Report by 2012 International Travel Award Recipient Dr. Sam Pazicni

It is my pleasure to report on my participation in the 22nd International Conference on Chemistry Education (ICCE) and 11th European Conference on Research in Chemical Education (ECRICE), held July 15-20, 2012, in Rome, Italy. This event marked the first time that these two major international conferences on chemistry education were held jointly. The “eternal City” provided a marvelous backdrop for an impressive week of contributions to international chemistry education research and practice. Details of the conference are available at the conference website: http://www.iccecrice2012.org/.

This dual ICCE/ECRICE event attracted more than 600 participants from over 71 nations, the majority being from North America and Europe. The conference adopted the theme of “Stimulating Reflection and Catalysing Change in Chemistry Education” and focused on five key topics:

  • communicating chemistry
  • didactics of third level chemistry (university-level chemistry in the US)
  • ICT (information and communications technology) and multimedia in teaching chemistry
  • didactics of second level chemistry (high school level chemistry in the US)
  • laboratory work in teaching chemistry

Plenary and keynote speakers were numerous—too many to give individual billing in this report. Highlights included Nobel Laureate Sir Harold Kroto (of Buckminsterfullerene fame and Florida State University), DivCHED members Brian Coppola (University of Michigan) and Melanie Cooper (Clemson University), as well as ACS President Bassam Shakhashiri (University of Wisconsin). Approximately 320 papers and 236 posters were contributed in 56 symposia and 2 poster sessions throughout the week. The 2012 ICCE/ECRICE was truly an event as grant as the city that played host.

Of the many morsels of knowledge I was able to sample throughout the conference, two in particular have stayed with me and will influence my thoughts on teaching for years to come. Harold Kroto offered the first during his plenary address entitled “Science, Lost in Translation?” He mused on the images of scientists that most young students encounter: the iconic “crazy-haired” Albert Einstein and the litany of elderly bushy-bearded white men (e.g. James Clerk Maxwell, August Kekulé, Dmitri Mendeleev, etc.).  Indeed, these are images of great scientists. However, are they the images of the scientists at the time of their discoveries? No! Perform a Google image search of the 26-year-old Einstein (in 1905, the year of his miracle year papers) and you’ll find a young man reminiscent of Shia Labeouf. Perform a similar search for a 24-year-old James Maxwell and you’ll find no bushy beard in sight. Kroto’s point here is that popular images of scientists are, for no good reason, very disconnected from images of these scientists at the time of their discoveries. As we attempt to inspire a younger generation of scientists in our classroom, why do we not show them images of the 26-year-old Einstein or the 24-year-old James Maxwell? They certainly might think success in science is more attainable if they compare themselves to the younger Einsteins and Maxwells, than if they compare themselves to images of scientists more than 50 years their senior.

The other morsel was provided by Brian Coppola during his plenary address entitled “The Creativity Challenge: Do Real Work, not Homework”. As the title beckons, Coppola argues for engaging students in authentic and meaningful activities (aligning assessments accordingly) rather than trivial algorithmic exercises. Combined with a philosophy that information brought to the classroom by the instructor is just as important as information brought to the classroom by the students, this credo catalyzed “The HTML Project”. This endeavor gathered students into groups (guided by an undergraduate peer-leader) to transform content from sets of research papers into multi-media web sites, which, in effect, became the text for the course. This activity and its underlying philosophies have stuck with me since the ICCE/ECRICE because (as the plenary talk title dictates) it challenges students to be creative. As a young chemistry education researcher, I (at times) become overburdened with thoughts of covering course content, measuring this learning outcome or that cognitive ability, or fretting over what information some standardized assessment actually yields. I so often forget about the human element of teaching and learning. We, as teachers, as well as our students are inherently creative beings. We ought to be participating in learning environments that celebrate this fact, rather than in those that hinder it.

An interesting theme of the ICCE/ECRICE conference began emerging from its very first session—the presenting of IUPAC Awards for Outstanding Achievement in Chemistry Education to Peter Mahaffy (The King’s University College, Canada) and Robert Bucat (The University of Western Australia). During his remarks, Bucat called for more research into how language affects learning chemistry. This sentiment was echoed in a subsequent plenary talk by Mei-Hung Chiu (Taiwan, “Globalization of Chemistry Education”), who introduced an idea that “language” should adopt an additional vertex of the Johnstone-Mahaffy chemistry learning tetrahedron. Chiu’s proposal is reproduced below.
 

Whether Chiu’s addition to this classic chemistry learning framework will stand the test of time remains to be seen. However, this emergent theme of “language and learning chemistry” was exciting to me, as it a thrust of my current chemistry education research. I was very happy to presented a paper entitled “Language Comprehension and Learning Chemistry” in the “Language in Teaching Science” symposium on Thursday afternoon. While my contribution focused on language comprehension as a cognitive ability that can both predict chemistry performance and form the basis for potential classroom interventions, others in the symposium (all Europeans; from Germany, Ireland, and The Netherlands) focused on issues that scientific and chemical language causes in the classroom. These issues are exacerbated in areas such as Germany, where secondary classrooms can have enormous linguistic heterogeneity (as many as 15 different mother tongues in the same classroom!). Reflecting on this conference (and my session in particular), I can say that is has provided me invaluable perspective on chemistry education issues outside of the United States. I hope to keep up conversations I began with those in attendance at this “Language in Teaching Science” symposium, which hopefully will lead to exciting future collaborations.

Finally, I would like to report that the ICCE/ECRICE conference from beginning to end appeared to be motivated by a strong imperative: instruction should be guided by research, which cannot be done without a strong alignment of goals, instruction, and assessment. At the end of the conference, a panel composed of the plenary and keynote speakers spoke to the challenges for putting the results of chemistry education research into practice. It seemed to me (and others may disagree) that this mantra was more forcefully broadcast at this meeting than at chemistry education conferences in the United States. Granted, at all such conferences, we tend to “preach to the choir”. However, as a recent report commissioned by the National Academy of Sciences entitled Discipline-Based Education Research: Understanding and Improving Learning in Undergraduate Science and Engineering recommends: “…current faculty should adopt evidence-based teaching practices to improve learning outcomes for undergraduate science and engineering students”, perhaps we chemistry educators in the United States should be preaching a little more loudly.

I greatly enjoyed my experiences at the 2012 ICCE/ECRICE and Rome that the International Travel Award afforded me. I very much look forward to future international conferences and becoming more involved the trend of globalizing chemistry education.

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The oculus of the Pantheon at mid-day. My favorite of all the pictures I took in Rome!

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