Elemental Business: Snapshots of the chemical industry

Like the man who enthuses about a TV show he’s just seen for the first time, only to find that the recipient of their new-found wisdom has just spent the weekend binge-watching Season 4 in its entirety, there is a risk that this post will be re-introducing you to an old friend. Nevertheless, in case you are (a) interested in chemistry and (b) are not already aware of Elemental Business, here’s a quick summary.

Podcasts about the economic relevance of various elements can be downloaded from the BBC website

Podcasts about the economic relevance of various elements can be downloaded from the BBC website

For nearly a year, Business Daily on the BBC World Service the programme has had an occasional feature Elemental Business “looking at the economy from the point of view of the elements of the periodic table”. Correspondent Justin Rowlatt, with the assistance of Prof Andrea Sella from UCL, takes a tour around the industrial and business application of chemicals. I became aware of the series after reading a BBC website article about Bromine. It turns out that there have been at least 24 episodes so far in the series. They are all currently available as both articles and podcasts.

The following links go through to audio for each episode to date. Some elements of particular economic importance (Carbon, Nitrogen and Silicon) have already been given more than one programme,each emphasising a different dimension of their relevance.

All episodes are available direct from the BBC website, including the capacity to download them as podcasts.

Unconditional offers: a self-defeating policy?

In the UCAS admissions round for 2013 University entry, The University of Birmingham triggered a seismic change in recruitment policy when they introduce unconditional offers to strong candidates on the basis that the applicant made Birmingham their firm, rather than insurance, choice. Many competitor institutions thought Birmingham ought to be reprimanded for breach of admissions etiquette. Far from this being the case, Birmingham was actually named University of the Year 2013-14 in The Times and The Sunday Times Good University Guide. Judges praised their “bold – and successful – approach to recruitment”.

What were other universities to do? In the 2013-14 recruitment round a number of further institutions decided to also make unconditional offers, with or without strings attached. It is predicted that in the coming year even more institutions will adopt the practice. This development worries me, a lot, and here’s why.

What has the Red Queen got to say to admissions tutors?

What has the Red Queen got to say to admissions tutors?

Firstly, there is a evolutionary theory known as the Red Queen hypothesis. In Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, the Red Queen informs Alice that “it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place”. This could easily be applied to the recruitment trend. If it reaches a point where the majority of universities are making unconditional offers then there will no longer be any selective advantage over competitor institutions – the benefits of making unconditional offers will have been lost, but the detrimental aspects (e.g. accepting students who have failed to fulfil their academic potential) will remain.

Secondly, I am concerned about the impact this development will have on the integrity of grade predictions offered by schools. Back in the 1990s, in a previous incarnation, I taught A Level Chemistry. One year, after I had made the grade predictions for my group, I was contacted by the parents of one student. “You’ve predicted a C for [let’s call him Johnny]. He won’t get offers for his chosen course at university if that’s his prediction, so please can you change this to an A”. I declined their appeal on the grounds that it was just delaying the inevitable; Johnny wasn’t going to get an A so better to face up to the disappointment now and select a more appropriate course.

Now, fast forward to a world with unconditional offers. Provided that Johnny has a sufficient crop of A* grades for his GCSE, those predicted grades start to have real currency. If Mr Willmott the Chemistry teacher can be cajoled into upping Johnny’s prediction from a C to an A then there is a real chance he can blag an unconditional offer and treat the C he ultimately gets as though it was just a bad day at the office.

If we continue down the “unconditional” route, teachers are going to be put under immense pressure to inflate their predictions because the natural safeguard we’ve had against this previously (i.e. when results day reveals Johnny does not have adequate grades to fulfill the conditions of his offer) will no longer be there. Unscrupulous schools have everything to gain by over-inflating their predictions; the league tables will show that they got more students into top Unis. The Universities themselves, however, will have an increasing number of first year undergraduates who do not necessarily have the academic foundations necessary for the courses to which they have been admitted. It is even possible that the students themselves may suffer if the course turns out to be too much for them.

[As is always the case, this blog post reflects the personal opinion of the author and should not be considered as the views of the institution where he works or any of the varied bodies on which he serves.]

Television as a teaching tool

My Opinion piece on use of TV for teaching was published in the 28th August edition of Times Higher Education

My Opinion piece on use of TV for teaching was published in the 28th August edition of Times Higher Education

Regular readers of The Journal of the Left-Handed Biochemist will know of my enthusiasm for exploiting multimedia in teaching. Back in January 2014 I hosted a conference on the theme, and it is also the raison d’être for two other blogs that I run Bioethicsbytes and the new Biology on the Box.

In August, Times Higher Education magazine published an opinion piece in which I discussed some of the ways that TV footage can be used in teaching and to try to dispel reservations that might be stopping colleagues from making more of this rich resource. The article can be freely accessed, so rather than repeating myself here can I encourage you to read the original piece via this link.

  • Awards

    The Power of Comparative Genomics received a Special Commendation

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