In this article, former teacher Kieran Rowell shares his experience working at Matrix and explains how teaching Chemistry at Matrix Helped his PhD and research career.
Hi, my Name is Keiran Rowell and I was a Chemistry teacher at Matrix for five years.
My interests are in education and scientific computing.
My main study has been in chemistry, but I believe the sciences are at their most interesting and powerful when combined together.
So, I’ve followed my nose into areas of physical chemistry, computer science, and molecular biology.
I would say creating and submitting a PhD thesis is certainly the biggest task I’ve ever completed, but I am most proud of my work as a Postgraduate Teaching Fellow at UNSW Chemistry. As part of the program, I worked with lecturers to introduce Python programming into a physical Chemistry course. The coding portion was made accessible through Jupyter notebooks, and there was a large uptick in course satisfaction despite exposing students with non-computing backgrounds to very challenging topics such as quantum chemistry calculations.
I wasn’t aware of Matrix beforehand. I saw a job ad listed on a uni jobs page and applied because I had experience tutoring privately and through companies. I was camping from Sydney to Alice Springs and flew out of Uluru airport to start my job at Matrix because a friend of mine had actually just organised a post-graduation ‘great Aussie road trip’.
Working at Matrix as a Chemistry teacher helped ensure I could afford to live in Sydney and study.
Sydney is an expensive city; meanwhile, the PhD stipend is a bit below post-tax minimum wage and flat across Australia. The stipend is, however, tax-exempt. So, while research is a full-time commitment, opportunities to teach push your effective rate of pay far higher.
This involved teaching 1.5 or 3 hr science classes that varied in size from about 4 to 15 students.
Matrix has an excellent service team who can handle a lot of documentation and parent requests, meaning more time spent educating. There is still an amount of scheduling and quiz marking, but the process went fairly smoothly.
Honestly, getting to teach without the admin overhead was one of the best parts of teaching there.
I was mostly an HSC Chemistry teacher, but also picked up and enjoyed Junior Science classes — blowing students minds when they learnt the implications of how DNA actually works was lots of fun. While the HSC syllabus may be standardised, your teaching doesn’t have to be! Develop creative approaches to reach your students’ thought processes and reconfigure their understanding.
Shout out to my Sydney City Tuesday Year 12 Chemistry (2020) class!
They were a rambunctious group! I can’t not mention the time when I was close to submitting and they snuck in a mud cake with “HAPPY PHD” written on it with M&M’s. It was very thoughtful of them.
I started my uni teaching shortly after beginning at Matrix and they definitely reinforced each other. It demonstrated a committed passion for education, and I do hope further to teach are available in my future work.
Developing a classroom manner also helped me be confident in running uni tutorials.
Clear presentation and pedagogical techniques most obliviously. You need to break scientific ideas down to their most direct components for students to really grasp a topic.
Balancing PhD research and Matrix classes meant setting realistic workloads for the week, and making sure you protect your leisure time. So, If you are studying and teaching at the same time, be realistic with your workload. Classes are very rewarding but can be tiring, so preserve your time to unwind and engage with soul-fulfilling hobbies. It’s a small hobby, but cooking is an activity that is reliably satisfying for me. Planning new dishes, focusing on the sights and smells, and entertaining friends are all things I find soul-fulfilling.
The service team are absolutely excellent, and the content management and internal resources are well maintained. Because of this, you can put more thought into how to deliver the lesson rather than lesson planning and example writing.
While the flexibility was good, I did learn that I personally valued prioritising a consistent schedule and short campus commutes, more than the ability to swap classes.
I learnt not to over-commit – one completely free day a week was really important for me!
Even though my work is computational, I still found that holiday classes or subbing in for other staff too often in short succession could distract me from research progress. Conversely, I know some teachers who took bursts of holiday classes back-to-back so during school term their research was uninterrupted. I imagine lab-based scientists would have even stricter demands on their time than I.
All-in-all, Matrix is a great place to be a casual teacher, and the formal training and improvement courses are a good opportunity to develop your skills.
Quarterly briefing dinners and Christmas parties are also great for meeting other employees. Other teachers all obviously love teaching, and, chances are, if they are teaching casually they have a main gig or aspiration they are working towards that you can get them chatting about.
There were several colleagues I actually knew personally outside of work before Matrix and was only half-surprised when close friends from my PhD days turned up to work one day without me expecting them.
Even though I haven’t been gone for long, I’ve kept in touch with workmates. In these socially-distanced times, I follow the cool hobbies of some former Matrix colleagues through social media.
The growth in data generated from all areas of work has never been higher. Accessible and insightful tools are going to be required to make sense of all that raw data. If I can distil research into insight and teach people along the way, that would be fantastic.
My experience at Matrix has helped me hone my teaching and bring clarity to my messaging, so I can really leave an audience with an understanding of something new.
These skills will be useful directly if I am able to teach in tertiary education, and are invaluable for communication in general.