Natalie shares more detail about their practice us and how they felt about being shortlisted for a Bristol Teaching Award.
- Which Award were you shortlisted for?
Inspiring and Innovative Teaching (Individual)
- How did you feel when you found out you had been shortlisted for an Award?
Pleased and embarrassed in equal measures – the activities cited in my nomination wouldn’t have been possible without the input and support of my colleagues who, despite coping with their own challenges during the pandemic, were willing to get out of their comfort zones and did their absolute best to support our students. And I’m very grateful to those who showed up to mark presentations despite their own busy schedules. I tried to catalyse these activities (my research focuses on catalysis), but couldn’t have done it without the support of my colleagues in the School of Chemistry, and that goes all the way from fixing the projector and sorting out rooms and timetables to making the 40th group of presenters feel as welcome and supported as the first. IT and the Bristol Scientific Computing team also helped out tremendously, sorting us out with Jupyter notebooks and sharing tricks and teaching material while under immense pressures themselves.
- Can you tell us a little bit about your practice and why you were nominated?
I’m not particularly patient and rather clumsy, which has always made me a bit of a liability in a chemistry laboratory. However, computational studies of molecular structures were just about becoming viable during my UG studies and I started to work on projects with a computing component, which became a PhD and then research in computational chemistry. For me, it’s always been about more than replacing lab work with computational predictions, and so I’ve worked towards integrating digital skills in the teaching and training I provide, with a view to enabling what you might call digital creativity – going beyond merely using a computer competently, and rather harnessing it to create insights about molecular structures and reactivity, curating and exploiting data and accelerating chemical synthesis. When I did CREATE, I became interested in Technology-Enhanced Learning as well, and we were able to build these ideas into our new programmes in Chemistry with Scientific Computing. So when the pandemic struck, we scaled a lot of things up which we had been planning to do with our new cohort of students already. I have always favoured an applications-led approach to teaching chemistry, i.e. showing what you can do with knowledge and skills rather than memorising facts and equations, and digital skills make it easier to do so safely – you can rule out a lot of ideas on the computer before going into the lab, and you can use your time better once you are there if you harness your equipment and data with a clear idea of what you want to do. Building such skills across all cohorts of students is an exciting addition to teaching chemistry. I’ve always tried to say “yes” to integrating digital and computational chemistry into our teaching and, when labs had to be shut and then ran at reduced capacity, we had an opportunity to show what we could do with this, and how changing teaching and assessment could enhance chemical education.
- What inspires you to go the extra mile with your teaching?
I think we are already in a time of change and there are some formidable challenges ahead. Really good scientists will be needed to address climate breakdown, plastics in the environment, manufacturing from non-petrol based inputs and so many other things, many of which we don’t even know about. So we need people who are adaptable, open-minded and clever about computers, data and automation, as well as resilient and creative. They are not necessarily going to look like the stereotypical scientists and they may not find traditional routes through their studies easy and straightforward. So if I can have their backs for a bit and maybe provide a slightly different route and angle which keep them going, that’s absolutely worth it for me.
- What would you like to share with others about your teaching practice?
Find some good people to work with and then trust them. We may still have that image of a lone-wolf genius in our head, but really, all the things I’ve been involved with have been improved immeasurably by the scrutiny and suggestions of colleagues, and then also of students. Developing new teaching is an iterative process and it’s not about how high you climb but how well you bounce back when it’s not going to plan. I value the teams of which I’m a part and I couldn’t have done a lot of the things mentioned in my nominations without working with them.