Brain friendly learning applied to teaching Physical Chemistry at Master Level

University teachers have some very complex topics to teach and sometimes struggle to engage students with differing levels of motivation and a lot to learn.  Some of the ‘profesores’ at Burgos University recently participated in our ‘Neuroscience for Learning and Development‘ programme.  Here is an inspiring story from María José Tapia Estévez, an experienced teacher from the chemistry department, who decided to shake things up a little and get her students physically and psychologically motivated.  Even if you know nothing about chemistry read on to see how a complex subject can become engaging, energising and ‘sticky’.

“In Physical Chemistry we frequently deal with complex, abstracts concepts that can be difficult to teach.  Such is the case for Single Photon Counters (SPC); a highly complex piece of equipment which measures the average time fluorescent molecules remain in excited electronic states before emitting photons and deactivating; all in a time scale of nanoseconds.

Traditionally I taught this in a fifteen minute talk with a diagram. Alternatively, this time, students were invited to stand up and were assigned roles in such a way that each student was a component of the equipment. A vivid and lively performance was enacted following the journey of the light photons in the equipment.

A single photon counter

The student playing the role of the ‘light source’ sent a light beam with a laser pointer to a cell hung by the student playing the role of the ‘sample holder’. They sent another laser light to a student who was the ‘photon detector’, emulating the first photon emitted by the sample after excitation with the initial laser beam.

The student playing the role of ‘detector’ sent a message to another student with a chronometer to determine the delay time between the laser excitation of the sample and the emission of the first photon.

The rest of students, playing the role of channels, put toothpicks into plastic glasses to simulate the counting of the photons emitted by the sample at different time delays.

This performance based explanation was the most satisfactory way of explaining this system in more than ten years of teaching the same course.  I was congratulated by a laboratory technician whose attention was caught during the performance due to the unexpected situation and who had also attended the traditional explanation a couple of years before.  Both the technician and I concluded that this role play was much more effective to explain SPC than the traditional method.

Instead of their usual post lunch feeling of sleepiness the students were grateful to be actively and physically involved in the lesson. The curiosity of making complex meaning from apparently unrelated daily objects (laser pointer, chronometer, a quartz cell, plastic glasses and toothpicks) contributed significantly to the success of the session.”

Thank you very much to María José Tapia Estévez, Department of Chemistry, University of Burgos, Physical Chemistry Section.

What will you do to motivate your learners when the topic is complex?