In Her Element: Alison Flynn’s mission to equip students with lifelong learning skills through chemistry

Posted on Thursday, February 18, 2021

Picture of Alison Flynn

uOttawa Professor receives prestigious award for her work in chemistry education

Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world,” said Nelson Mandela. Alison Flynn relies on this principle every day.

The Associate Professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biomolecular Sciences at the University of Ottawa leads the Flynn Research Group, a team of researchers who study learning at the postsecondary level, in chemistry and across disciplines. They mobilize research findings to create learning tools as open education resources, with a goal of better equipping and empowering learners.

Dr. Flynn’s work in the field of chemistry education -– the study of all aspects of teaching and learning chemistry – has not gone unnoticed.

She recently received the 2021 Chemical Institute of Canada Award for Chemistry Education, an award “presented as a mark of recognition to a person who has made an outstanding contribution in Canada to education at the post-secondary level in the field of chemistry or chemical engineering”. She agreed to answer our questions.

1- What does the 2021 Chemical Institute of Canada Award for Chemistry Education mean to you?

“This award in an incredible honour! It represents the support of students, colleagues, friends, and family and our many hours of discussions, failed attempts, successes, and fun. The award’s name immediately conjures up the images of educators from whom I’ve learned so much.”

2- Can you explain your research in chemistry education?

“In a time when information and misinformation are abundant, we are studying how students learn and use core principles in chemistry, so that they are equipped to apply their knowledge in other areas and continue to learn. 

We study how students interpret chemistry concepts, through their scientific reasoning with evidence, mental models, and how they connect chemistry with the broader world. Our research is closely connected with practice, in the hopes that our findings can help improve curricula and courses, in an evidence-informed fashion.

In another branch of our research we study students’ learning skills in any discipline, and the effects of empowering students with greater learning skills on their ability to learn in other contexts and on their stress.

We all need to continue to learn throughout our lives, and we are passionate about equitably equipping students with those lifelong learning skills.”

3- On your Twitter profile, we can read this statement about you: “Striving to help improve education, especially in STEM (…)’’ Why is it important to you and what are your guiding principles?

“Each of us needs STEM knowledge and skills for our everyday lives. I love thinking about how we might improve education to better equip and empower learners with the knowledge and skills to keep learning.

I strive to be unrelentingly curious, constantly asking questions and wondering how we might do things better or differently, learning from colleagues and friends, and learning from students.

Finally, my work seeks to improve equity, diversity, and inclusion in STEM. Many students face barriers in education and career progression, and there are systemic barriers that we can remove or change. Creating and using Open Education Resources are ways to reduce barriers to access, as well as building more inclusive courses.”

4- The COVID-19 pandemic has changed teaching methods. Professors and students had to quickly adapt to remote teaching and online learning. On May 18, 2020, you co-authored a book entitled: “Remote teaching: a practical guide with tools, tips, and techniques.” Why did you decide to create this guide?

“Dr. Jeremy Kerr and I saw that colleagues were needing to quickly and radically use teaching methods that were new to most.

We also saw major issues with equity arising: students (and colleagues!) with poor internet connections, having to work while at school, in different time zones, isolated, or in poor health. We wanted to create a simple and accessible resource that drew from the best research on online teaching and learning. We also brought in two graduate student co-authors for an analogous guide for teaching assistants. Meredith Allen and Alisha Szozda brought essential knowledge and lived experiences to that guide.

As we made resources for our own courses, we also made versions that colleagues could adapt for their own contexts.”

5- What are your best tips for teachers and professors?

“Consider what the most important things are for students to learn in your course, how students will learn those things, and how you and they will know when they have learned them (assessment). 

Design your course by combining those ideas with principles of inclusion and kindness. It’s okay if it’s not perfect—is there such a thing?”


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