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ChemContext -- WATE PGR Perspectives

Feedback received from undergraduate students is likely to mention a difficulty in understanding how the material covered in lectures relates to real life – why do I need to know this and how is it ever going to benefit me in the future?[1] Student perceptions of the relevance of academic content is a major factor in student motivation and thus academic performance: it has previously been shown that ‘relevance interventions’ – initiatives that encourage students to make connections between material covered in lectures and the ‘real word’ or their day-to-day lives – improve student interest, motivation and attainment.[2] Bearing this in mind and in the specific context of my home department (chemistry), I felt it was important to create a bridge between key undergraduate chemistry concepts and real-life research, so that students can understand the importance and relevance of what they learn in their course. I believe these connections would be equally important in the context of any other department or discipline.

In recognising the importance of contextualising lecture content and wanting to explore undergraduate student reactions to such a ‘relevance intervention’, I organised an event designed not only to fulfil this goal but also to create an opportunity for postgraduate students to employ (and develop) their communication and teaching skills. The role of PhD students was to produce a poster demonstrating how a key undergraduate chemistry concept is relevant to their research; they then presented the resulting posters to undergraduate students, showcasing their research and helping their juniors to make connections between their lectures and real-life research. Therefore, the ChemContext event (as I advertised this poster session) brought together the two often distant communities together – undergraduate and postgraduate – for their mutual benefit. The event served as a space for these communities to engage and interact with each other, learning from each other’s perspectives and collaborating to enhance each other’s learning experiences.

Organisation

Organising the event consisted mainly of asking postgraduate students to participate and create their posters, booking a venue, ordering the food and then advertising as much as possible to make sure undergraduate students came along. The most difficult of these was, perhaps unsurprisingly, getting postgraduate students to engage with the activity – even though I was convinced they would gain something from it, it is difficult to get that message across to people who are understandably busy trying to make progress with their PhD research. It was not until I secured funding to award poster prizes that I started seeing some real movement in people signing up; I trust the endorsement of the head of department also had an impact. Encouraging undergraduates to come along on the day, on the other hand, involved showing up in lectures, advertising on social media, spreading the word during lab demonstration, mass e-mails and advertising on the Chemistry Society’s weekly ChemCafe. In the end, there were nine posters produced by postgraduate students at the session covering a range of chemistry topics. Each postgraduate who presented a poster brought postgraduate friends along, and these joined the 23 undergraduate students who had signed up and attended the event. We even got the attention of a couple of established academic staff members, who joined us and participated in the discussion taking place nearby the several posters.

Feedback

The feedback from undergraduate students was overwhelmingly positive, with students expressing having benefited from the event in a variety of ways – some of which I had expected, and others that I hadn’t considered. Firstly, the ChemContext event seemed to have achieved its main aim of contextualising lecture content and helping students make sense of it in light of current research: student feedback read ‘posters nicely related to areas we’ve covered in lectures’ and ‘[ChemContext] gave more sense to the course’. There were also many messages of appreciation for the postgraduate students taking the time to explain their research, and for doing it very well: ‘if undergraduates can understand the poster by oneself, this means a lot (…) really linked to what we learn and there is good explanation on the posters’, ‘the PhD people are really good at explaining stuff’, ‘the PhD team was very open towards questions’, ‘it was really nice to talk to such enthusiastic people’.

I had also expected the ChemContext event to be an opportunity for students to consider going into research themselves, and indeed they shared that they had ‘learnt a lot about further studies’ and that it had been a ‘great opportunity to talk with PhD students and familiarise with research opportunities’. One student was even more specific in saying that the event had ‘helped [them] realise a few things about research such as the possibilities of easily doing research in areas other than just [their] course (e.g. study maths, PhD in chemistry) which [they are] now interested in doing’.

Reflections

What I hadn’t expected to come through as much was the appreciation for the opportunity to simply network. Not only was I told informally by postgraduates during and after the event that they enjoyed meeting other PhD students in the department and learning about their research, undergraduate students also left feedback saying that ChemContext was a ‘perfect event for socialising and meeting fellow chemists’ and that it had been ‘really interesting to see what sort of things postgraduates research’. This feedback suggests to me that, despite often being disconnected, the undergraduate and postgraduate student communities are keen to get to know and learn from each other – and I find this an interesting area to explore further as a teaching and learning opportunity for both.

The feedback received also pointed out areas for improvement, namely an interest in having more posters which also encompass a wider range of chemistry topics. This is, of course, something that would require a more proactive engagement from the postgraduate student community. However, given the success of this first event, the department is considering making it an annual feature to be part of the curricular undergraduate offer, which would hopefully generate further support, increase engagement with the initiative and help it grow as an innovative and versatile teaching and learning tool.

[1] Bainbridge & Shulman, Communication Education, 1995, 44(1), 40-50.

[2] Hulleman & Harackiewicz, Science, 2008, 326(5958), 1410-1412; Harackiewicz & Hulleman, Social and Personality Compass, 2010, 4(1), 42-52.

Nat das Neves Rodrigues Lopes

Nat das Neves Rodrigues Lopes is a Research Fellow in the Department of Chemistry. She received a Warwick Award for Teaching Excellence for Postgraduates who Teach in 2018.

The support of the WATE PGR award was invaluable in organising this event: it became the seed funding that attracted further investment that was needed to make the project happen. Being awarded the WATE PGR was an honour in itself, but the support I received as a result (both in terms of money and guidance) has helped me further develop a wide set of skills, teaching related and otherwise, as well as raising my professional profile. I would not have considered organising the ChemContext event had I not received the WATE PGR award, and I am therefore immensely thankful for having been given the space and opportunity to do so.