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Techniques & Tools Spectroscopy

Spec in a Suitcase

How did Spectroscopy in a Suitcase (SIAS) come into being?

Spectroscopy is obviously a very important analytical technique within chemical sciences, but within schools it can be quite hard to teach; it’s one of the more abstract concepts for students to get their head around. The program started by taking UV and IR spectrometers into school so that students could have some practical experience to back up the more textbook-related examples they are used to working on. More recently, there was a pilot run in Wales using a portable NMR (nuclear magnetic resonance) instrument. The RSC owns the majority of the kit – 60 spectrometers. And we have two supportive funders – Science Foundation Ireland and National Science Academy, Wales.

Portable spectrometers have been on the market for a number of years now, and this has had a huge impact on the way they’re used in education. We now have three different types of spectrometer on long-term loan to each of our host universities. The kit physically fits in its own suitcase, which can be wheeled around and easily taken into a school’s chemistry lesson. We’ll fly in, do a normal lesson, and the university staff or students who lead the session will do a bit of background info on spectroscopy, check what the students know, and then set them some kind of challenge where they get to run samples to analyze spectra and identify compounds.

What are the benefits?

Teachers say that because the concepts are a more difficult element of the syllabus, the opportunity for students to use advanced kit that schools would not normally have access to makes all the difference. We also get positive feedback about school students having the chance to meet university students; having real contact with someone who’s been through an experience they are considering is something they really value. It’s encouraging the next generation of scientists. On the flip side, teachers gain some contact with the outside chemistry world, and we really welcome the chance to be able to let teachers know what support is out there for them to teach chemistry. And the university students gain experience of succinctly communicating information to others.

How has the project developed?

Previously, when we only had a few universities, we were quite challenged in terms of geography. A teacher would say they were interested and the kit would be sent to them for a couple of weeks. We’d try and do some training, but essentially they’d be left to their own devices. The idea of having role models in the classroom was completely lost, and the teachers had to invest more time. As we’ve grown, we’ve been able to have more contact time with students and teachers, which is brilliant because it’s a much better all-round experience. Workshop-wise, there were three or four core workshops at the RSC developed at the start, but the universities have really got to grips with the kit and they’ve taken the ideas and run with them. People have even adapted our original ‘Body in the Lab’ murder mystery workshop (where students try to identify an unknown compound and work out whether it may have caused the death of a scientist in the lab), by dropping in local knowledge or relating it to their particular university’s research. It’s great – the workshops become easier for the students to relate to.

Would you consider working with younger students?

We will always work primarily with 16-18-year-olds because of the curriculum link, but we do want to work with younger students – we may be able to inspire them to consider a future in chemistry.

How do people book?

The link for teachers to book a free workshop is - 

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About the Author
Joanna Cummings

A former library manager and storyteller, I have wanted to write for magazines since I was six years old, when I used to make my own out of foolscap paper and sellotape and distribute them to my family. Since getting my MSc in Publishing, I’ve worked as a freelance writer and content creator for both digital and print, writing on subjects such as fashion, food, tourism, photography – and the history of Roman toilets. Now I can be found working on The Analytical Scientist, finding the ‘human angle’ to cutting-edge science stories.

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