works closely with Indian organisations and with generous funding from Yusuf Hamied on teacher training initiatives.

So, when the Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education (HBCSE) in Mumbai and the Association of Chemistry Teachers (ACT) began to organise the second International Conference on Education in Chemistry (ICEC-2014) they naturally asked the RSC to sponsor a speaker. President of the RSC’s Education Division, Gareth Price was generous enough to suggest me.

A role as an ambassador for the Royal Society of Chemistry? A ‘minded’ free trip to one of the most extraordinary countries on Earth? A platform to talk about how technology can help facilitate engagement among our students? Yes, please.

At the conference

I had tremendous support preparing for the trip, the EiC team even republished their technology supplement and created a second edition.

With visas, travel and accommodation all in hand, my preparation for the visit focused on establishing where to pitch my own presentation. Where on the transmission-to-construction and traditional-to-innovative spectra should I aim? How much of the provocative stance taken at Variety in Chemical Education could I retain in India?

The invitations of exponents of Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning (POGIL) and Peer Led Team Learning (PLTL) as well as a title from Norbert Pienta on Problem Based Learning provided sufficient clues. This is a huge country, and like the UK, just about every point on the teaching and learning continuum is represented. The audience at ICEC-2014, were open, responsive and wonderfully enthusiastic.

It was both flattering and hugely informative to present alongside Western chemical education luminaries such as Norbert Pienta, Rick Moog and Pratibha Varma-Nelson. Their huge contributions to the field will be familiar or easily discoverable to many readers of this blog, so I want to focus on the contributions of the Indian delegates.

A passion for teaching

Sourav Pal and Uday Maitra are not specialists in chemical education and presented personal perspectives on the issues confronting chemistry in India, in both academia and industry. It seems chemistry in India is regarded not just as the poor relation of medicine but of engineering, too. How then can chemistry be presented as the science of big ideas and big solutions and not as the art of remembering liturgies of facts?

The enthusiasm and passion of the speakers was infectious, and none more so than Tejas Joshi who is a visiting student at HBCSE. He presented on new resources he has been developing around the idea of collecting the set of elements through cards and stickers with key context driven information. While the ostentatious anthropomorphising of the elements was not to my taste, I could see these resources being equally well received in the UK.

I recommend you investigate the YouTube channel of Marazban Kotwal, who discussed his use of videos and flipped teaching in his undergraduate laboratory. I would love to see how this programme could develop to address the understanding of the chemistry my own undergraduates are undertaking.

The lab also featured when Swapna Narvekar explained how the effort invested in preparing Indian teams for the International Chemistry Olympiad has led to the development of new laboratory experiments that can be widely used in classes.

A global goal

If further proof were needed that the challenges faced by chemistry educators are the same the world over, it was provided in the presentation by Anju Das Manikpuri on the inhibition of learning (and effective teaching) by misconceptions. Thermodynamics is considered a difficult subject by some in India! And Shirish Pathare provided both activities to address these and a Predict-Observe-Explain approach to overcoming them.

Did I have a favourite take home from the conference? Well, I would not want to show favouritism, but utilising kirigami models to introduce the concepts of stereochemistry and optical activity ticks all the right boxes for me! Thank you to N Manoj for that one.

The Indian education system remains heavily influenced by the country’s historic relationship with the UK, the two education systems remain close in many ways. Yes, there are cultural difficulties, but they are not preventing exactly the kind of changes we are trying to engender in the UK.

I would like to gratefully acknowledge the help of Savita Ladage in proofreading this blog post and in being our principal point of contact for the conference.

Simon has Storified the ICEC-2014 conference here.