Passing the baton: shaping the scientific thinkers of tomorrow

A notoriously difficult discipline, science is often thought of as the domain of students who have a particular penchant for mathematics and cold hard facts. In reality, students who become enamoured with the sciences are lured by the promise of discovery. Our researchers are in a unique position to understand the best way to teach science and spark students’ lifelong love for the discipline.

Dr Adam Bridgeman, a computational chemist, uses his set of computer skills to look at the e-learning experience of today’s student.

Bridgeman models the properties of molecules to help design new materials. “This technology allows us to find new directions before we get involved in the lab.” With applications in medicine and nanotechnology, Bridgeman’s work is at the forefront of uncovering how metal complexes interact with DNA and how individual molecules form their characteristic shapes: research he wants to share with his students.

“First year classes can sometimes include up to 2000 students, a potentially impersonal experience for students and lecturers alike. It can be difficult for lecturers to engage with students and difficult for the students to engage with the subject.” Bridgeman uses the internet to personalise the experience, providing individually tailored feedback on all assessment tasks to help start a conversation with each student.

The backbone of this is a student centred approach to learning. “We want to improve engagement rather than the accumulation of knowledge. To do this we need to change the way students learn and how we teach. It’s more than spouting forth knowledge, we want to spark their interest and provide them with problems to solve.”

Reaching beyond the world of chemistry Bridgeman is unlocking the secrets of the language of science with the help of biology, physics and chemistry departments from universities across Australia.

“Like the Chinese language, science can be difficult to learn because its knowledge is coded in symbols very different to those in English.” Bridgeman draws from methods of Chinese instruction to teach students to speak science.

“For instance, scientists use particular words for specific meaning. Often these words have multiple or flexible meanings in everyday conversation, but precise meaning in science, words such as power, significant and average.”

Bridgeman and team test how well students are able to define words. Once they’ve established where any misconceptions exist they intervene to produce modules and materials to aid their understanding. “In order for students to read journals and communicate with other scientists they need to speak science,” concludes Bridgeman.