Michael Seery reports on the annual conference for higher chemistry education


Variety 2012 was held in Edinburgh

Variety in Chemistry Education is one of my favourite annual conferences. This year it was held along with the Physics Higher Education Conference, providing the catchy Twitter hashtag #vicephec. The meeting was opened with a keynote lecture by Martyn Poliakoff, better known to YouTube subscribers as the star of the Periodic Table of Videos series. What struck me most about this presentation was the sense of collaboration - a world-renowned scientist sharing his knowledge with that of a skilled video journalist. Hopefully it is a collaboration that might inspire others. This beautifully delivered talk ended with a special tribute video to Ronald Nyholm (one of the two men behind VSEPR theory), which I suspect had even the quantum physicists choking back a tear. 

With the onset of presentations, it became clear that the organisers had carefully thought about the programme, with clear themes emerging. The first being the increasing use of technology in education. This included several talks on supporting in-class learning using multimedia resources. Simon Lancaster spoke of a trial regarding flipping the lecture, and on a similar concept, David McGarvey and Katherine Haxton spoke about pre-lecture activities they developed for their students. Dylan Williams talked about using multimedia clips for supporting lectures, and David Read on some fantastic worked answer videos for allowing students to engage in self-assessed work (during the summer, which they liked!). Technology continued into workshops on screencasting, wikis and online practicals. 

The keynote from David McGarvey stayed with the technology theme. He has used a wide range of technologies to support innovations in laboratory practicals, presentation skills and most impressively, audio feedback. His work on feedback - especially interim feedback - is inspiring. 

Another theme was that of student support in terms of college experience. Transition from school to college, international students, and distance learning students all have specific issues. An example was the talk by Gita Sedghi who spoke about supporting international students so that they integrated and interacted fully in their new environment, using pre-arrival planning, peer mentoring and student monitoring (interviews). 

Context and problem based learning continues to be popular, and the recent focus by the RSC and the HE-STEM programme has generated several new resources available to use. 

Paul van Kampen (DCU) delivered the final keynote lecture. This excellent talk outlined his personal journey in becoming a science education researcher as well as being a scientist. He highlighted the aspects of being a scientist that could translate into education research, and illustrated differences in the two research fields. For example, the inability to 'control' the sample in a science education 'experiment'. Many in the audience are actively at the boundary of scientist/science educationalist and the talk was a useful marker in the considerations around designing, implementing and validating educational materials. 

The closing forum agreed the experiment of co-hosting was successful, and if #vicephec13 is half as successful as this busy, informative, and entertaining meeting, it is a must-see on next year's calendar. 

Some highlights 

  • There is a kid in us all:'We made chlorine gas!' Over-excited delegate after the microscale chemistry workshop. 
  • Useful tip: Use personal whiteboards as a low-tech version of interactive teaching.   
  • Talk that changed my mind: A trio of talks on Peerwise - students developed quiz questions to help each other study. 
  • Simplest idea is the best: Get students to do a screencast instead of an oral presentation. It is self, peer and tutor assessed. Some excellent meta-cognitive concepts were included in this well-designed innovation. 
  • Time saver: Use Excel to generate a large number of questions for online VLEs with specific feedback.
  • Change to teaching: Work on using interim audio feedback illustrates what can be achieved. 

Simon Lancaster has created a Storify of the meeting's tweets. It includes links and references to resources and websites mentioned.  

You can read Michael's blog post in full on his website.