How did you first become interested in chemistry?
Love at first sight. I didn’t actually get to do any great amount of chemistry until late in high school. I was convinced I was going to spend a lifetime playing with mathematics (which I secretly still think would be fun!) but after a few chemistry classes, learning about atoms and how they’re built and all of the really clever things that people have done to find out so much about everything around us… I was hooked!
What made you decide to teach this free online course?
I really enjoy my job and take a great pleasure in teaching chemistry. I’m not sure words can quite describe it. I get to meet people who have an interest in the sciences, amaze them with the secrets of the universe and then drive their curiosity to look for more. Some of the revelations that we encounter are truly mind-blowing and can change the way we see everything around us. The engagement and the questions I get from students make it so much fun, going through that feeling of discovery all over again and sharing it with other people. When you’re there and you see it click for someone and watch them make the leap to that next 'but why' moment, it’s priceless.
My Dean at Swinburne is also a chemist and a brilliant teacher, who I was lucky enough to be taught by when I first arrived at university as a student. When he approached me and told me about this program, it seemed like an exciting opportunity to expose people to some chemistry in an interesting new way, regardless of where they might be and what background they might have. I’m hoping that I can create the same sense of wonder in people that I experienced when I first started learning it myself.
Is there anything interesting you’d like to share about your experience preparing for or recording this course?
My immediate impulse is to laugh! I have a new-found respect for the amount of work that goes into filming. Audio and video may be all about science, but the people I worked with have turned it into an art-form. There’s no experience I’ve ever had that’s quite like the moment where the bright lights go on, the director says, 'Roll cameras,' the slate comes out, click! It's unique. The people involved were great fun to work with – I could sing their praises some more, but they know who they are.
In regards to the preparation, it’s interesting to think about the different ways that you can tell a story. Some of the ideas that came about through this program will migrate into my daily teaching. Creating all of the material from scratch again also took me right back to the beginning and made me feel like a little kid all over again, discovering chemistry for the first time.
Oh, and seeing the footage of the experiments that we did together was incredible. Some of the slow-motion footage was amazing. I’m running out of superlatives!
Why do you think it’s important to have an understanding of chemistry?
There are so many different ways to come at this question. I mean, for me, it started out just as pure fascination. But it can also help you understand everything that goes on around you. After all, the different materials that we are made of and that we interact with, it’s all chemicals, all chemistry. Maybe understanding chemistry just makes you look at the world differently (for example, you really are built of about 7 billion, billion, billion little atoms!), maybe it makes you change your day-to-day practices because you better understand what’s happening around you, or perhaps it just makes you marvel even more at some of the things around us that we take for granted every day.
How is chemistry applicable in day-to-day life?
How is it NOT applicable?! Again, everything around you is made of ‘chemicals’, so it’s all chemistry. Chemistry has built everything around you. More specifically, it explains so many things, like, how does your blood get that oxygen gas out of the air and take it to where you need it? Why take antacid when you have heart-burn? Why do detergents help wash your dishes? Why do all of my cars rust, but gold jewellery remains almost unscathed? Why do all of the substances around us have such wide and varied properties? How much sugar is there in my soft drink? We could go on listing things like this for a LONG time!
Who should enrol in this course?
Obviously, anyone who has ever thought to themselves, 'Chemistry might be fun!' If you’re thinking about studying chemistry but don’t know if it’s for you or not, this is an engaging and pressure-free way to try it out. If you have a general interest in the world around you and how it’s all held together, I’m confident you’ll enjoy it. Also, as much as the physicists and biologists would hate to admit it, anyone interested in the sciences in general would benefit from a bit of chemistry. It is an introduction to chemistry, I am assuming that students enrolling have done absolutely no chemistry before. If you’ve already studied chemistry, then it might be a useful refresher of the basics for you.
No chemistry knowledge is assumed in this course. We’re starting right at the beginning and the goal is to present a course that can be enjoyed by anyone and serve as a platform to leap from if you’re interested in doing more. There’s a little maths in the fourth module, but nothing too terrifying and we take it at a nice, slow pace. The film crew learned it all as we were filming, and that’s while they were concentrating on their other jobs too!
Are there any simple experiments someone could safely try at home to get a feel for chemistry?
What a good idea – in fact, we’ll talk about that in this subject! During the subject, I have mentioned a few easily accessible and relatively safe experiments that you can try at home. For those of you after a few more advanced things that you can try, there are lots of chemistry kits that can be purchased for the chemistry enthusiast. If you do turn your hand to some experiments, always remember that safety comes first. It’s true in the lab and it’s true at home too. If in doubt, don’t do it! Of course, if you find yourself having fun, you might even turn your hand to further chemistry study, which will lead to time in the lab – and that’s where we can have some real fun!
What’s the most exciting thing students will learn in this course?
It seems to be something different for everyone! For some people, it blows their minds finding out more about the atom, these tiny little building blocks and how they make up everything around us. For others, it’s discovering all of the rules that result in the world being built the way it is and understanding the way it changes, or how we can manipulate it to suit our needs. Watching my students, they are often extremely satisfied just watching all of the skills that they learn come together in a way that has real meaning to them. Finally, of course, there are people who just love seeing things blow up – yes, we’ll do some of that from time to time too! Chemistry: Building Blocks of the World is open for enrolment now.