Chemunity: Fostering academic community in the School of Chemistry

Guess Who? Game modified with staff photos at Launch Event. Photo Credit: C Mowat.

In this post, Dr Chris Mowat, Senior Lecturer in the School of Chemistry, describes how, using a Student Partnership Agreement fund, staff and students have developed ‘Chemunity’ – a student-driven web-based resource and social media presence, which aims to provide resources to improve the academic support, promote and support positive mental health and wellbeing, and ensure that student voice is heard… 

The Student Partnership Agreement between the University of Edinburgh and EUSA provided grant funding to address the key themes of the SPA. These were the Student Voice, Academic Support, and Promoting Positive Mental Wellbeing, all topics of huge importance to our students. In the School of Chemistry, students had criticised our engagement with student feedback on proposed changes to our degree programme structure. At Senior Tutor network meetings, we have struggled to define what academic support is, and where it lies on a spectrum of support that ranges from actually teaching to providing pastoral support. Meanwhile, the increased incidence of students suffering from mental health problems gives cause for concern. We wanted to work in collaboration with students to better understand how to address all of these interconnected issues and foster links between students and staff, so ‘Chemunity’ was instigated in order to identify students’ needs and to produce a student-curated resource based on SPA themes.

The School and its space

Chemistry has always felt like a natural academic community. One reason for this is really a happy accident of size. We are based in a single building, our degrees are practical in nature, and we have modest student numbers; ~650 taught and ~250 research students. This means that staff see our students around the building, and they see us. A major step forward was the decision to spend a significant sum refurbishing our museum. The old museum was a small room with an artificial ceiling and no natural light. Although it was well-used by staff for morning coffee and some students for lunch, as well as for social events, it was not a welcoming space. The refurbishment is wonderful. It’s bigger, more comfortable, airy, has a plumbed-in coffee machine, and even a moss wall. It is now a space that everyone enjoys; a real social hub.

The Social Scene

One of Chemunity’s taglines was ‘breaking barriers and making bonds’. This punny motto indicates the scheme’s aims of integrating all members of the school community. In addition to student-led social events organised by ChemSoc and our peer support scheme, Academic Families, the school organises events that include several cohorts at once. These have included an alumni careers evening, with recent graduates coming to tell students about their careers, and regular international-themed socials which attract a diverse range of staff, undergraduate and postgraduate students.

Furthermore, the Chemunity team organise a variety of events. A launch event was held with upwards of 50 students (UG and PG) attending. Board games were provided at the event, including a customised version of Guess Who? using the faces of Chemistry academic staff. Chemunity also hosts TeaStress sessions (with Academic Families) and, recently, a talent show featuring staff and students. These represent a mixture of the traditional ‘social’ and other events that are more culturally inclusive (e.g. where alcohol is not available). The aim is to make the school – the building and its people – diverse and inclusive in all respects.

Identity and Belonging

Key to the feeling of academic community is the idea that all members of the school feel like it is part of their identity and that they belong here. To this end one recent initiative was led by our Recruitment Marketing Manager, Martin Boddie, who arranged for the production of school-branded hoodies. The fact that over 200 orders have been received tells us that there is pride in having that visible identity as a member of the School. This has led to a competition on Twitter to have people take selfies in their hoodies at an Edinburgh landmark, again a means of engaging and publicising our community.

Online Chemunity

Finally, the creation of an online resource repository for students (academic, practical, and general/pastoral material), along with blog posts in which students are very candid about their own experiences, encourages openness and discussion around some difficult topics. This resource is currently undergoing a revamp and migration to a different host, but it will be up and running and serving the needs of our students before the start of the new academic year in September.

Taking all of this together, we have learned that it takes effort, commitment and a little imagination to nurture an academic community (and that we should be thankful for contextual advantages), but it is very much worth it.

Chemunity is also on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

Chris Mowat

Dr Chris Mowat is Senior Personal Tutor and Senior Lecturer in Bioinorganic Chemistry in the School of Chemistry. He first walked through the doors of the Joseph Black building in October 1992 as an undergraduate student, and has never felt the need to leave.

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