Emily Parker - Tertiary Teaching Excellence Teaching Profile
Teaching profile from Emily Parker, Associate Professor, Department of Chemistry, University of Canterbury - a Sustained Excellence winner 2010.
Chemistry is a subject that is considered by many people to be hard and inaccessible. My approach to teaching is underpinned by my belief that everyone can achieve outstanding results. One of the best ways I have found to achieve this is to harness people’s motivation, enthusiasm and self-belief. In my teaching at both undergraduate and graduate levels, I try to communicate my passion for my subject, and be accessible to students in order to best support their learning.
To teach effectively I believe that you need to understand clearly both the starting and the finishing points associated with any teaching and learning endeavour. I have often used a ladder analogy: there is absolutely no point dangling the ladder out of reach, or of climbers being unsure of the rewards (and potential risks) of making the climb. Aided by my colleagues, who have so generously shared their practices with me, I have learnt to use a variety of techniques to make my subject accessible, and I recognise and enjoy the variety of ways that people both approach and achieve effective learning.
The link between research and undergraduate teaching is enormously important to me and to my students. Interweaving my research interests with my undergraduate teaching not only opens a window to an exciting world beyond their immediate undergraduate degree, but also motivates active learning and engagement, with examples of immediate relevance and interest. In my experience students enjoy the opportunity to ask questions at the boundaries of our understanding. These strong connections between research and teaching facilitate the transitions from undergraduate study into research, and I greatly enjoy the interactions I have with large numbers of postgraduate students who work with me.
During my time at the University of Canterbury and previously at Massey University, I have taught chemistry and biochemistry, engaging with students at all levels in a broad range of activities requiring a combination of approaches. Classes range from the large and sometimes impersonal first year chemistry classes, to smaller tutorial-based teaching at graduate level, and to the more intimate one-to-one research student partnerships. I work hard to tailor my approach to the background and needs of the students at each level, and to the different needs, abilities and aspirations within a single cohort of students. I endeavour to inject enthusiasm, motivation and an absolute dedication to effective learning into my teaching activities.
Successful mastery of first year chemistry is for some students the first step towards a chemistry or biochemistry degree, whereas for others this is a formal requirement so that they can pursue other subject areas, such as veterinary science or engineering. For the latter cohort, studying chemistry is a means to an end; they often feel they are there under duress, and there are real challenges in engaging a group with such diverse motivations. In addition, first-year chemistry classes cater for students with hugely different background preparation, abilities and cultural backgrounds. My approach to this level of teaching is to use a variety of techniques to make the subject accessible and to give it relevance.
I use a combination of techniques to encourage learning. These include providing clear notes, recapping material, and the use of practical demonstrations (chemistry is a great subject for this). I also intersperse key concepts with practical examples to reinforce material with more familiar applications. For example: how does penicillin work? And, what are the chemical reactions associated with vision? Understanding the concepts of how chemical reactions work can be difficult for many students, and I have found the use of computer-animated mechanisms to illustrate chemical change to be very helpful for this. Many chemical concepts require an understanding in three-dimensions. To aid this, I make extensive use of molecular models and encourage students to use them.
Beyond first-year level, I teach a combination of chemistry and biochemistry. I continue to use a variety of visual aids and teaching approaches. My advanced level lectures are characterised by writeon skeleton notes, encouraging students in their own note taking, while giving them the opportunity to listen to key explanations of the harder concepts. In addition, I use interactive protein structure visualisation software to illustrate key concepts.
I also more deliberately incorporate links to contemporary research and discuss the research that I am currently undertaking. For example, a structure of one of the proteins that I study in my research was published last year and I described this to the class on the day it was released. I think it is important to emphasise the contemporary nature of the subject and the excitement that new knowledge in the field is offering, and to emphasise that many aspects of our subject remain unresolved (with many exciting discoveries to come!).
Chemistry and biochemistry are experimentally based subjects and practical work is a very important aspect of student training. I have been involved in the redesign of laboratory courses to move away from standard recipe-based courses where students did not need to engage with what they were doing, to activities that are student-centred, and engage the students in their learning. This was achieved through the development of problem-based and project-based learning activities.
Graduate Teaching and Research Student Supervision
Teaching courses at the graduate level is a wonderful opportunity to actively expand students’ thinking and to engage them with contemporary science and research activity. At this level, I have introduced self-directed learning by encouraging information extraction from the primary literature and by guiding students in the essential skills of critical analysis. I am fortunate to have the opportunity of helping create new knowledge as well as being responsible for teaching the more established concepts. This happens in partnership with research students, providing a wonderfully rich teaching experience supporting the concept of life-long learning on which research activity and new knowledge creation is based.
Since I started my research group nearly eleven years ago, I have been the primary supervisor of 18 BSc (Hons), eight PhD and three MSc students. All of these students have successfully completed their studies and defended their work. Since arriving at the University of Canterbury over three and a half years ago, my research group has rapidly grown. I currently mentor twelve PhD students and one MSc student. This is a major teaching commitment, but one that I find is a wonderfully rewarding experience, as students, especially PhD students, transition from dependence to independence. I work with my research students to tackle contemporary topics at the interface between chemistry and biochemistry. I encourage my students to take ‘ownership’ of their projects. We jointly decide strategy and direction and I enjoy the varied approaches my students take to problem solving.
I feel very humbled to have received this award – especially when there seems so much still to learn about effective teaching of chemistry and biochemistry! I believe very strongly that it is a great privilege to be in an environment that supports research-led teaching. Chemistry can often seem such an old and distant subject, yet there is so much exciting new knowledge being generated in this area. I am very grateful for the continued partnerships with my research students. Together they share with me a fascination for the study of enzyme-catalysed chemical reactions, and in doing so constantly refuel my enthusiasm for my subject. Long may this continue.
Peer and Student Comments
“You made one of the most detailed and ruthless organic sections full of fun. Thank you.”
First year chemistry student, 2005
“It was Emily’s lectures about her research that influenced and cemented my decision to pursue postgraduate study focussing on enzymology under her supervision. It was refreshing to see a lecturer talk about their research in a way that excited me, rather than intimidated. I am still inspired by her passion and dedication about her research area and the clarity of how she explains her research also.”
Sarah-Wilson Coutts, Current PhD student
“Throughout my undergraduate studies, Emily was a fantastic lecturer and always willing to go the extra mile to make sure I, and everyone else in the class understood the material she was teaching. When I decided to do post graduate studies, Emily was my first choice, and I never regretted the decision. She has a way of making you want to achieve your research goals, even at times when you feel like nothing is going right and you want to give up altogether. I’m not sure I would have made it through my PhD without her, and I’ve never spoken to a member of our research group who felt any differently.”
Aidan Harrison, Current PhD student
“Emily taught me skills that I will carry with me for the rest of my life; that ‘understanding’ is the key to being a great scientist. Emily encourages her students to be independent and take responsibility for their own success; skills that have contributed to my success whilst undertaking a postdoctoral position at Oxford University. Emily’s impressive accomplishments make her a role model for young female scientists and I have often found myself turning to her for advice when making important career decisions.”
Celia Webby, PhD student, 2003-2006
“Emily is an excellent supervisor, who motivates her students in their studies by her drive and excitement. You never feel abandoned; she is always there to talk and plot with you about your research.”
Anonymous PhD student comment, 2010
“My initial impression of Emily was that of someone who truly enjoys what they do, a quality that has proven to be infectious amongst her undergraduate and postgraduate students. I found Emily’s style of lecturing to be very engaging through both her friendly personality and effective presentation style.”
Dmitri Joseph, Current PhD student