Put the fizz in physics

June 23, 2000

The physical sciences are often seen as hard and boring but one of the 24 learning and teaching support subject centres is aiming to change all that. Sharon-Ann Holgate reports.

Do you want to make a difference to how your subject is taught? Do you find your colleagues less than keen to try out new teaching methods? Well, you are not alone.

Chemistry lecturer Tina Overton says that "enthusiastic and innovative teachers often feel isolated because they are working on their own". As director of the physical sciences subject centre, which will be officially launched at the Royal Society on June 30, she hopes to break down these barriers. The centre, which covers chemistry, physics and astronomy, is one of 24 in the Learning and Teaching Support Network set up on January 1. It has five years' finance from the funding councils of England, Wales and Scotland and the Department of Education, Northern Ireland.

"One of the problems we face is that there are falling numbers of students applying to do chemistry and physics. The physical sciences are seen as hard and boring," says Overton, a chemistry lecturer at Hull University, where the centre is based. She believes lecturers need to enthuse science students more. Overton has earned a reputation for novel teaching methods and for her work with lecturers taking a higher education teaching certificate at Hull.

"I've developed a couple of case studies that endeavour to teach chemistry in a real context: industrial, analytical or environmental. Then students see the relevance of the chemistry," she says. One case study has students deciding the future of a pigment manufacturing plant. They have to think not just about the chemistry but about the economics, its market, its environmental impact - especially on local residents - the local labour supply and funding from the local council or training organisations.

Chemistry graduates are employed in a variety of fields, from commerce and finance through to the pharmaceutical and oil refining industries and chemical or general manufacturing. "Wherever they end up, they will have to solve problems with limited information, and then defend their decisions," Overton says. The hardest part of this style of teaching is "trying to get students to take responsibility for their learning and to get lecturers to move away from a didactic chalk and talk approach.

"I've also published, along with a couple of colleagues at York University, a book on problem-solving in chemistry. It involves more open-ended, creative problem-solving, designed to encourage critical thinking, communication and group learning," she adds.

Overton's case studies are now used by several other universities. It is ideas like this that the centre is looking to promote. "We're going to do that through networking and email discussion lists. We're also going to organise continuing professional development workshops, meetings, seminars, visits to departments and open days."

The centre will publish a newsletter and a biannual journal containing reviews of teaching-related materials and software. As well as directing the centre, Overton heads Project Improve, which disseminates good practice in chemistry teaching and is now in its final year.

The physical sciences subject centre will draw on expertise from Project Improve, Computers in Teaching Initiative centres for physics and chemistry and the physics discipline network.

While making sure the needs of all three of the centre's subject areas are equally catered for, Overton is keen to promote the cross-fertilisation of ideas and teaching methods. "There are things we can learn from each other. For instance, one meeting we've planned for the autumn is on mathematical preparation. And that's a challenge that all the physical sciences face with their undergraduates."

Another challenge will occur in 2002, when students taking the new AS and A-level curriculum become the next wave of undergraduate entrants.

"We expect to see a big difference in what the students coming to us can do. I think we'll see lots of institutions looking at their first-year courses and seeing how they map on to what students have done at A level," says Overton. "We can begin by simply making information available about what the new A-level candidates will know and do in a written or electronic form. We can also bring teachers and university tutors together to explore further the differences between the new and old A-level student and to see how courses may have to adapt."

The centre plans to have its first meetings on the topic next spring. This will allow institutions a year to plan for any changes - if indeed they prove necessary.

"Although we have collaboration with professional bodies and other subject centres, it's the grass-roots support of people doing the job day to day where we can make a real impact," says Overton. "Our main aim for the centre is to build a network of practitioners who can be mutually supportive and hopefully raise the status of teaching and learning within institutions," she says.

If she has her way, enthusiastic teachers will never feel lonely again.

For a free ticket to the Royal Society launch of the physical sciences subject centre contact t.l.overton@chem.hull.ac.ukFor further information visit www.physsci.ltsn.ac.uk

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