Introducing: Mark Ellison

Teaching complex chemistry ideas in an accessible way
22 Feb 2021

Mark Ellison's earliest memory of being exposed to the world of chemistry was when his parents gifted him a chemistry experiment toy set. He found joy in using many chemicals and equipment that wouldn't be sold to children today (for safety reasons). He also remembers his Year 11 chemistry teacher quite fondly as someone who taught him how to appreciate and enjoy learning chemistry, despite the initial difficulties and frustration.

It was moments like these in early childhood and high school which sparked Mark's passion for chemistry, a passion deeply held today.

Once Mark graduated from the University of Western Australia with a Bachelor of Science he completed his Honours at Murdoch University. Before teaching at the ANU, he was lucky enough to work as a forensic chemist at Scotland Yard for a year, an incredibly fascinating experience at the time.

On&Off Campus sat down with Mark to talk about his passion for teaching chemistry and his journey since starting in 2006: when he became the University's inaugural First Year Undergraduate Chemistry Coordinator, a role which he took up enthusiastically.

Mark has always tried to embody the values of kindness and empathy towards students. He reflected upon the importance of these values and clear communication in teaching:

"One of my first university lecturers really made chemistry interesting and accessible. I remember sitting in a lecture listening to him and saying to myself that if I ever became a teacher I would try to model him since he was a fabulous communicator," he said.

"I also think that kindness and empathy are very important. If you give out kindness you'll get it back and I always try to deliver genuine care for the student experience in my courses."

Throughout Mark's many years of teaching since 2006, there are many memories which he can point to as evidence of his success in teaching and for generating interest and passion among students for chemistry. 

"The best memory I have which had a profound effect on me was in 2007 when my Chemistry 2 class made a YouTube rap video about chemistry, which has been viewed thousands of times.

"One of my students also complimented me in saying that I had an innate ability to communicate complex ideas in an accessible way. These are probably the most valuable and indelible memories I have of teaching."

While Mark has enjoyed teaching chemistry and has many fond memories, 2020 required outward thinking and rapid adaptation to convert a very practical and hands-on course into a completely virtual one.

"I realised we had to do something very quickly with the labs. We made four videos of the first semester labs so that students could get some lab experience, even if it was virtual.

"The other challenge was converting the in-person tutorials into a useful and engaging virtual format. The limitation is that Zoom classes can be quite impersonal so it's harder to get to know students but I think they worked really well and people ended up liking them since it was convenient not having to go anywhere."

While there were some difficult challenges to address this year, Mark also reflected on the potential opportunities to adapt the teaching of chemistry to provide a more flexible learning experience for future cohorts.

"The advantages of pre-recorded lectures was that I wasn't limited to a fifty minute time slot. I could use more examples and videos in the recordings to expand upon the content.

"It also made me rethink the format of exams for future years. The benefit of open book exams is that it promotes understanding as opposed to just memorising content."

Mark finally reflected on the importance of care for the student experience and his commitment to ensuring that every student achieves their potential within a supportive environment.

"An immediate reward is seeing students who initially struggle then flourish in first year chemistry and end up wanting to continue in second year.

"It's important to know why you go to work every day and what you want to achieve. The greatest reward is participating in the development of confident and knowledgeable leaders in science as well as thoughtful and aware citizens."