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Talk Chemistry


Science abuse

During the holidays you may have been to see 'Brainiac Live' at the Palace Theatre in London. This letter from Paul McCrory has been discussed in several places on the internet:   

What kind of example is set by the organisers of the largest STEM engagement event in the UK [The Big Bang] when they book 'Brainiac Live - Science Abuse' as a headline show? What possessed STEMNET and the ASE to think that collaborating in a ticket promotion of Brainiac Live's recent West End debut was a good idea?

Faked demonstrations. Mistakes in basic science. A disregard for copycat risks. A counter-productive desperation to 'make science fun'. A profound lack of passion for science. Are these really qualities with which these organisations want to associate themselves?   

The biggest irony of Brainiac Live being booked or promoted by STEM engagement organisations is that it is self-evidently written and performed by people who refuse to believe that science is interesting. This is a capital crime in science communication. 

I've written an open letter of concern explaining my criticisms in more detail.

Several people have replied to Paul on Talk Chemistry. First to respond was David Craig :   

Brainiac Live is entertainment, not science. And 'nobody ever went broke by overestimating public taste.'

I have no problem with using crazy fun to get attention, or draw in an audience. Star Trek makes a good introduction to astronomy, and science jokes don't have to be 'correct' science. But we know these are not science.

A little Brainiac is OK as part of a balanced diet, but should come with a health warning. Perhaps by exposing the fakery afterwards, as a condition of booking.

A-level student Ross Arthur had this to say:      

I saw the show last week and I'm afraid to say that I agree wholeheartedly with the concerns raised. The show demonstrated a total lack of regard for the subject matter and even as an A-level student I noticed several instances in which the demonstration or explanations were totally incorrect. The letter from Paul McCrory is bang on and I have detailed some of my particular gripes below.   

One of the main problems I had was that many of the demonstrations were staged. Actors pretending to be given electric shocks from an 'electric fence'. A pyrotechnic charge allegedly triggered by building up static electricity looked suspiciously like it was triggered from offstage. 'Rockets' supposedly spinning a chair were little more than sparklers. Now I accept that there must be limitations when working on stage but I felt it was a great shame that they had to resort to faking demonstrations.   

There were also instances in which I, as a mere student, was concerned with the safety of the demonstrations. The entire section with the electric fence was rather worrying - the actors pretended to hook up a car battery to a chain link fence then proceeded to touch the fence and pretend to be shocked. The scene in which the actor pretended to dip a finger in liquid nitrogen was almost beyond belief.   

Finally the whole premise - 'science abuse' - was rather worrying. To me it implied that the only way in which science can be fun is by messing around in this rather juvenile style. As if understanding how and why things happen is boring. Having been lucky enough to experience the Royal Institution's Christmas Lectures and other fantastic science shows I happen to feel the exact opposite is true.   

While watching the show I did wonder if I was being too harsh and purely as an entertainment show it was really rather good. As someone with a passion for science though I really struggled to enjoy it. The idea of a fun and lighthearted science show for kids is great but in this instance I felt the execution was very poor.


Solubility tables

Debbie Wong from the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, Australia, posted this question to our group on LinkedIn:

I was wondering: is there an easier way for students to learn the solubility table apart from memorising it? I guess you could let them do practicals but eventually they still have to remember them for exams. I understand you could categorise them and use mnemonics to make it easier to remember. However, there could be other ways. Please help!

Soyfur Miah responded:  

As you said, practical work will help. There are fairly solid explanations for solubility rules terms of thermodynamics but for beginning students this is usually just confusing. Practice makes you closer to perfect!

Dan Branan supported memorisation:

I've had some success with introducing mnemonics and the like. However, the main goal is to remember the rules, and I always like to be up-front with my students about the fact that there are just some things you need to have available for ready recall. I think it's more useful to sell them on the idea that you are building towards something much more interesting and that they need some of these kernels of knowledge in their heads to get there. That way, they don't see the memorisation of the solubility rules (or whatever) as the end goal.

Richard Jarman joined the debate:  

Is there any point to memorising these rules? I see none. Much more relevant to be able to apply the rules to predict solubility of given substances. Over time, they become internalised. Solubility is really a complex business; beyond identifying the factors that influence it, I find it virtually impossible to be able to predict solubility.

Aaron DeBuhr preferred applying the rules to remembering them:

My first argument would be that memorisation is the lowest level of Bloom's taxonomy. Students would be better served being given a table and shown how to apply it.

I assume in high school chemistry that the solubility rules get used to predict possible precipitation reactions. If that's all they're going to do, give them the rules.

Secondly, I have never seen two textbooks give the same rules. At the end of the day the goal is applying information.

Claude-Bernard Paultre had some practical advice:  

The easiest way (for my students) is to let them have their examination with the table or a part of it, or to lead them to the answer and help them understand the logic behind the chemistry. Having continuous testing and reducing the clues over time could work.

Each student is different. It is always a challenge to adapt oneself to them. Those ideas might or might not work in your case. You should try to understand their interests and use it to get their attention: we learn better and are able to make bigger sacrifices when we learn with passion and are always looking for other interesting things.

The discussion continues.