Keep informed of the latest scientific breakthroughs – and use them to engage your pupils

At a recent university reunion dinner, a research fellow asked me what I had been doing since graduating. On learning I was a teacher, he asked an insightful question: how do I keep my knowledge of chemistry up to date?

shutterstock 260155340

Source: © Shutterstock

In the headlines: use the latest science news to aid lesson planning, and help pupils understand chemistry’s role in the real world

This prompted me to think more broadly about what can be done to boost pupils’ awareness of current developments in chemistry. When teaching to a specification, particularly for examination, it can be difficult to find space to encourage pupils to keep an eye on all those newsworthy innovations that relate to chemistry.

2018 saw a number of news stories involving the practical application of chemistry, including the directed evolution of enzymes, the discovery of a ‘recipe’ for Ancient Egyptian embalming, the use of artificial intelligence to discover new molecules, and the increasing use of spectroscopic techniques by ‘art detectives’ to uncover fraudulent paintings.

Creating opportunities to link such stories with topics that pupils have already studied can enhance their understanding of the wide-ranging contribution that chemistry makes to society.

Keeping an eye on innovation also benefits teachers. It is a professional development objective and enables us to plan lessons that have contemporary relevance, even if the underlying ideas have been around for decades. It is also good for morale: devoting just a little time to reading about cutting-edge chemistry reminds us why we chose to teach it in the first place. If pupils are going to be passionate about chemistry, it is essential that their teachers already are.

Keep it current

In your class

In your class

Download a Chemistry in the news prompt sheet (as MS Word or pdf).

Little and often

Innovations in chemistry are happening all the time, so strategies for drip-feeding information to pupils can work well. There are several ways to go about this, both in and out of the classroom.

In-lesson approaches

  • Establish a regular ‘chemistry in the news’ slot (perhaps fortnightly or monthly) where an individual or small group of pupils gives a short pre-prepared presentation on a news story involving chemistry. This need take only a small amount of lesson time: five minutes for the presentation and five minutes of class discussion afterwards could work well. Such a task can stretch and challenge pupils, although it may be advisable to check through each presentation before it is delivered. You can download a prompt sheet to help them with the structure (above).
  • For a teacher-directed approach, put up a ‘chemistry in the news’ PowerPoint slide at the start of selected lessons. Use a snappy headline, appropriate image and a few prompt questions to spark discussion. All of Eductation in Chemistry’s science news stories come complete with starter slides to use in this way.

Out-of-lesson approaches

  • Pupils could keep a science scrapbook of relevant and interesting news articles, adding a few lines summarising what the article is about and why it interests them. If there is a school-reward system, such as merits, certificates or house points, this can encourage pupils to get involved.
  • Displaying the latest #ChemMonthly infographic from Compound Interest on the outside of the classroom door informs pupils about recent developments in chemistry before they have even entered the room.
  • Retweeting interesting articles and news items on a departmental Twitter account is a quick way of alerting pupils and colleagues.
  • Establishing a monthly chemistry café can help older pupils engage with current scientific articles. This could work like a book club, but pupils would only be expected to have read a single article (selected by you). You – or perhaps a sixth form pupil – lead the conversation, encouraging pupils to articulate what the piece is about and to discuss the relevance and possible consequences to society of the story in question, as well as links between the chemical ideas in the article and concepts they have studied in lessons. If pupils have read the article beforehand, the session itself need only be 15–20 minutes long, so it may fit into a break or lunchtime. Providing refreshments can create an informal atmosphere distinct from that of a lesson, and really help to encourage attendance!