Chemistry Education Research: Conference Reflections by Dr David Nutt

I was thrilled to be heading to the Gordon Research Conference on ‘Chemical Education Research and Practice’ in Newport, Rhode Island, thanks to an ‘Activating Chemistry Education Research’ bursary from the Royal Society of Chemistry. Having been to Gordon Conferences in the past, I was familiar with the format: busy mornings of talks, free afternoons for networking (or, in the case of Newport, visiting mansions, not necessarily incompatible with networking!), and then further talks and posters until 11pm. These conferences are normally small, with around 150 people at the cutting edge of the topic. I was hoping my poster on the ‘Flipped Classroom’ was going to be up to scratch. Another cornerstone of these conferences is confidentiality, with presenters encouraged to present a significant amount of unpublished work. Live tweeting was explicitly forbidden!

To be honest, I found many of the talks tough and somewhat intimidating, although I feel I learned a lot about the current status of chemistry education research and am now aware of some of the key figures. There was much more education research than practice, with discussions of representational frameworks, cognitive models, pedagogical content knowledge, self-explaining… In fact, keeping up with the language was the key challenge and principal barrier for someone like me who wants to find out more about the field. It felt like being a student again when I had to ask my neighbour what a particular acronym stood for. It was also strongly US-focussed: I finally worked out late in the week that the NGSS, or Next Generation Science Standards, was basically the new US National Curriculum for science (although individual states are free to decide whether they adopt it or not). There was also quite a lot on secondary education and teacher training, about which I knew very little.

The poster sessions were much more accessible and provided scope for discussing methods, instruments (a new word for me in that specific context) and results with PhD students and fellow academics. With only a basic understanding of qualitative research methods, I was surprised to see how much research can be carried out by the analysis of audio and video recordings of students in structured interviews, in focus groups, or while carrying out tasks. The subsequent transcribing and ‘coding’ of the data (categorising of statements or actions) appears to be the bane of many PhD students’ lives! I hadn’t previously considered interviews as a way of obtaining greater insight into some of the interesting or unexpected points highlighted by questionnaires, but will in the future. I was also pleased with the response to my poster, with suggestions of things to consider in the future.

Among the talks, some in particular stood out. Marcos Martinón-Torres (Archaeology, University College London) gave a captivating talk about the terracotta warriors and their role in chemistry education, illustrating how a fascinating story (who built them? why? how?) can be used to make chemistry more ‘sexy’ and accessible to the wider public.

I identified with one talk in particular, on the last full day of the conference, when the topic moved on to ‘Translating Chemistry Education Research to Impact Practice’. Marilyne Stains (University of Nebraska, Lincoln) discussed the ‘research-practice gap’ in chemical education, and is trying to understand why the education research literature is not feeding through to practitioners. It wasn’t surprising to hear that she had found that ‘engaged practitioners’ (those wanting to enhance their teaching – I would include myself in this category) see discipline-based education researchers (DBERs, another of those acronyms I quickly had to learn) as a resource for supporting teaching. On the other hand, DBERs see themselves as researchers rather than practitioners, and do not consider it as part of their role to provide guidance on T&L matters. Indeed, DBERs are not necessarily good practitioners. The key questions, then, are “What is the role of chemical education researchers in bridging research and practice?” and “Whose responsibility is it to translate and disseminate it?”. No answers were forthcoming and I expect this issue to be around for a long time!

Another interesting point made by Stains concerned the ‘fear factor’ about asking for guidance about teaching. Researchers are always collaborating and discussing problems with peers without any associated stigma, whereas asking for guidance and support about teaching feels to many like an admission that they are not able to do their job. This is where strong communities can help, from small groups such as the Chemical Education Group in the Chemistry Department at Reading, but also the wider Chemistry Education community in the UK, who I have started to meet over the past couple of years.

One research tool that particularly caught my attention during the conference was the use of eye-tracking software. When ‘novice’ and ‘expert’ chemists look at a chemical structure, their eye motion is very different. The expert quickly identifies the type of molecule and then spends more time looking at the specific features that make the molecule unique. A novice, on the other hand, has a much more random approach: identifying small fragments consistent with their knowledge, but unable to grasp the whole picture. The questions then include: How does a novice become an expert? Is there a specific ‘learning pathway’ (another much-discussed expression!) that all individuals follow? Can we identify better ways of training novices to become experts? I have the vague memory of a facility at Reading with the capability of eye-tracking… I must find out more about it!

A topic that I found particularly interesting that came up many times during the conference concerned chemical representations. Chemists use a wide range of representing molecules, which an expert has no problem in interpreting. Novices, which include undergraduate students (no offence intended), however, can often become confused by things an expert would consider insignificant, such as the colour of molecule, whether a line is drawn in a specific place, whether the line is dotted or dashed etc. It’s not something I had even considered to be a potential source of problems before. This is going to remain in the back of my mind as I prepare my teaching materials for the coming years and hopefully they will be improved as a result.

After an intensive week at the conference, there was more to come. Knowing I’d be in the vicinity, I had arranged to meet Julie Schell, a physics education researcher at Harvard with a particular interest in ‘Peer Instruction’ and the flipped classroom. This was an extremely useful afternoon and a provided fantastic example of how research and practice can be linked together. She also got Eric Mazur to sign a copy of his book on ‘Peer Instruction’ for me!

Overall, attending the GRC was a very useful experience. I’m much more aware of the current issues in chemical education research and the different approaches being used to investigate them. As always after conferences, I came back with a long list of papers to read, names to Google, things to find out more about and ideas for developing my own practice. Now I just need to find the time…

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