Kristy Turner finds out what students really think when they hear the word 'chemistry'

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This week I have been starting chemistry conversations with my classes using the Chemistry World interactive, developed using results from the recent RSC public attitudes to chemistry survey. 

I have conversations about chemistry every day of my working life, teaching students from age 11 through to adults. However, teachers very rarely pause to find out what our pupils conjure up in their minds when we say the word 'chemistry'. 

Questions for the class

There are various questions asked in the interactive although the same information is conveyed even when different responses are chosen. The first question is 'what do you think of when you hear "chemistry"?' with the three options being science, school or medicine. I expected the answer to the first question to be 'school' for most of the students in my classes, given that they were sat in a school chemistry lesson, but it was interesting to see how their views changed with their age. 

The youngest students mostly answered 'science' to this first question and the older students nearly all answered 'school'. Of course the older ones are focused on their exams at the moment so this association is perhaps not surprising. As a teacher, I wonder if that is a positive or negative association, whether years of chemistry education have closed their minds to chemistry being 'science' and all about discovery and made them only associate it with exams. 

Further discussion in a group aiming for medical school brought out a frustration about the seemingly industrially focused A-level when their interests lie mainly in pharmaceutical and biological areas.  

The pupils weren't really surprised that people thought chemists worked in pharmacies and they lay all the blame for this on the branding of a certain chain of high street 'chemists'. They also decided that chemists take themselves too seriously because they didn't seem to have a clue how people viewed them. 

The interactive proved to be a good stimulus for a discussion of how the word 'chemical' is used in the media and this is something I will certainly be exploring again in more depth. 

Insights into pupils’ perceptions 

I had coincidentally set some cover work at the start of the academic year, asking Year 8  about their views of chemistry and after using the interactive with my classes I was prompted to look over this again. I had originally set it as a convenient piece of work that could be done by a non-specialist, while I recuperated from an operation, but it has given me useful insights into my pupils' thoughts. 

We may be tempted to think of our pupils as empty vessels waiting to be filled with knowledge and skills, but each arrives at our lessons with their own ideas drawn from a variety of social contexts. Exploring more about this means I can bring new contexts into their experiences in school and broaden their horizons. 

I’ll now use this discussion activity alongside my written work at the start of Year 7 and 8 to set a tone of challenging assumptions about chemists and chemistry. So next time you have an opportunity to pause on the hamster wheel of syllabus delivery, I urge you to start some chemistry conversations with your classes, they might surprise you. 

I’d love to hear how you get on – tweet us using the hashtag #talkaboutchemistry.

Learn more about the results of the RSC's public attitudes to chemistry survey in EiC's feature

Kristy Turner is a teacher and teacher fellow, splitting her time between Bolton School Boys’ Division and the University of Manchester