ViCEPHEC 2017 reflections

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It’s been a week since the 2017 installment of ViCEPHEC ended and time to put my reflections on paper.

The conference began with Labsolutely Fabulous, an exhibition style session focusing on innovative lab work and outreach.  Personally I like exhibition style sessions, as a presenter it allows you to connect with your audience in a much more personalised way.  You can find out a bit about them and then tailor your discussion of what you are showcasing accordingly.  The only problem as a presenter is you’re so keen to show your own stuff that it is difficult to see what everyone else is showing beyond your immediate neighbours.   I feel like I missed of lots which was on offer here, much of which I could have adapted for school or Manchester. [This conflict can be managed by shutting down parts of the exhibition in different time slots but requires a longer time.]  I had lots of really interesting discussions with visitors to my stand and not all were about the activity I was presenting, even my use of question cards to allow take up time for students stimulated a good discussion with the HE based visitors.

The first day’s Keynote was Suzanne Fergus from Hertfordshire, the 2016 RSC Higher Education Award winner.  The title of her talk was ‘quick wins and slow burners’ and although I have seen much of what she presented in various forms (Peerwise in particular) I still found new things.  The use of a video explaining a lab assessment was an illustration of the power of video to reach out to young people in a digital world (afterall the BBC have found that their short video web pieces have more impact than written pieces).  I can see how something similar would really help with transition issues.  The environment at university is very different to school, especially with regard to lab classes and lecture halls, something similar would be help students know what is expected of them in advance of arriving.

Suzanne advocates beginning with the ‘why?’ when presenting material to students.  This is something I am in two minds about.  Surely our ultimate aim as educators is to instil a love of learning such that the reason for learning is immaterial; learning for learning’s sake?  Many scientific discoveries have been made withour an obvious ‘why?’ question, no obvious use or problem to be solved and this helps push the frontiers of science.  But then again I know the boundaries we all work in and especially in the setting Suzanne works in and novice chemists, especially those enrolled on vocational courses like pharmacy may need that hook to engage with material.

The quickfire round was next with a series of oral bytes.  David Read’s (Southampton) 5 minutes on what teachers think the impact of the new A level will be was particularly interesting and shone out as a beacon of positivity (more on that later).  I am happy to say that myself and colleagues at Bolton School helped contribute to the work and the report is now published.

I didn’t attend a workshop as none of them appealed to me and I needed to catch up with some collaborative work.

In the afternoon I attended the parallel session with a focus on writing and assessment.  Literacy is a particular interest of mine in school, trying always to overcome the perception that writing isn’t important in chemistry!  Simon Rees’s (Durham) work with foundation students on chemical linguistic demand was especially interesting in this regard, it is amazing what we take for granted with the terminology we use.  Another stand out talk was by Craig Campbell from Oxford which discussed why some particular concepts in chemistry seemed to cause difficulty for their incoming students.

The evening gala dinner was at the National Railway Museum, an absolutely stunning venue. I have been there many, many times with my train obsessed daughter so it felt very special to be there at night with adults!

On the final day I had my first experience of chairing one of the parallel sessions, this one focusing on transition and outreach.

Andy Parsons from York discussed the development of their MOOC, everyday chemistry. He shows some great examples of interacting with a wide range of individuals and ways in which he made the eLearning experience richer through interaction with the learners. I think this would be a great MOOC for 6th formers and even interested younger students. Cate Cropper from Liverpool introduced us to the idea that coding may be a vital skill for our chemistry undergraduates to learn and showed us the ‘Hive‘ model. Coding is one thing I wish I knew more about and it is nice to see it becoming something that chemists consider important for their future careers.

The final plenary talk caused some unease with me. Professor Sir John Holman, president of the RSC presented on transitions from school to university, including his own from schoolteacher to founder of the science learning centre and academic at the University of York. I was apprehensive about what was going to be presented having seen several sound bites from his similar talks quoted by attendees at various meetings through Twitter.  Unfortunately my unease wasn’t smoothed over by hearing the presentation in person. There were lots of interesting points presented and some nice observations of the transition process however I found it incredibly unhelpful to have it stated to a room of mainly HE professionals that A level teachers teach to the test and that kids don’t do enough practical work. A single sentence saying that teachers don’t want to teach that way and the system is forcing them to did nothing to negate the potential negative effects of those quotes being taken forward by delegates. I suspect no malintent on John’s part but it certainly felt to me like some of my good work as a little person in bringing A level and undergraduate teaching closer together was unravelling in front of my eyes by a high profile speaker saying the opposite. The last time I saw that same quote appear I emailed colleagues at the local comprehensive schools to make sure I wasn’t in some kind of privileged school bubble and asked them to get their techs to count up the practicals that had been ordered for that particular week. The numbers they came back with suggested that there was plenty of practical work going on in my local area (and Bolton is far from being an affluent local authority area).  So for me the conference ended on a bit of a flat note which was a shame a small I was very much looking forward to hearing from someone with a similar background to my own. Others found this presentation really positive so perhaps it’s just something I am very sensitive about. I’ll maintain though that I am a far better teacher in both of my settings because I am so passionate about better dialogue between the 2 sides. If I didn’t care so much I wouldn’t have stuck my head above the parapet to propose the job I do now that’s for sure!

Things I need to follow up…

  • I need to look into Patrick Thompson’s guided enquiry work in soap making as that fits directly into our A level work and the design of it would allow us to revisit one of the CPAC skills no consolidate it.
  • I want to collect some y13 responses to one of the questions Craig Campbell had in his slides about basicity and share them with him.
  • Encourage some boys to sign up for the York MOOC.
  • Consider how we can use the new Manchester Chemistry blog to incorporate videos like Suzanne’s that would help students settle into life in the department.


Slight aside…. There has been some discussion about whether ViCEPHEC is the right place for teachers.  It is primarily a HE conference however I have always seen it as a place to magpie ideas from people who aren’t driven to teach in a particular way by an external influence like Ofsted.



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