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Nick Barker

The best part of my job…

My best days at work tend to happen in the Chemistry Department’s teaching laboratories. A group of about thirty young people, aged anywhere from eight to eighteen years old, will have arrived that morning, will have listened to my hopefully not to stern safety instructions (I endlessly try to strike the perfect balance between ‘welcoming’ and ‘authoritative’), put on white coats, rubber gloves and safety glasses and will have stood in a large laboratory furnished at a cost of £2.5 million and felt completely out of their depth. They will have been told that they were going to work on an experiment that I had written and that sounds too hard for them.

You will hydrolyse ethyl benzoate, filter off the benzoic acid, purify it by recrystallisation and then analyse it by infrared spectroscopy, I will have said to a group of sixth formers, for example. Finally, they will have made their way to a fume hood (which they have never worked in before) and gazed in bafflement at a tray filled with unfamiliar apparatus. It is once they start work that the magic happens!

During the preceding weeks, people will have volunteered to work with these children: PhD students, increasing numbers of undergraduates willing to give up vacation time, post-docs and academic staff who want to spend a day in a lab wearing an orange lab coat with a group of adolescents who could be from any background imaginable. I watch the rest happen with no interference. Those who volunteered to help become orange pillars of wisdom and reassurance, those who earlier felt so out of place gradually settle in, find their feet and start to do technical things, complicated things, hazardous things, with skill and confidence. “I hate science at school but this is brilliant,” “thanks for not shouting at me when I flooded the lab” and “this is the future of education” are all things we have heard from those who come to share our knowledge and facilities.

The day draws to a close, eight year olds tend to be buzzing and covered in food colouring, wanting to take the slime they have made home with them. Fourteen year olds try not to look as proud as they feel at having removed caffeine from tea, sixteen year olds tend to linger, talking to their tutors about some detail or other and sixth formers comprehend that Chemistry is more than their teachers and a lot of modular tests, it is a subject that makes the world better and that if they want to, they can join in.

In this context, Chemistry is just a vehicle for something more. Nearly 800 children worked for a day in the labs last year and I have often been privileged to see some wonderful things: the fifteen year old girl who found that she is clever at science after all, the PhD student who saw a future as a teacher, teachers who felt reinvigorated and proud and the thirteen year old from a school at the bottom of the league tables who discussed her work with a nice man who can put the letters F.R.S. after his name. There was a seventeen year old who whilst working in our labs decided not to drop chemistry, came back for a week of work experience and continues today with her original plans to study biochemistry at university. I saw a child from a referral unit who lives in one room with his alcoholic mother quietly show a post-doc he is clever and a boy from a famous public school enjoying being stretched to his limits by a PhD student who went to a comprehensive school in Liverpool. I think it works just as well in both directions: the academic staff members enjoy working with children too and many of them are very good at it.

The same approach works for undergraduates, I enjoy teaching some support modules of work for the first year chemists in maths and physics. Encouraging the students to join in with practical demonstrations, sharing jokes, asking questions, praising effort and giving a clear structure to the lecture works as well for undergraduates as it does for primary school children. I enjoy this work, and I feel lucky to be able to teach groups of people who are smart and who have worked so hard to get to this point.

My least favourite part of my job…

Email and any allusion to targets! There is a tendency to play to targets to try and do well in an assessment exercise; as soon as this happens the bigger picture is lost and work becomes about processes instead of outcomes. I was in a school recently and a teacher told me that a group of children working in a classroom were doing a certain non-GCSE course “to get more C grades for the school”. Isn’t that awful?

My most important reasons for wanting to be a teacher…

I like the simplicity and honesty of the work - you really need to have only one motivation and that is the best interests of young people. I also believe that for many people, school is not always very inspiring. It is important for all our sakes that we create inspirational opportunities for young people.

The best lessons I have learnt from my students…

There are many ways to be clever and it is not just about academic intelligence; it is also, and perhaps most importantly, about social skills, good sense, empathy and kindness.

Pearls of wisdom from my colleagues…

Mr Waite was a superb teacher who told me that teaching is easy, you just treat the young person before you as though they are who they could become.

Mr Blumson (PhD) gave me my first teaching job and as a head of science inspired many people. Perhaps the most important message for me was that you should work hard but also remember what really matters in life is your family and your friends.

More recently, I thank David Fox in Chemistry for telling me to look up where the word educate comes from (go and do it at once and have a good think!)

Nick Barker

Nicholas Barker - Chemistry
WATE winner 2012
(Butterworth Award)

Nick’s award is based on his remarkable work in organising and coordinating outreach activities with school students aged from eight to eighteen years old. His enthusiasm has a galvanising effect on academic staff, researchers and PhD students in his Department, who get involved with chemistry-based scientific activities with around 5000 young people each year.