Alice Motion

ACSME Panel: Learning from each other: a tale of two education sectors

Alice Motion Headshot

Associate Professor Alice Motion

The University of Sydney

Associate Professor Alice Motion is a Westpac Research Fellow at the School of Chemistry, University of Sydney where she leads the Science Communication, Outreach, Participation and Education (SCOPE) Research Group. Finding ways to connect people with science and to make research more accessible is the overarching theme of Alice’s interdisciplinary research.

Alice is the founder of the Breaking Good project – a citizen science project that aims to empower high school and undergraduate students to be active researchers in projects that will improve human health. In 2016, students working as part of the Breaking Good pilot project recreated the price-hiked medicine Daraprim for just a few dollars, sparking an international conversation about access to medicine and demonstrating the impact that students can have when they are involved in real research.

Originally from the North West of England, Alice completed her PhD at The University of Cambridge, where she worked with colleagues to develop two new chemical reactions. Alice moved to Australia to take up a position as the principal synthetic chemist for the Open Source Malaria Consortium. She commenced her independent career in 2017 and leads interdisciplinary research programs in open source drug discovery, science education, creative science communication through artistic practice and citizen science.

Alice is the Deputy Director of Sydney Nano (Outreach and Training), the Co-Chair of the Charles Perkins Centre Citizen Science Node and host representative of the Australian Citizen Science Association. She is a celebrated science communicator, winning the Eureka Prize for Public Communication of Science in 2020, Young Tall Poppy (2020) and ABC Top 5 Under 40 in 2015. Alice is the co-host of the ABC Science podcast, Dear Science, and has been the host of FBi Radio’s weekly science segment Up and Atom since June 2015.

How have you engaged in crossing the boundary between secondary and tertiary education sectors previously?

I’ve worked with Schools throughout my postdoc and independent career. From leading citizen science programs that engage young people in drug discovery to delivering workshops, programs and lectures for students. I think the boundaries between secondary and tertiary education need to be blurred to make transition to university easier for students and to inspire and engage future students at earlier ages.

More recently, our research programs have targeted teachers, schools, secondary students, and the broader communities to better understand areas such as the curriculum, equality of education and to aim to embed citizen science as part of the Australian curriculum. Within our research group, the SCOPE Group, we’ve also been really excited to welcome current, future and ‘resting’ teachers to undertake further research into science education at honours, masters or PhD level. It is fantastic to see the skills and experience of teachers impact and enrich our research and practice and I hope that this trend continues.

My science communication work also targets secondary students through creative approaches that aim to bring new audiences to science and to connect people with complex ideas through mediums that are more accessible or enjoyable for them. We were thrilled to make it to Orange to bring our show the Al to Zr of the Periodic Table to school students and their families at the start of the year and can’t wait to once again visit schools across NSW and beyond.

During COVID-19, our team has also experimented with large ‘inreach’ to schools through online workshops that challenge students to consider science within the framing of grand challenges and provide a social context for theories and concepts that can often seem abstract for students.

What were some of the challenges and successes of these experiences?

Working with schools and teachers has many inherent challenges but also great rewards. One of the things that’s most important is to build relationships and partnerships with teachers and to find time to listen to the needs of each school and their students. For example, ensuring that school-based programs are curriculum aligned and appropriately scaffolded and appropriately tailored for different contexts e.g. resources and timetabling is key to ensure that programs succeed. Building trust between teachers and academics can help us to develop more impactful programs and to support secondary teachers in the implementation of research-enhanced teaching.

The successes of these programs have been evidenced in effusive feedback from students and that wonderful feeling when something ‘clicks’ with the students you’re working with. I particularly enjoy working with students who don’t view themselves as ‘scientists’ and working to increase their appreciation of STEM as part of our shared culture. It’s also a lovely feeling when students you have met in schools join your units of study at University a few years later.

How have these experiences influenced (or not influenced) any future plans to work between these sectors?

I believe that breaking down siloes and increasing engagement between university campuses and the broader community is key to the future of education in Australia. I will continue to leap at any opportunity to build bridges between the sectors and to support research education and opportunities for teachers and students. I also work to encourage current university students to run programs for schools through the Sydney Nano Institute and the Faculty of Science.