This week I am attending the Biennial Conference on Chemical Education. it is the first chemistry conference I have ever attended, and I admit to being a little nervous as I arrived. I felt a little like a secret agent dispatched to a foreign land. It seemed like only a matter of time before my secret identity was discovered and they would throw me out for knowing so little about chemistry. Perhaps I could negotiate for a bit of geology knowledge and a whole lot about open access and scholarly communication.
So far, I’ve either hid my real identity well or these chemists are as welcoming as everyone said.
On Sunday afternoon I was able to attend a few talks about the use of electronic lab notebooks, and a few talks about undergraduate research. Many of the faculty at my institution face challenges dealing with student research data. With more frequent turnover than their colleagues at graduate schools, keeping track of data from so many sources can be challenging.
On Sunday night I attended the plenary talk from the president of the ACS himself, Bassam Z. Shakhashiri (see this website, too). Apparently dubbed the “Dean of lecture demonstrations” by Encyclopedia Britannica, Shakhashiri was engaging, humorous and inspirational.
His talk was also frustrating.
At several times he talked about how the mission of the ACS was to “Advance the broader chemistry enterprise and its practitioners for the benefit of Earth and its people” and he expanding on this saying “especially in the face of denial of basic human rights especially the right to benefit from scientific and technical progress through access to the advances of science” (emphasis was his). He talked about the social contract of science, that taxpayers who pay for the research should be able to learn about the results. I agree! But I think we disagree on how taxpayers should learn about those results.
I believe Shakhashiri was talking primarily about science education and science writing. He discussed an interesting initiative to get PhD candidates to include a chapter in their dissertation explaining their research to a lay audience. But I couldn’t help but feel something was missing, given the ACS position on things such as access to taxpayer funded research, open access, and their incredibly aggressive institutional subscription price increases.
Towards the end of the lecture, Shakhashiri impressed everyone by a few simple chemical demonstrations. The 1000mL graduated cylinders of purple, pink and blue liquids peaked my interest from the time I sat down, and the addition of dry ice just made things more interesting. Importantly, he forced the audience to be explicit about our observations of his demonstration – it wasn’t just about the wow factor, but walking the audience through observations about what was happening.
So far, my sojourn into unknown territory has been highly educational. I anticipate that the sessions of the next couple of days will help me learn a bit about chemistry education, a bit about chemists, and perhaps even a bit about chemistry.