Teaching: on the front line

October 31, 2003

What is your experience of teaching? Pat Leon asks teachers how they manage.

Name : Paul May

Age : 39

Job : Senior lecturer, Bristol University School of Chemistry.

Qualifications : BSc Chemistry (Bristol), PhD (Bristol).

Experience : After my degree, I worked for GEC Research in London for three years on fabricating silicon chips. Unfortunately, GEC made everyone in my group redundant because research and development was proving too expensive.

I saw an advert for PhD opportunities at Bristol doing dry etching of silicon chips, my specialist subject. I took a threefold cut in income to become a student again.

Hours spent teaching : Twenty a week on lectures, demonstrating practicals, tutorials, workshops and supervising project students.

Hours on red tape : Fifteen.

Hours on research : Ten. I study the deposition of thin films of diamond using a process called chemical vapour deposition. Diamond coatings could find many uses in electronics, computers, aircraft components and machining. It's a good ice-breaker at parties... if someone asks what I do, I say, "I make diamonds".

Teaching bugbear : The declining mathematical ability of new students. This year, 35 students (20 per cent of the intake) have started our chemistry degree course without A-level maths or physics. But chemistry is no walk in the park. It's a hard mathematical science. School students think that having A levels in, say, chemistry, French and history is sufficient background. But it is impossible to teach physical chemistry properly without using maths. How can you teach a class how to solve the Shrodinger equation when some of them are still struggling with how to add fractions?

Bristol is one of the top five chemistry departments in the UK. We tend to attract the brightest students. If we are getting students with such poor maths, what about the others?

How would you solve it? We are changing the way the courses are written and taught. Some may call it dumbing down. We have developed a special course (Chemistry 1S) that teaches basic maths/physics concepts for first-years.

We also run a series of mathematical problem classes in the second year.

These help the students to remember some of the maths they did at A level.

The real solution would be for the schools to advise students that chemistry is a "science" and requires a sound mathematical grounding.

Best teaching moment? Receiving the Royal Society of Chemistry Higher Education Teaching Award last year. Despite my maths bugbear, I like teaching. Most of the students are bright and enthusiastic. The best part is in the final year when the students do research projects in my lab for six months. Most enjoy the experience, especially when they realise that they are doing cutting-edge research. One student was particularly delighted when I told him that after he'd finished his project, he would be the world expert in that area.

Another positive experience has been a web competition for second-years I run to fill the two-week gap in June between the end of exams and results.

Students are taught the basics of how to write a webpage and are let loose on a project of their choice. They teach themselves the rest - they research the subject, write it up and format it so it looks visually appealing. About half the year opts to do a project. All the projects are put on our website so they get world-visibility. Students are amazed when a month later someone from, say, the US emails them asking for their "expert" advice.

The best four go forward to the National Exemplarchem Competition run by the Royal Society of Chemistry.

Outside interests: Rock music and metal music; reading (and writing) science fiction; table tennis; pub quizzes; and international travel.

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