Teaching and Learning Forum 97 [ Contents ]

How do you transform a student into a professional scientist?

Dierdre Pearce
School of Applied Chemistry
Curtin University of Technology

The role of the professional chemist

Professional chemists are very often 'trouble shooters' or problem solvers and as such need a range of skills: besides a good understanding of the subject of chemistry, they also need technical, data handling, team work, problem solving and communications skills. They need to be familiar with and take responsibility for considerations of safety and environmental damage as well as aspects such as expense, legislative controls and the impact the general community might have on the work they do. For example, in 1991 the Australian Federal Government established the Independent Panel on Intractable Waste (chaired by Professor Ben Selinger of the Department of Chemistry, Australian National University) to investigate ways of dealing with intractable wastes such as PCBs, CFCs, arsenic (from animal dips and mining wastes) and heavy metals. After extensive consultation with the Australian community the Panel reported that the planned destruction of most of these wastes by incineration would not be feasible because virtually all people were violently opposed to the prospect of having an incinerator located anywhere near there homes or food and water sources. Instead the Panel recommended a range of other methods for the treatment and disposal of such wastes which, in many instances, were better methods for the treatment of the individual wastes than was the proposed incinerator [1].

In employment then, chemists could be said to solve problems existing in 'open' systems; those in which the selection of appropriate chemistry is influenced as much by factors such as those listed above as it is by the reactivity of the chemical species. A graduate chemist must be able to integrate the skills and information gained during studies and transfer them to situations encountered in the workplace.

Experiencing chemistry as an undergraduate student

As undergraduates, most of the problems students solve are in 'closed' systems: most science students are isolated from, or not involved in, decisions involving factors such as environmental legislation or expense. It is only relatively recently that professional practice has been considered part of the university education of an undergraduate science student. Courses (usually taken in the third year) typically consist of topics such as occupational health and safety, toxicology, scientific reporting and industrial applications of chemistry. In addition to these topics, honours and postgraduate courses might include areas such as project management, intellectual property and patenting, research ethics, and some introduction to teaching skills (for work as demonstrators). For the most part, these courses are conducted using a lecture/exam format, with some practice of oral presentation and written reports. Comparatively little time is given to reflection, discussion and debate of issues. Is this the best way for chemistry (and any other) students to learn about professional practice? I do not believe so and will discuss an alternative below.

Examination of a chemical problem through role play

In order to assist third year students integrate their chemical knowledge and develop professional skills I have developed a role-playing exercise which examines the effect on the general community of a decision involving the disposal of some intractable chemical waste. Because many of Western Australia's chemistry graduates will gain employment in the mining and mineral processing industry, the hypothetical problem I used dealt with the disposal of waste ores, containing increased concentration of radioactive minerals, from a processing plant by dilution with soil and burial at a remote site. However, there are many other possibilities, such as pesticide usage by farming communities2 and other problems or community groups, relevant to the students' future employment, could be used in this exercise.

Small groups of students were allocated the role of one of the community groups which might be affected by such a decision, or which might demand to be involved in making such a decision. The groups used in this particular 'Hypothetical' included the mine owners, mine and processing workers and their union representatives, the traditional, Aboriginal owners, environmental lobby groups, politicians, the media, residents of nearby towns, the research and development team in the processing plant and the eventual purchasers of the processed minerals.

These groups were provided with a portfolio of information, in the form of recent newspaper and magazine clippings, about their particular section of the community. Each group then established its position on the proposed waste disposal, identifying concerns, demands, and possible actions to best get their message across. After reading, reflection and discussion each group prepared and submitted a report describing its position on the waste disposal problem and its response to the positions of other groups. I compiled these responses into a booklet and distributed a copy of this to each of the students involved in the exercise. Examples of responses included a samples of materials prepared for a media campaign by the mine owners, the transcript of an interview with the traditional owners, a discussion of the power and responsibilities of the media in such a situation and documents covering legislation introduced by a new government to deal with the competing demands of different groups in such situations.

Following the success of the exercise in this format I intend to extend it to include a discussion of the problem by a panel, consisting of a spokesperson from each of the groups (after the method of the televised 'Hypothetical').

Most chemistry students are unused to working with problems of this type, nor to responding to a posed problem in this manner. It can be difficult for them to think about chemistry in terms other than the isolated interaction of chemical species. To begin to move from this 'closed' or 'isolated' system model of chemistry, before we began examining the hypothetical problem, we first discussed the ways in which the roles and responsibilities of the students had changed during their undergraduate studies, and ways in which these might change when they are employed as chemists. We also spoke briefly about some of the topics, such as occupational health and safety, covered previously in the unit.

Summary

In completing this exercise students had the opportunity to:
  1. identify ways their roles and responsibilities as employees or employers will be different from their responsibilities as students,

  2. identify factors which contribute to risk and propose strategies to minimise their effect,

  3. discuss alternative methods of disposing of intractable chemical wastes,

  4. identify community concerns about issues such as chemical hazards and propose responses to those concerns or new strategies which deal with those concerns.
The exercise was also intended to develop students' abilities for reflection, participation in discussion and written communication skills.

Acknowledgements

A thank you to Dr Mauro Mocerino for his assistance during the workshop, and to the student group who made it a very worthwhile experiment.

References

  1. Independent Panel on Intractable Waste. Intractable Waste: Considering the Disposal Options.

  2. Kimbrough, D. R., Dyckes, D. F., and Mlady, G. W., J. Chem. Ed., 1995, 72, 295.
Please cite as: Pearce, D. (1997). How do you transform a student into a professional scientist? In Pospisil, R. and Willcoxson, L. (Eds), Learning Through Teaching, p244-246. Proceedings of the 6th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Murdoch University, February 1997. Perth: Murdoch University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1997/pearce-d.html


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