Dr Paul Wyatt of the University of Bristol is the recipient of the 2008 Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) 
Education Division's Higher Education Teaching Award. 

Dr Paul Wyatt, director of the Bristol ChemLabS

Source: Richard Edwards, University of Bristol

Dr Paul Wyatt, director of the Bristol ChemLabS

Paul Wyatt receives his award and £250 for his 'continuing high quality contribution and innovation to chemistry in higher education' and the award citation states that 'he is to be commended for his leadership in the Bristol ChemLabS CETL [Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning] project and for the quality of his personal teaching'. The aim of the award is to identify excellent HE chemistry teachers and disseminate good practice in teaching throughout the UK. As part of his award Wyatt will visit five universities in the UK to talk on: Teaching innovations - using technology to enrich the traditional.    

Practical focus 

Paul Wyatt believes practical work is a vital to students' chemical education and in generating their enthusiasm for the subject. As a young boy he enjoyed making chemical flashes and bangs, and was fascinated by complicated glassware found in the lab. Wyatt joined the school of chemistry at Bristol University in 1996 and in 2002 he contributed to a comprehensive redesign of the first-year laboratory course. 'We decided to develop a model that would provide students with an appropriate set of lab skills through new integrated experiments, rather than the more traditional organic, inorganic and physical chemistry experiments'. The course proved to be a great success and would inform the next big innovative step in the teaching and learning of practical chemistry at Bristol.  

The Bristol ChemLabS CETL 

In 2004 the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) invited bids from HEIs for funding to establish 74 CETLs across England. Wyatt, having taken up the post of director of undergraduate studies, played an instrumental role in putting together the successful bid for the Bristol ChemLabS CETL, securing £4.5m over the next five years from HEFCE.1 This funding was earmarked to transform the student's experience of chemistry at Bristol by putting in place and developing the use of e-learning technology in the teaching laboratories, which were refurbished thanks to support from the university.  

Following this success Wyatt was appointed director of the Bristol ChemLabS in 2005, chairing a working party which was charged with reviewing all aspects of the existing laboratory course. With this broad remit, Wyatt led the development of a 21st century approach to undergraduate practical chemistry designed to reinvigorate students' enthusiasm for labs. 'The way undergraduate teaching laboratories have been run over the past few decades has tended to lead to a "recipe following" approach to practical work', he told Education in Chemistry. 'Students arrive in the lab and are expected to do experiments without necessarily having a thorough understanding of the chemistry and procedures involved. For lab work to be a valuable experience, students need to understand the practical work they are going to do before they enter the lab'.  

To achieve this change in approach Wyatt, an advocate of e-learning and the use of virtual learning environments (VLEs), and his team introduced the dynamic laboratory manual (DLM). Developed in collaboration with Learning Science, this online resource is accessed by students and staff via the Internet. The DLM provides students with background information on each experiment, including virtual experiments for them to perform and videos showing practical techniques and equipment, produced by Wyatt and his colleagues. A multifunctional tool, students use the DLM to complete prelab tests designed to develop their understanding of the chemistry behind each practical and to check that they are aware of the hazards and safety requirements. Students receive automated feedback on their answers and staff can monitor students' performance, but students must pass the tests before they can start any practical work. 'By incorporating this e-learning technology, we have shifted the emphasis on lab assessment from after completing the practical, ie  marking a student's lab report, to before and during the lab work', explains Wyatt. 'Now we assess how good students are at doing the experiment, rather than at just writing up'.  

Over the past three years, using the revised first-year course as a model, Wyatt and his colleagues have developed similar integrated second- and third-year courses focused on providing students with further lab skills through experiments with broad chemical themes. For example, in a Wilkinson's catalyst experiment students prepare the inorganic catalyst and then use it to catalyse an organic reaction. 

The refurbished Bristol ChemLabS teaching laboratories re-opened in February 2007 and this state-of-the-art environment, coupled with the DLM-driven teaching programme, has encouraged a more professional approach to lab work in students. According to Wyatt, 'E-learning designed to support practical work allows students to get the most out of their time spent in the lab and with staff, thus maximising the educational benefits of this vital hands-on experience'.