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School-University partnerships

About: This article is published in New directions in the teaching of physical sciences.The article was published on 2010-07-01 and is currently open access. It has received 34 citation(s) till now. The article focuses on the topic(s): Outreach.
Topics: Outreach (71%)

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Harrison, T., Shaw, A., Shallcross, K., Williams, S. J., & Shallcross, D.
(2010). School-University partnerships: Lessons learned from 10
years of Spectroscopy for Teachers and Post 16 Students.
Directions in the Teaching of Physical Sciences
, (6), 72-76.
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72 New Directions
Spectroscopy covers a wide range of analytical techniques, a small sub-set of which UK
pre-university chemistry students are required to study. The expense of such equipment
means that it is not available to the vast majority of schools whilst it is commonplace in
university chemistry departments. This article discusses the evolution of the Bristol
ChemLabS spectroscopy outreach activities. The advantages and disadvantages of this
method of engagement for both the participants and the providers are discussed from 10
years of activity.
Why engage schools in spectroscopy?
For several successive changes in pre-university courses UK school students have
needed to study various spectroscopic techniques. Spectroscopy is a broad term but for
pre-university it can be described as a range of analytical tools and techniques used to
study the way matter is assembled. For pre-university courses, these include infrared
spectroscopy (IR), nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy (NMR), mass
spectrometry (MS) and, depending on examination board for the courses undertaken,
ultraviolet-visible spectroscopy (UV-Vis). Such instrumentation is out of the range of
schools and it is against this background that some university chemistry departments
provide opportunities that support secondary school teachers by allowing post 16
students access to this instrumentation. The students‟ courses do not require them to
use the instrumentation. The students do need to know „the way in which spectroscopic
techniques are used to determine the molecular formulae and structures of organic
compounds‟. The emphasis is on problem solving rather than on spectroscopic theory
Spectroscopy Visits to Bristol ChemLabS
For over ten years the School of Chemistry at the University of Bristol has run
spectroscopy tours and workshops for post 16 students who are studying either
Advanced (A) level, the International Baccalaureate (IB) Chemistry or whose vocational
course have elements of spectroscopy embedded.
The Outreach programme at the School of Chemistry began with spectroscopy tours
about ten years ago. These gradually built from a few days in September, where schools
would visit for a morning or afternoon session, to a whole week of morning and
afternoon sessions for up to 15 schools. The format also changed in this time: as
funding became available to support some local administration and as feedback was
obtained, so the individual sessions were gradually modified. In the last four years the
scale of this outreach activity has increased through the Bristol ChemLabS initiative
. A
major difference is the role played by the school teacher fellow (STF)
3, 4
. During the last
four years an average of 400-600 students per year have visited the School of
Chemistry on spectroscopy tours, a doubling of numbers from the previous five years.
Many thousands more have experienced hands-on infra red or ultraviolet-visible
spectroscopy through workshops and summer schools in this period and by loaning
equipment to schools.
The spectroscopy tours
are designed to promote chemistry generally and support
secondary school teachers in their teaching. The spectroscopy tours take place in the
autumn term with the majority in September and the remainder usually in December.
The eighteen half-day experiences accommodate up to 50 students at a time.
Each half day experience comprises a two and a half hour session. The morning or
afternoon visits start with a welcome and introduction to the department and a brief,
general talk about spectroscopy (this was introduced in the last four years). This takes
place in a lecture theatre to give the students probably their first opportunity to be in
such a standard university environment. The cohort are then split into smaller, more
School-university partnerships: Lessons
learned from 10 years of spectroscopy
for teachers and post 16 students
For over ten years the
School of Chemistry at
the University of Bristol
has run spectroscopy
tours and workshops for
post 16 students who are
studying either Advanced
(A) level, the International
Baccalaureate (IB)
Chemistry or whose
vocational course have
elements of spectroscopy
T G Harrison*,
A J Shaw,
K L Shallcross, S J Williams
and D E Shallcross
Bristol ChemLabS
School of Chemistry
Cantock’s Close
University of Bristol
School-university partnerships

Issue 6 73
manageable group sizes with an average of 10 students each,
and are escorted by postgraduate chemists to the individual
talks. All tours involve twenty minute sessions on mass
spectrometry, infra red spectroscopy and nuclear magnetic
resonance. Depending on the availability of the equipment
additional talks on scanning electron microscopy and X-ray
crystallography are given. Ultra violet-visible spectroscopy is
used to substitute techniques that are not available for a
particular session. The talks are given in the rooms where the
instrumentation resides so the group size is limited to one that
is both comfortable and safe. The infra red and UV-Vis
spectrometers are hosted in the undergraduate teaching
laboratories. As each student hears five talks this means that
some demonstrators can give the same talk up to ten times
per day, sometimes for several days in a row. A major
modification since 2004 has been that the STF, a highly
experienced former secondary school teacher, has worked
with all groups to hone the twenty minute sessions and to
update supporting literature given to teachers and students.
(This could be achieved in collaboration with any A level
chemistry teacher). Such an intervention has had a significant
impact on both the deliverer and learner. Appropriate
language is, of course, very important and the use of
examples that are used in schools takes the learner from
familiar territory onwards
. The theme of how individual
techniques can provide different information on the same
molecule is also a simple, yet effective innovation. Feedback
is excellent for all aspects of the tour.
The postgraduate chemists involved in these spectroscopy
tours, either deliver sessions or accompany students, and
have all been through a Science and Engineering
Ambassador Scheme (SEAS) training programme
. This
national scheme, together with some informal in-house
training, equips the postgraduates, many of whom are
overseas students, with knowledge of the UK education
system, the rights and responsibilities in working with school
students and the importance of the appropriate level of
communication. The postgraduate guides are encouraged to
talk with the students, point out places of interest and to
answer questions on all aspects of being a student as they
move them around the department. Those chemists using
PowerPoint slides or handouts in their talks have, of course,
discussed the content with the School Teacher Fellow. The
two and a half hour sessions are punctuated by a
refreshments break. It has been noticeable that feedback has
commented on the improved congruence of the content with
that presented in school. During this period, the biggest single
school group was 45 students with an entire session to
themselves, and the smallest school group was just 2. The
greatest number of schools in one session was 6.
Advantages of this outreach activity
For the students the visits to a university science department
and contact with (postgraduate) students gives them insight
into what it would be like for them to be an undergraduate in a
practical science subject. It is common for this to be the first
opportunity that the students have had to look around a
university department. It is for this reason alone that the
introduction to the visit takes place in a lecture theatre so that
the visit is as complete an undergraduate experience as
possible. Usual comments on entry to the lecture theatre
include „It‟s just like on TV or just like in films‟! On open days
students often visit with their parents. On these visits they are
with their peers and there is a different dynamic. Students
often ask questions about university in general and feedback
suggests that this is an important opportunity to experience
university that is different from open days.
For the teachers the visits serve several purposes. First, the
experiences encountered by their students support their
previous or future lessons. For some less experienced
chemistry teachers the information given out supports their
own understanding of the techniques. The brief informal
discussions with those delivering the talks or with the
postgraduates accompanying the groups also adds to their
subject knowledge, and armoury of „stories‟ and examples
used by good teachers, to further enliven their lessons. Many
of the teachers have no experience of the state-of-the-art
instrumentation apart from pictures in the more modern text
books (which are likely to be considerably out of date).
Comments such as „it‟s all changed beyond recognition from
my day‟ are common.
For non-subject specialist teachers the visits give an
opportunity to see a different type of university department
and, for biologist and physicists, to see a different slant on
their own specialisms, since all the techniques are essentially
applications of physics. Some of the analyses, in a modern
chemistry department, may be of biologically active
specimens or of biological interest such as enzymes.
For accompanying technicians they can take the opportunity
to talk with the department‟s technicians. Several examples of
exchange of information on storage, availability of resources,
safety, techniques and maintenance have been noted.
For the postgraduates, post doctoral research assistants and
university technicians the events provide an opportunity to
practice their science communication skills and their teaching
skills. Several postgraduates report that such activities forced
them to understand the technique far better than they did
previously and that the activity as a whole was as much an
education for them as the visiting students.
School-university partnerships
September December
Total Number
of Students
Total Number of
Total Number
of Sessions
No. of
No. of
No. of
No. of
2005 411 12 88 2 499 30 14
2006 ~500 11 150 4 650 29 15
2007 402 12 (Nov) 90 2 492 24 18
2008 428 10 94 2 522 24 18
Table 1: Numbers of school students attending each session from 2005-2008.

74 New Directions
For the university there is an element of promotion with the
schools engaged. Frequently photographs taken during the
visits end up in school websites, posters in the science
departments or school newsletters. More importantly it
provides an informal opportunity for members of the academic
staff to talk with teachers to find out what is currently going on
in schools. The heavy involvement in outreach activity
featured prominently in a recent very large, successful grant
application to replace NMR instruments and increase their
Whilst a few visiting students can experience hands-on
spectroscopy with IR and UV-Vis not all can. Even
undergraduates do not typically handle some modern
instrumentation, such as NMR and mass spectrometers, as
the instruments have dedicated technical staff to run samples
submitted to them.
For the teachers the timing of the tours within the year does
not always coincide with convenient times either because of
local rules such as „no school trips in the first month
(September) of the school year‟ or the „rarely cover‟ policy or
because some for the spectroscopic techniques are yet to be
covered in lessons. The „rarely cover‟ policy was put in place
in 2009 to ensure that teachers „rarely cover‟ the classes of
colleagues who are absent. However, if the activity has been
booked in advance, as suggested, this should include
provision for teacher cover and will not be affected by this new
policy. It should be noted that this policy was not designed to
prevent outside activities but to ensure that teachers are not
overloaded with additional teaching; therefore the need for
good planning and preparation is essential. Due to the need
for the valuable instrumentation to be available for their prime
use in teaching undergraduates and research we can normally
only provide these tours in September and December each
year. Other outreach activities at different times of the year
make demands on resources.
For the School of Chemistry there are nine days per year
when the various facilities are not working to their normal
capacity for their prime function. However, the timing within
the year is such that there is no workload being generated by
the undergraduates as the spectroscopy visits are normally
out of undergraduate term time. There is also a considerable
secretarial input into the communication and management of
both large numbers of schools and staff involved. As this is
now a well established annual series of events the School of
Chemistry considers that the advantages outweigh the
Financial support
There are of course costs associated with activity at this level.
Funding in recent years has come from three sources.
Bristol‟s School of Chemistry pays the salaries and running
costs of the academic staff, secretarial support and post
doctoral chemists. The local section of the Royal Society of
Chemistry contributes financially to the costs of the
consumables and, as of 2008; the schools themselves are
making a nominal payment per student for the experience.
The Value of the Visits to us
It should be noted that these visits are not just of benefit to the
students and their teachers. As we have noted in previous
, there are many benefits to the department.
First, having run this activity for such a long time we have
been able to work with teachers to shape and modify the
activity and this dialogue has naturally moved beyond just the
spectroscopy tours. Therefore, a major benefit is that it has
opened up meaningful and useful dialogue with teachers that
have informed us about new aspects of curricula and new
teaching methods. Second, the handouts we have produced
have gone through numerous teachers and students who
have provided clear and expert feedback. Such feedback has
not only improved these handouts but has also influenced first
year material and in particular induction week. Third, over the
course of this project, postgraduate students have done more
of the demonstrating, e.g. infra red and ultra violet
spectroscopy. All students have reported that this has been
extremely beneficial to them, because they have been able to
hone their communication skills and because it has forced
them to really understand the technique they are
demonstrating. The many questions they have been asked by
teachers and students have improved their knowledge of the
various spectroscopic techniques as they have then had to
ask a senior colleague when they didn‟t know the answer. In
two cases we know about, these interactions have had a
direct positive impact on their PhD studies as they have found
out about an analysis that they could do which has propelled
their research forward. There is little doubt that there are
many more of these cases that are not captured by us in our
debriefing sessions with postgraduates and staff. Fourth, in
interviews, postgraduate students have used these sessions
to talk about times when they have solved problems or shown
initiatives and several report that interviewers have been
impressed with their responses. Fifth, over the years about
one third of the academic staff have taken part in various
aspects of the spectroscopy tours and this has been beneficial
to them in two ways; they have interacted with students and
teachers first hand and enjoyed several useful discussions,
second, they have been able to build up a portfolio of
interactions that they can put on grant applications illustrating
a different type of impact. In one direct example, sponsorship
from an instrument manufacturer, that lent weight to an
ultimately successful grant application for new NMR
machines, was directly related to the success of the tours.
Sixth, this activity brings together people in the department
who would not normally interact in the general running and
operation; that in itself is a good thing. However, there are
examples over the course of this long-term project where this
has benefitted the running of the department (e.g. input into
first and second year teaching modules) and has brought PhD
students into contact with new academics, with several
discussions leading to interesting and fruitful collaborations.
Finally, the diversity of schools visiting the department has
increased and new schools are added each year. This activity
was never designed to increase recruitment but it is no
coincidence that students from schools who come to these
events apply to Bristol.
School-university partnerships

Issue 6 75
The common question asked by many funders of outreach
activity is „How do you know what you are providing is of any
value or doing any good?‟ Most evidence is qualitative through
discussions with teachers and students. In an attempt to
quantify the value of each talk, questionnaires are given to
accompanying teachers. Teachers handle these in one of two
ways: either they give a teacher‟s impression or they seek
feedback from their students collectively. Such feedback has
informed the level of language and examples used in
presentations and any literature given, the role of the
accompanying postgraduates, the inclusion of ultraviolet-
visible spectroscopy and, for next year, time-of-flight (TOF)
mass spectrometry. Some suggestions cannot be addressed
for various reasons, such as the scheduling of tours at other
times of the school year. Participating staff and postgraduates
also give informal feedback.
„......... They [the students] were wowed by the machinery
and what it could do. All that theoretical A-Level stuff
seems so much more real now. I have to say that Sue
and I were also pretty gob-smacked by some of the up-to-
date versions of what we used when we were
This, from a recent teacher via unsolicited email is typical of
the replies.
Additional quantitative feedback can be gained by noting the
number of students and schools on waiting lists because the
sessions are full, looking at the distance travelled by visiting
schools as a possible function of the value of experience and
the number of schools making or wishing to make repeat
visits. We also carried out some data analysis to see whether
there was any significant correlation with examination results.
Surprisingly, there does appear to be some correlation,
although we are extremely hesitant to read anything into these
Correlation with Exam Results of Schools in CHeMneT
As part of the research on schools in our network, called
CHeMneT, data were collected on A-level performance,
focusing on two measures:
% of high performing students achieving A or B in A-level
Chemistry, and
% of students achieving A - E in A-level Chemistry.
These data were collected from science teachers, schools‟
examinations officers or school websites (Table 2).
Independent-samples t-tests were run using the Statistical
Package for the Social Sciences (SPSS) to establish whether
there were any statistically significant differences between the
average results of engaged and non-engaged schools. The
p-values indicate whether the difference in average
percentages was significant at the 95% confidence level. It is
of course very important to note that several caveats must be
taken into consideration when looking at these data and these
will be discussed later.
Inspection of students achieving grades A-E in chemistry
suggests that the schools that have engaged with Bristol
ChemLabS have on average a significantly higher percentage
of students obtaining those grades, in 07/08 and 05/06 than
those that do not. The significant differences (for A-E grades
rather than A/B grades) suggest that any effect is impacting
most on students at the lower end of the spectrum, rather than
the top performing students. It may be that the spectroscopy
tours themselves are having an impact but equally likely is the
fact that the visit selects out those students who want to do
well at A level in Chemistry. There are several confounding
factors that could lead to any elevation in results. For
example, by the very fact that the school/class have attended,
this may indicate a more engaged and enthusiastic teacher
and this may influence results. However, there are a few
possible reasons for an enhancement based on the visits.
First, the visit may inspire the students to come to University
and especially those at the lower end. Second, seeing the
equipment and talking with postgraduates, academics and
technicians may help the students to understand topics in this
area that they didn‟t understand. What is clear is that far more
data are required to ascertain whether there is an impact on
results and such analysis is on-going.
Bristol ChemLabS’ top tips for running similar activities
Use well trained postgraduates as guides and technical
helpers who are used to working with school students.
Give schools plenty of notice so they can act on the offer
of this type of outreach.
Make the activity available at the same time each year so
that teachers can build it into their schemes of work from
one year to the next.
Once established do not be afraid to ask for a token
charge for the activity. This not only helps recover costs
and makes such a programme sustainable but severely
reduces the „no shows‟.
If in doubt about the suitability of content enlist the help,
in advance, of two or three local teachers and get them to
feedback on their own examination course requirements.
Whilst this can be obtained from the relevant examination
specifications the teachers will understand the
Provide a refreshment break with biscuits and a variety of
drinks. The school students like being made welcome and
those participating in the delivery will need a break too.
The interval also allows the accompanying teachers to
talk with their students about what they have seen and to
answer questions. It also allows teachers to informally
ask questions of university staff and postgraduates
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