With many universities now opting to employ dedicated teaching staff, Sarah Houlton meets two of them for a lesson in undergraduate chemistry

In the past, chemistry undergraduate teaching was primarily carried out by the academic staff, alongside their research activities. But several universities are now taking a different approach and employing teaching fellows to develop and deliver their chemistry courses. As well as reducing the teaching burden on academics, these positions offer an alternative career path for PhD chemists who want to focus on education.

Eager to educate

The University of Cambridge, UK, was a pioneer of the teaching fellow role, and currently has four teaching fellows. One of those is Deborah Longbottom, who splits her time between the chemistry department and Homerton College.

Longbottom’s background is a chemistry degree from Durham University, UK, with a year working in pharma during her degree, and another after she graduated. A PhD with Steve Ley at Cambridge then led to a postdoc at the Scripps Institute in San Diego, US, and that’s where her interest in teaching was really piqued. ‘I had an undergraduate working with me, and I really enjoyed helping to educate her,’ she says. ‘I returned to the Ley group afterwards as a postdoc and Steve was supportive of me taking on a three year teaching fellowship at Trinity College. The department was also keen to instate a 25% time teaching fellow in organic chemistry and I jumped at the chance.’

At the end of the Trinity fellowship in 2007, Homerton College appointed her director of studies for chemistry, and she now has a 50:50 time split between the college and the department. ‘I do a lot of small group teaching in college, as well as undergraduate admissions work and pastoral tutoring,’ she says. ‘In the department, teaching fellows have a lecturing load that’s either usual or greater than usual, and also oversee the day-to-day running of the lab classes, write exam questions and do examining, among other things.’ In the holidays, alongside her teaching fellow colleagues, she is reworking the undergraduate lab course. She also takes part in outreach projects, such as the annual Salters Festival, where school students and teachers visit the department for a practical chemistry competition. 

There is still time for some science, and she contributes her organocatalysis expertise to a collaborative research project on functionalised polymers with a former Cambridge colleague. She also hopes to take on a final-year project student in October, trying to find molecules that could be active against motor neurone disease.

Changing courses

Another teaching fellow, Dylan Williams, found his role at the University of Leicester by a slightly different route. Williams studied chemistry at the University of Liverpool and stayed on for a PhD, during which he particularly enjoyed demonstrating in lab classes and workshops. So he actively sought out a job that would enable him to continue with this. He secured an educational development position at Leicester, spending two years developing new resources as part of an RSC-funded project, as well as teaching. ‘I developed and implemented problem-based learning resources,’ he says. ‘Students are given open-ended problems, and encouraged to work in small groups to find a working solution. We use it at the start of the first year and it makes students feel included - our first-year dropout rate has fallen as a result. We now use the technique in four first and second year modules.’

At the end of the RSC contract in 2009, he was made a teaching fellow. He still oversees problem-based learning, is convenor for several courses, and is also very involved with the chemistry side of the university’s interdisciplinary science degree course. He really enjoys his role. ‘My teaching is a mix of lecture-based courses - I do an atmospheric chemistry course, and fill in for colleagues on sabbatical - plus tutorials, workshops and the problem-based classes,’ he says. ‘As a conventional lecturer, contact with the students is limited. But I’m with them most of the time, and get to follow them through the course. Seeing them develop from nervous first years to well-rounded graduates is very satisfying.’

Longbottom agrees. ‘The most rewarding thing is sending out people into the world whom you’ve helped educate,’ she says. ‘You’ve been able to give them enough knowledge to enjoy their time here, and go on to be successful. Being a key part of that is extremely rewarding.’

Sarah Houlton is a science writer based in Boston, US