From the research lab to school lessons
Prof. Dr. Timm Wilke has been appointed to the professorship of Didactics of Chemistry at the University of Oldenburg’s Institute of Chemistry. As an expert in the didactics of chemistry and school laboratories he adapts current research topics for school chemistry lessons to boost pupils’ interest in the subject.
Welcome to the University of Oldenburg! What brought you here?
I came for a number of reasons, but two are particularly important. First of all, Oldenburg is known throughout Germany for its didactics of chemistry programme and has occupied a leading position nationwide in this field in the past. There’s also a personal motive: although I was born in Brussels, I grew up in Leer in East Frisia. This region is my home and I’m still very attached to it, so I'm glad that my main place of residence will be in the north-west again.
What do you research?
We focus on adapting topics from top-level research for school lessons – a process we specialists refer to as “didactic reconstruction”. We have access to this research through two Collaborative Research Centres in which we are involved. The first is focused on nanomedicine, the second on producing green hydrogen using sunlight. These are two topics that we see as very promising for teaching in schools. It’s a big, but exciting challenge to adapt research experiments that usually require expensive chemicals and equipment costing hundreds of thousands of euros for school lessons. The experiments need to be safe, simple, easy to perform and cost just a few euros – while at the same time essentially replicating the original research experiment.
What do you like about your subject?
The opportunity to open up really exciting fields of research for schools, student labs and also for teacher training – whether it’s nanomedicine, materials science or green hydrogen. I believe that current research can bring real added value to lessons and increase students’ interest in the subject. And I enjoy having the freedom to choose the most exciting topics and tinker with them until I can get a meaningful experimental result in chemistry lessons using the cheapest, safest and simplest materials.
What are you planning to do during your first months at our university?
Within my research group, we want to modernise teaching and incorporate future-oriented content such as artificial intelligence into classroom teaching, including the latest research findings. And I'm looking forward to expanding our student labs ChemOL and ChemOL2 with new ideas, new content and new digital options. This is how we want to make the labs fit for the future.
Who or what influenced you most during your studies?
Many teachers, and later on mentors, influenced me both during my studies and afterwards. But my doctoral supervisor, Thomas Waitz in Göttingen, in whose research group I discovered all that can be achieved in this subject area and how much fun working at university can be, undoubtedly influenced me most. My time with him made me change my mind: originally, I wanted to do my PhD in inorganic chemistry, but then I decided to do didactics instead, and I’ve never regretted it. The topic of my dissertation – making nanotechnology accessible for school lessons – is a subject I still deal with today.
Your tips for surviving on campus?
My main tips are: find people who are interested in the same things as you and form groups with friends. This will help you to survive the particularly challenging first semesters, the most difficult exams and the strictest professors. And: explore your subject to find the areas that really interest you and then specialise in them.