An awakening curiosity makes you learn, which is why good teachers ask a lot of questions

Problems are the best teachers – at least if solving them takes place in an applied chemistry course, says prize-winning University Lecturer Ndegwa Maina.

“Did you eat any beta-glucan in the morning?”

“I don’t think so...”

“Well, did you eat any oats?”

This exchange of words could well be from a chemistry lecture held by Ndegwa Maina. Maina, a prize-winning university lecturer, teaches the applied chemistry and laboratory work to students of the Master’s Programme in Food Sciences and the Bachelor’s Programme in Food Sciences.

By asking about beta-glucan and oats, Maina is hoping that students put the two things together. In simplified terms, oats contain beta-glucan, an important dietary fibre.

“I ask my students a lot of questions and I use a lot of everyday examples. They help me find out about what they know and arouse their curiosity,” Maina says.

On one course, Maina held an examination right at the start to get the students to familiarise themselves with the course topics and review what they had previously learnt about them.

“No one was failed, but the exam exposed the areas they need to review in order to manage in the course as well as helped me know what to focus on in my teaching.”

Small-scale courses and independent work boost the development of expertise

The acquisition of information and organising phenomena into explorable wholes are two skills students should learn at university.

“These skills are best developed through individual courses that are interconnected through active discussions during contact teaching,” Maina believes.

He helps students gain skills by involving them in problem-solving. On Maina’s courses, students look for information and investigate the mechanisms of chemical reactions as independently as possible. For example, they may determine from scratch how acrylamide is formed in food or what rancidification looks like from the perspective of chemistry.

When students look for solutions by themselves, they will remember what they have learnt. Conducting laboratory experiments on top of that makes it really stick.

“Laboratory work gets students going. Experimentation makes many of them curious, and it’s in the nature of people to want to learn more.”

Actively doing something instead of merely listening keeps the atmosphere of the courses relaxed. Students aren’t hesitant to ask questions and chat in between experiments.

“Amusing examples suit the laboratory well. When I’m illustrating the movement of molecules, I compare it to the dance floor: molecules move about like skilled dancers who know which way to go to under shear force.”

Overtaking the teacher

At times, students only come to a course to get it over with as soon as possible. In these cases, it is important in terms of learning for the teacher to explain the benefits of the course content and how it connects to the student’s field.

“I help students make connections and ensure that they understand how phenomena are linked with the background information they already possess.”

For instance, after learning about the link between beta-glucan and oats, students may wonder about the occurance of the former, or how much people should be ingesting it. Getting answers to such questions helps them establish connections between facts. They learn to remember entire subject areas for a long time.

“Sometimes students approach me after a long break, asking for help with a thesis on a topic I’ve taught them at some point. That’s rewarding. I like motivating students, and I guide them to be better than me.”


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Three questions for Ndegwa Maina

University Lecturer Ndegwa Maina began his studies at the University of Helsinki in 2005. After completing his bachelor’s and master’s degrees, he continued with postgraduate studies and research.

Maina is specialised in the chemistry of carbohydrates. He studies microbes, polysaccharides and food safety, looking for a way to quickly and sustainably grow various types of high-quality food in Africa.

At the University of Helsinki, Maina teaches organic chemistry, structural analysis and laboratory chemistry.

What are the best aspects of the University of Helsinki?

The University of Helsinki is an excellent place for expanding your knowledge. The laboratories and tools are great, allowing you to learn things in practice. Research-based teaching guarantees that students get the most recent research-based knowledge from courses given by experts.

In addition, you are free to make your own choices. If you’re interested in the history of music or a language, you can study it even if it isn’t your field.

What about Helsinki?

Helsinki is continuously becoming more international, so you get by well even coming to study here from abroad. The city offers plenty of activities outside studying. You can get a part-time job, and students have a wide range of hobbyist groups.

The apartments are great and in good condition. Thanks to centralised student housing, students get to live close to each other in the same areas.

Where would you take a friend visiting Helsinki from abroad?

I’d take them to the summer cottage to explore nature and wonder at its purity. We could visit Lake Kuusijärvi in Vantaa, for example. In Finland, good care has been taken of the environment.