A view from the other side of the desk: a chemistry teacher's perspective

Higher level chemistry teacher, associate professor Emily Parker, tells us how she aims to make chemistry accessible to all.

Chemistry is a subject that is considered by many people to be hard and inaccessible. My approach to teaching is underpinned by my belief that everyone can achieve outstanding results. One of the best ways I have found to achieve this is to harness people’s motivation, enthusiasm and self-belief.

At both undergraduate and graduate levels I try to communicate my passion for my subject and be accessible to students in order to best support their learning. I have learned to use a variety of techniques to make my subject accessible and I recognise and enjoy the variety of ways that people both approach and achieve effective learning.

I work hard to tailor my approach to the background and needs of the students at each level, and to the different needs, abilities and aspirations of students. I endeavour to inject enthusiasm, motivation and an absolute dedication to effective learning into my teaching activities.

Chemistry students in New Zealand working in a lab

“I intersperse key concepts with practical examples to reinforce material with more familiar applications”

For some students, successful mastery of first year chemistry is the first step towards a chemistry or biochemistry degree, whereas for others this is a formal requirement so that they can pursue other subject areas, such as veterinary science or engineering. For the latter group, studying chemistry is a means to an end; they often feel they are there under duress, and there are real challenges in engaging a group with such diverse motivations. In addition, first-year chemistry classes cater for students with hugely different background preparation, abilities and cultural backgrounds.

My approach is to use a variety of techniques to make the subject accessible and to give it relevance. These include providing clear notes, recapping material and the use of practical demonstrations. I also intersperse key concepts with practical examples to reinforce material with more familiar applications. For example: How does penicillin work? And, what are the chemical reactions associated with vision?

Understanding the concepts of how chemical reactions work can be difficult for many students, and I have found computer-animations to illustrate chemical change to be very helpful for this. Many chemical concepts require an understanding in three dimensions. To aid this I make extensive use of molecular models and encourage students to use them.

I also deliberately incorporate links to contemporary research and discuss my current research. For example, I described to the class a structure of one of the proteins that I study on the day it was released. I think it is important to emphasise the contemporary nature of the subject, the excitement that new knowledge in the field is offering, and to emphasise that many aspects of our subject remain unresolved (with many exciting discoveries to come).

The link between research and undergraduate teaching is enormously important to me and to my students. Interweaving my research interests with my undergraduate teaching not only opens a window to an exciting world beyond their immediate undergraduate degree, but also motivates active learning and engagement with examples of immediate relevance and interest. In my experience students enjoy the opportunity to ask questions at the boundaries of our understanding. These strong connections between research and teaching facilitate the transitions from undergraduate study into research; and I greatly enjoy the interactions I have with the large number of postgraduate students who work with me.

From an article written by Associate Professor Emily Parker, following the receipt of her Excellence in Tertiary Teaching Award. Used with permission from Ako Aotearoa.

Provided by the New Zealand Institute of Chemistry (NZIC) (2011)