While looking for a catching opening to this blog on education, I came across an aphorism by the American science-fiction writer Robert Heinlein: “Never attempt to teach a pig to sing; it wastes your time and annoys the pig”. Although very funny, luckily it does not reflect my experience in teaching structural science. Another quote by the same author sums it up much better: ‘‘When one teaches, two learn’’. Indeed, finding an effective way to make a topic understandable to my students has always led me to better grasp its ins and outs, and to discover new, interesting aspects.
In the past twenty years at the University of Parma, I have been teaching general chemistry to first-year engineering students. Crystallography only came into the picture later, in the form of short seminars to PhD students, or of tips and advice to junior researchers. This is obviously very interesting and stimulating – a kind of “lore-passed-on-through-generations” feeling, so to speak. You are transmitting not only what you have read in books, but also what you have learnt on the field.
This is probably why I decided to be involved in education in crystallography in a more structured way; one first step in this direction was serving as a member of the teaching commission of the Italian Crystallographic Association. In this role, while helping to organize several international schools, I had the opportunity to meet first-rate crystallographers and extremely dedicated teachers, and to enjoy lectures and hands-on sessions alongside the students. A particularly engaging event was the 2019 edition of the international AIC school entitled “Crystallographic Information Fiesta” under the scientific direction of Serena C. Tarantino (University of Pavia), Brian McMahon (IUCr) and Michele Zema (IUCr and University of Pavia).
The aim of the school was to teach the importance of raw data in extracting reliable information and how to disseminate results in a complete and verifiable manner. In summary: how to apply critical judgement to crystallographic data, a particularly important approach in times when crystallographic structure determination can be carried out in a matter of days – or even hours! – through the help of highly automated programs. In spite of the topic being quite unconventional, it was met with enthusiasm by both the students and the teachers involved. One interesting and new outcome of the school was that the activities of the tutorials resulted in the publication of two papers co-authored by all tutors and students attending each session.
CSD entry POWVEF a zinc structure published in one of the articles co-authored by attendees at the Crystallographic Information Fiesta
The school was also an occasion to underline the importance of databases such as the Cambridge Structural Database, Protein Data Bank, International Centre for Diffraction Data, Inorganic Crystal Structure Database and Crystallography Open Database. Personally, being a “small molecule” crystallographer with a weakness for supramolecular chemistry and crystal engineering, I am especially indebted to CCDC for both my research and teaching activities. Through seminars, workshops, schools and conferences, programs and tutorials, I have always discovered some new features or tricks I had previously been unaware of.
In 2014, ECA launched the first European Crystallographic School in Pavia, Italy. Around that time, the idea of a support team for the Education Coordinator arose, eventually leading to the formation, in 2016, of the new General Interest Group “GIG-03, Education in Crystallography”, of which I was one of the promoters. The purpose of the General Interest Group on Education in Crystallography (as stated in its Inauguration Document) is to promote and spread crystallography through education at different level. In a nutshell, GIG-03 have offered assistance to and prepared the guidelines for the European Crystallographic Schools, have coordinated the microsymposia on education at the ECMs, and supported crystallographic educational events. One of the most successful recent examples was the organisation, together with the group of the Senior Crystallographer GIG-02, of the MS “Teaching new dogs old tricks” during the 32th ECM in Vienna. William Clegg, Anthony Linden, Ton Spek, Andrew Maloney and Gemma de la Flor delivered five sparkling lectures in a packed room amidst the appreciative nods of crystallographers of all ages, vigorously taking notes.
The future field of action is wide open: from writing teaching pamphlets, to the support of continual professional development for teachers, from being more active on Wikipedia and on social media, to starting an “ask a crystallographer” column on the group website. I hope many more ideas and projects will result from the active cooperation of the crystallographic community. Any contribution is important to spread crystallographic knowledge. To end with another – slightly modified – quote: “ask not what crystallography can do for you, ask what you can do for crystallography”.
A very rewarding teaching /outreach activity – the exhibition “CRISTALLI!”organised for the International Year of Crystallography 2014 in Parma, Italy.