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Periodic Table Workshop

Context

This first workshop presented several strategic challenges for the OSL project. It involved the entire first year intake of Chemistry students (c100-130 student participants each year), a number which necessitated 4 sessions in total; it required the facilitators to pitch the workshop at the right level for undergraduates embarking upon a new course in a new learning environment; and it demanded a sound integration of the OSL workshop method with the academic content of Chemistry, a subject viewed as a ‘hard’ science and traditionally taught through lectures or laboratory demonstrations. At the University of Warwick ‘the first year of an undergraduate chemistry degree is taught via lectures (70%), lab sessions (30%) and regular small-group tutorials.’ [1] It was a central objective then, that students should have the opportunity to experience a creative and collaborative learning event early in their university careers which would ‘help them see Chemistry as a living subject rather than a series of syllabus objectives’ (Farrer et al, 312).

Method

Preparation

Students are assigned an element in lectures, and requested to produce a short paper on that element. They are also given a T-shirt (coloured according to the group of which that element is a part) and asked to illustrate it according to the symbol and properties of that element (for example in previous workshops some students drew direct applications or physical representations of their element, while others took a more abstract approach, experimenting with texture and colour to represent their element).

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Students are assigned a famous chemist, which have been chosen with care in order to provoke a rich and varied learning experience within the group. They produce a short paper on their chemist. They are encouraged to equip themselves with props if they feel it will aid their workshop experience.

Workshop activities

Students are involved in a series of tasks involving embodying their element, finding out information about the other students’ elements, and physicalising some aspects of their element’s “character”. Students ask general questions of each other, both scientific and social, and answer in a historically appropriate way as their chemist might, e.g. “why do things burn?”, “what was the biggest obstacle in your research?” Each chemist then steps forward and the others reveal what they have learned about her/him. The chemists then assemble in a semi-circle according to their year of birth, and in turn, give a brief interview as their chemist in which they promote “their” ideas.

The students then “discover” their elements on a large version of the periodic table. Following this, subgroups of elements, or chemists, are formed, in which the students discuss the properties of their elements, or the relationship of their chemists, and represent an aspect of this in a “tableau”.

As a final activity students arrange themselves into a “living” periodic table and investigate the changing properties according to external stimuli (the facilitator reading out temperature scales or ionisation energies), or there is a “University Challenge” session on the students’ knowledge of both their elements and chemists. The session ends with a plenary engaging the various different representations of Periodic Tables.

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Findings

Although many students who had not encountered performance workshops before declared their apprehension in advance of the workshop, the attendance figures over the three years are very positive. Indeed, since the workshop is effectively non-compulsory -replacing a normal lecture where student attendance is not registered- figures of 91% attendance in the first year rising to 99% in the second are very impressive. The mediating influence of the lead learners will have helped increase student attendance. In 2010-11 the lead learners convened a pre-workshop session in which students designed t-shirts to help them physically represent their assigned element. This was primarily a creative exercise but it also served to acclimatize the students to the process and gave them an opportunity to seek reassurance from the lead learners.

They came to the decorating session prepared, with clear ideas of what they wanted to do and loads of enthusiasm. Their imagination amused me. I believe this session was a key moment to engage the students in the workshop. It also gave them the chance to clear any doubts they had about their famous chemists.” Isolda, Chemistry lead learner

Within the workshop itself the students have been observed as lively and engaged. It begins with a series of warm up exercises to get the students used to each other and the physical space before moving into the Chemistry-specific work.

 

All of them stepped forward and talked loud in front of their peers, what made me think they were feeling not too uncomfortable in this situation. The fact that the workshop was taking place in the second week of term, where they did not know each other too well but were keen on changing that, might have been a major benefit.” Louise, Chemistry lead learner

 

Experience has shown that student apprehension and resistance to OSL can turn on one symbolic moment. It is fair to say that such a moment takes place in this workshop when the students witness Professor Peter Sadler demonstrating how to embody a chemical element. Given that it is the prospect of performing which students can find so nerve-wracking, seeing a senior member of staff and authority figure perform in this manner breaks down barriers and reveals the essentially non-hierarchical ethos of the learning space.

 

My involvement trying to act as “mercury” and especially Peter Sadler acting out how an element can explode and decay seemed to make a big difference in the students’ engagement. I believe that their thoughts were along the line: if this academic can make a fool of himself and roll over on the floor…perhaps I can give it a try!” Isolda, Chemistry lead learner."

 

The students themselves had an opportunity to reflect at the end of the workshop and record their responses on project questionnaires. Over the two years of the project 167 out of 226 students have rated their experience as good or excellent. This is a positive response which reflects the general consensus that the workshop was a good ‘experience’. In an attempt to further define the value of the workshop experience we asked the same students whether they felt they better understood Inorganic Chemistry as a result of the workshop: 59% said that it had, 28% were undecided and 13% said that it had not. This is a slightly less positive result but nonetheless promising for a method which challenges students’ perceptions of university teaching. The clear majority of students felt that they had taken something academically useful away from the sessions. One might imagine that the same question asked of a lecture might elicit a more positive response, but bound up with this is the students’ feeling that a lecture is what university learning is supposed to feel like. With this in mind it is perhaps also a promising sign that over a quarter of the students were ‘undecided’ about whether they had learned something in the workshop. This suggests some ongoing refection about what it might mean to learn in a workshop environment and how different formats might challenge fixed notions of learning.

Quite a number of students who recorded thoughts demonstrating in more detail what they felt they had learned. Some students viewed the workshop as an opportunity to consolidate what they had learned through their mini research project.

 

I revised my knowledge of Na and my chemist to enable me to remember this information longer.”

 

I enjoyed the range of activities and I learnt a lot by doing the pre-workshop exercise.”

 

The emphasis on memory here is significant as it implies the value of physical activity in the work of the mind. Other students showed more appreciation for the contribution of social interaction to the learning process.

 

Learnt in depth information on my element and also found facts about other elements from interaction with my Peer group. I also enjoy the friendly and engaging environment of the group session.”

 

The presentations managed to link scientists in ways not thought before.”

 

It is also noteworthy that so many students mentioned the value of learning about the history of Chemistry.

 

I learnt a lot about the history if chemistry and a lot about the discovery of the elements”

 

In 2010-11 we asked all the participants whether they would recommend this workshop to other students: 89% said that they would. This shows that science students, who might ordinarily be cast as further removed from performance based pedagogy than humanities students, generally come away from OSL with a very positive outlook. Obviously this recommendation should help sustain OSL within Chemistry and promote it across the sciences.

 



[1] Farrer et al (2010) ‘(RSC): chemistry, performance, and pedagogy – an interactive approach to periodic trends’ Chemistry Education Research and Practice 11, 308-13. See this article for an extended breakdown of these sessions’ content.