Michael Seery discusses how to teach students that won't become chemists

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Most students we see in front of us in school or introductory chemistry courses will not go on to be chemists. In school, students may choose chemistry because they wish to pursue a career in health sciences. At university, students may complete an introductory year of chemistry as part of a general science course, before going on to specialise in another discipline. The numbers here far exceed the numbers of students going on to specialise in chemistry. In the UK, only about five students in a class of 30 studying chemistry at A-level or Higher will pursue a degree in chemistry.

What do the remaining students leave us with? In a wide-ranging and thought-provoking critique of introductory university chemistry courses, George Bodner wrote,

‘the present curriculum, coupled with the mode of presentation that characterizes most large general chemistry courses, often leads to knowledge without understanding [and] produces a system of knowledge that students cannot apply to the world in which they live.’

Chemical literacy

Our chemistry curriculum is failing students and failing society. Passing our courses after a term should mean students leave with some sense of the role of chemistry in society. Imagine what could be achieved if we improved the chemical literacy of the large number of students that pass through our classrooms. Many of the issues facing society – climate change, clean water, clean energy – require an understanding of chemistry and require a political will to tackle them appropriately.

A greater understanding among citizens (and voters) would ensure science is at the forefront of tackling these issues with appropriate funding and international aid. Politics is a game of popularity and we have failed to give citizens the chance to have an informed voice. But they can tell us the electron configuration for sodium.

Chemistry in context

This is the dilemma of chemistry. From our position on the other side of all of the ‘knowledge acquisition’, we know that students need to grasp fundamental principles if they are going to have a meaningful understanding of the chemistry of a particular issue. George includes in his article a quote from a chemistry professor, challenged that his course was boring:

‘It is dull. It is dull to learn, and it is dull to teach. Unfortunately, it is the basic nuts and bolts stuff that must be mastered before anything useful can be accomplished.’

We can all empathise with this viewpoint, but there is an onus on chemistry educators to challenge it.

A perfect approach is context-based learning. Peter Mahaffy has presented a useful technique where students learn about fundamental chemistry through a real world context. The context aims to make the material more tangible (and interesting), rather than dealing with concepts in abstract terms. It relates the atomic world and symbolic representations (equations) with the macroscopic world students can relate to.

I have used his ice-core analysis visualisation when teaching students about isotopes. It’s a great example of a context that is of great importance to wider society. Peter’s other visualisations include climate change, carbon cycle and ocean acidification, among others. In addition, an entire introductory chemistry curriculum has been developed in the form of a textbook using the context-based approach. Imagine what additional useful and applicable knowledge graduates of these modules leave with.

And for bonus points, it’s a lot more interesting for the specialist chemists, too.

Michael Seery is a reader in chemistry education at the University of Edinburgh

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