We Don't Need No Education?
Teachers of the analytical sciences have a hard job. Lesson preparation time is limited – and, if the teacher’s own educational background is lacking, he or she could struggle to deliver what students really need. So, what is the answer?
The way in which today’s students work and learn is continually changing. They have access to new educational tools and the Internet is always at hand if they want to look up something quickly. And, let’s face facts, not all professors are good presenters, so listening to lectures can be a drag. Have you ever visited a lecture theater recently? If you have, you probably noticed that half of the students are busy with their smart phones, another quarter of them are pretending they are not asleep at the back, and those on the front rows are trying their best to please the professor by practicing their smiles. Only a few are really listening and trying to understand.
Is it a big problem?
I think it is. For example, it is clear that analytical science is a ‘multiplier’ in R&D. “If analytical science is zero, the outcome is zero,” as Oscar van den Brink, managing director of COAST, noted recently. Today, therefore, the need for analytical knowledge and understanding both in industry and in academia is substantial. And this need crosses all areas: industry and academia, life sciences, pharma, petrochem... if these organizations fail to achieve good analytical results, their work comes to an abrupt end.
Slowly but surely the importance of analytical science is growing; however, some maintain it should grow faster. Fortunately, the need for it is strong, especially in the life science ‘omics’ areas – proteomics, metabolomics, and even foodomics – and also in imaging and clinical pathology cooperations. Analytical scientists are getting involved in numerous multidisciplinary projects; they can no longer afford to live their scientific life in their own silo.
Analytical scientists are by nature service oriented; they like to solve problems and they love to help others. It is a great attitude to have, but the downside is that they have failed to position themselves among the decision makers. And in universities they have often failed to position themselves within the academic groups that receive the bulk of funding. Additionally in industry, large service labs are taking over chemical analysis because they are fast and cost effective. They do what their customers ask of them and that is to deliver results, quickly and at low cost. For routine analyses this is fine, but I don’t think they can always be relied upon to solve newer or tougher problems.
Meeting the educational challenge
Clearly, we need to focus on those students who are attracted to analytical sciences. They are the people who are fascinated by the immeasurable possibilities that analytical tools can bring them and also have the drive to find the answers to the many questions from society. We cannot spend our precious time on the backbenchers; we must focus on those students who occupy the front seats of the lecture hall and are keen to learn. We must attract their attention with interesting science and involve them in our world and work, making clear what we can do as analytical scientists. I think part-time professors who come into the universities play an important part in captivating the attention of the students as they can bring new perspectives. Finally, we need to step away from dull learning materials. Our goal must be to involve students instead.
Can new educational tools help?
Teachers have little time to prepare for their classes, plus they have to deal with a lot of unenthusiastic students. They need a solution that will give them more quality time with their students. In my view, lectures cannot be classed as ‘quality time’. Students should be able to find the learning materials they need using their computers or tablets. There is an abundance of technological tools that facilitate electronic learning, but it isn’t enough simply to give students access to materials – the material must be embedded in a stucture.
Flipping the classroom gives students access to lecture-style materials for study in their own time. It means that time with the teacher can be used to deepen their knowledge, ask questions, and solve problems. Involvement is strong and learning efficiency is high. This, in my opinion, is the way to go. The front row students thrive, and the unenthusiastic are tempted into engaging or lost (some were probably lost already). Flipping the classroom is the natural way to study for students these days. And it is the most efficient way – guidance is all that’s needed.
There’s an old Chinese proverb that goes something like this: “Tell me: I’ll forget, show me: I may remember; involve me: I will understand.” That’s the true essence of learning. For analytical sciences this means that education will change immensely over the coming years. Educators will focus on getting their students more involved and we already see it happening in a number of initiatives in the world, for example, in large collaborative projects, such as COAST (read article) and SALSA (read article).
And so, the time is right for change. Students are telling us that they want to be involved, we have the right tools, and it is the direction in which general education is heading at an accelerated rate. It will go faster than you think, maybe faster than many would wish! After all, it takes real educational pioneers with great determination to go through all the trouble of preparing online classes in advance. Fortunately, we have such pioneers in all areas of analytical sciences, in industry, in universities and colleges.
Are we getting there?
Indeed, times are changing and it’s exciting to be an educator; I see that with my involvement with Chromedia, which is pioneering education for analytical scientists. We started eight years ago by offering a web-based, interactive platform where experts put their expertise online; now it has grown to be a trusted source for many, including schools, universities, and industry.
Teachers approach Chromedia for help, industry collaborates with us to prepare their employee training materials, and initiatives such as COAST ask us to host educational material online. In addition, pioneering teachers who are flipping their classrooms to improve educational quality are working with Chromedia in preparing their lessons for online delivery, using David Harvey’s free online book Analytical Chemistry 2.0 as textual support for their video presentations. The first release will ensure that their students get the basics of analytical chemistry, and the second will be a course in instrumental analysis. Soon, the entire analytical chemistry curriculum will be online; teachers will be able to selecting the appropriate material from the site and students will be more involved in the learning process.
In any case: please don’t “leave them kids alone.”
Read the COAST article "Molding a New Type of Student" here.
Read the SALSA article "Hot Analytical Thinking" here.
Frank van Geel is the Scientific Director of The Analytical Scientist and the founder of Chromedia, an innovative web-based interactive educational and training resource for analytical science (www.chromedia.org).
Frank van Geel is owner of educational website Chromedia and Scientific Director of The Analytical Scientist. He studied analytical chemistry, specialized in mass spectrometry in the Netherlands and did several years of post-doc work in spectroscopy with Jim Winefordner at the University of Florida in the US. Then he became a science teacher and later publisher in chemistry and physics related topics. He developed numerous publications in chemistry and other sciences. He strongly supports the mission: Building online communities is the road to take. We need to strengthen the quality of analytical chemistry and we need to strengthen our community by sharing know-how and by sharing our opinions, visions and our views of the future of analytical science.