University of Helsinki: Students elected University Lecturer Miia Mäntymäki chemistry teacher of the year 2021

Miia Mäntymäki started the Instagram account in chemistry, @helsinki_chemistry, and is active on twitter, as well. She also arrived vicariously into every Finnish home after taking part in the design and manufacturing of the props for the Doctor character that won the second season of the Finnish Masked Singer show. As a member of the Finnish Chemical Society, she has a front-row seat on what is happening in chemistry research and industry.

Her burning desire to teach brought Mäntymäki back to the university from the industry, and to her post as university lecturer. She studied and defended her thesis on chemistry at the University of Helsinki, then worked at Aalto University and Picosun Oy in Espoo, which manufactures ALD technology.

Instructions for lab work not a food recipe
Miia Mäntymäki teaches new students at their first lab course, “Basic chemistry work.” Besides lab work in inorganic chemistry and organic chemistry, the course includes lectures on work safety.

As she is instructing students, she often asks them ‘why’ and promotes in-depth understanding.

“The assignments during the lab course should not be performed mechanically. If we keep adding components as if we were following a food recipe, then finally heat it up and see what happens, the assignment has not been completed correctly. We cannot reach in-depth understanding if we don’t simultaneously consider why we’re doing certain things and why there’s a reaction”, says Mäntymäki.

Mäntymäki is also the teacher in charge of the course “Introduction to chemistry.” Annually, some 500-600 students attend this course, and chemistry is not necessarily their primary interest. The compulsory chemistry course is part of e.g. environmental and food science degrees. For many, chemistry is a drag that can even stand in the way of graduating. The course, previously implemented as a mass lecture, has been remodelled into an online course with plenty of supervised assignments. The learning outcomes improved, and unexpectedly, some of the students even wanted more assignments.

“That’s the thing, you have to find a way to ‘fool’ the students into working hard. For some, the course is difficult if something like 10 years have passed since they last studied the subject, but if you keep on trying and asking questions, you can do very well during the course”, says Mäntymäki.

Chemistry as the solution to man’s big problems
Miia Mäntymäki laments that the role chemistry plays in solving the big problems of humanity is not understood. Whether we are talking about clean water, climate change, recycling, medicines, or energy, none of these challenges can be solved without chemical know-how.

As one motivation for her activity in social media, she mentions that she is trying to show young people how versatile chemistry is, as they are looking for what to study and their place in the world.

The new application system for universities favours first-time applicants. This has cut back on students who come to study chemistry during their gap year while their primary aim is to study medicine.

“Many are interested in medicine, but many areas of chemistry, such as radio chemistry or bio-compatibility research in material chemistry, are closely related to medicine”, says Mäntymäki.

She helps new students select courses out of the wide spectrum of chemistry courses, which will take them towards their own goals and the field they want to work in.

Her contacts are especially close to the students, whose Oma opettaja (my own teacher) she is. Oma opettaja is a practice at the Department of Chemistry, where new students are assigned a mentor for the duration of their degree work.

A dedicated grant at Kalajoki upper-secondary school
Miia Mäntymäki has donated a grant that is awarded to the student who has gained the best marks in the matriculation exam in chemistry at her old school, the upper-secondary in Kalajoki. In general, she works closely with students and teachers in upper-secondary schools.

The annual chemistry olympics brings together the best young chemistry adepts to be coached at the Department of Chemistry at the University of Helsinki. The preliminaries are organised as competitions in chemistry by MAOL ry (the association for teachers in mathematical subjects) in upper-secondary schools. Mäntymäki participates in planning the exams for the MAOL competitions, and she participated in the chemistry olympics when she was at school. She has also coached the Finnish team many times. Now they are preparing for the The International Chemistry Olympiad (IChO) being held in China next summer.

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