Good chemistry

24 October 2018

Under the zombie mask and that bloody lab coat is Associate Professor Jo Lane.

If you take CHEMY100 at the University of Waikato, here’s your teacher. Under the zombie mask and that bloody lab coat is Associate Professor Jo Lane. He’s mad, mad about chemistry that is, and after taking his paper he finds many of his students are too.

The first-year paper you teach is called Chemistry in Context. What does that mean?

It means that we’re not teaching chemistry for the sake of chemistry, but teaching chemistry that is relevant to the world around us. Most of the students who take this paper don’t have a chemistry background, but need some chemistry for the degrees they are studying; environmental science for instance, biology, Earth science, or even psychology can all be related to important chemical concepts.

So you’re saying that chemistry should not be feared?

I am. I want students to shed any chemophobia that they might have and think of chemistry in a more holistic way; its application in things such as medicine, nutrition, and environment issues like water quality or climate change. I want students to understand that just because a chemical is natural or man-made, doesn’t mean anything about whether it is safe or not. Four of the five most toxic chemicals known are all naturally produced!

Where do zombies come into your teaching?

So for the last lecture of the course, the students get to nominate the topic. We call it the ‘You Choose’ lecture and it’s an opportunity for students to learn about the underlying chemistry of any, and I really mean any, topic they like. It usually takes me about 40 hours to prepare for each of these ‘You Choose’ lectures but the student experience makes it totally worth it.

The first lecture was the chemistry of Breaking Bad and with the help of a local make-up artist I was transformed into the infamous Walter White to describe how his blue methamphetamine is made.

The second year was ‘How to kill a person and dispose of the body’. That was quite morbid. I can tell you that a pig’s trotter will dissolve pretty quickly with a bit of piranha solution!

In the third year we covered ‘How to make explosives with household items’, which came on the back of the Brussels bombing in 2016. There’s nothing quite like detonating explosives in a lecture theatre but the most frightening thing was quite how easy it was to actually make the explosive used in the Brussels attack.

Year four was chemical weapons, which again was very topical after the Syrian government allegedly attacked some of its citizens with sarin that year.

And most recently we investigated ‘how to survive a zombie apocalypse’, where, in full zombie costume, we showed how you can disguise yourself as a zombie by applying a bit of ‘zombie perfume’. It’s quite impressive how with a few chemicals, you can reproduce the powerful stench of decaying flesh!

Some years you’ve had as many as 200 students in your lectures, how do you make sure they’re all on board?

A large lecture theatre can be a daunting space for people to learn in, so in the first instance it’s important to break down any barriers or power imbalances that impede learning. I try to be as approachable and normal as possible. I much prefer students to simply call me ‘Jo’ and I always try to talk a little about my background, that I’m married with kids and I do normal boring family things like anyone else would outside the university.

It can be scary for students to speak out in a lecture environment, so we also use e-learning tools like Xorro to allow students to ask and answer questions during the lecture using their smartphone or other devices.  This year we introduced Xorro AMA (Ask Me Anything) questions, which has been great for student feedback through the semester.

How do you decide if your teaching has been successful?

While pass-rates and grade averages are the obvious metrics, to me it’s more important to see how many students have developed a passion for chemistry and continue on to study other chemistry papers. And more broadly, what I really judge success to be, is that students have developed a more holistic understanding of what chemistry really is and that there’s no need to irrationally fear ‘chemicals’.

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