Jane Essex ponders how refocusing chemistry education could open doors to students with additional educational needs

Jane Essex

Jane Essex

Since the post-war period, science education (along with technology, engineering and maths) has been the focus of successive government intervention, but so far the supply of scientists has failed to meet the demand expressed by employers. The standard response to concerns about poor flow at the end of the supply ‘pipeline’ is to promote greater recruitment to specialist routes. But it’s time we considered a different approach. Rather than focusing on luring in future specialists, should we not reconsider how to make science appeal to a far wider audience and use this to form the basis of a greater breadth of future recruitment?

Today, an increasingly diverse population of learners are being taught the mainstream science curriculum. This principle has gained increasing momentum since Baroness Warnock’s landmark report in 1978. The idea that many more children, with a huge range of special educational needs, should have access to science facilities, including teachers with subject expertise, is the corollary of the inclusion agenda. What a pity this remains, in reality, empty rhetoric.

We need to find a way to reconcile the apparent contradiction between the need to produce high level scientists to meet economic imperatives while also making science genuinely inclusive. Do you remember what attracted you to chemistry? Was it symbolic equations or mole calculations? I think it more likely you were drawn to the delight of experiencing material behaviour in a hands-on manner. My light bulb moment was making plastic sulfur, and being bitterly disappointed when the beautiful smooth strings of sulfur gradually reverted to its brittle yellow form. I then wanted to understand the different molecular arrangements and why the changes had happened, experiencing them first hand made me wish for a more in-depth account. And I think I am in good company – remember Isaac Newton’s apocryphal comment: ‘I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.’

What would happen if we accepted that chemistry education does not have to be based upon ideas about atoms or calculations?

But, for me, a larger set of data on the problems caused by ‘the wrong sort of chemistry’ labels we give some groups of students has been generated by 12 years of running Salters’ Festivals of Chemistry for students with special educational needs. These are aimed at young people who would not normally be offered the chance to attend a competitive event, many of them because of learning difficulties, which is commonly seen as precluding them from enrichment science activities.

The focus of the festivals is hands-on practical chemistry. We expect participants to undertake activities that require some deep thinking and genuine problem solving. Adjustments to the standard festival programme, beyond those for specific physical requirements such as adjustable work surfaces, are principally just reducing the level of literacy required. We don’t omit any of the science, the quantifications and, usually towards the end as an extension activity, considerations of the phenomena at a sub-microscopic level are all still included. The participants succeed magnificently, showing great interest and reliable success, often to their accompanying staff members’ surprise; ‘I didn’t know she could do that!’ is a frequent comment.

It is this quality of response from these currently ‘unconsidered’ candidates for science that leads me to believe the gap between technical chemistry and inclusive chemistry is less unbridgeable than it might initially appear. Rather than seeing these as two opposites it would be more helpful to think of them as a pyramid, with some aspects of chemistry being broadly accessible while also providing a platform for some of the learners to go on and develop the specialist skills sought by industry and academia.

Open door

Source: © iStock

To achieve this we should be campaigning for a broader and much more inclusive notion of science as the foundation for all our learners. What would happen if we accepted that chemistry education does not have to be based upon ideas about atoms or calculations? Bear in mind that Antoine Lavoisier, hailed as the father of modern chemistry, was no atomist. If we were to offer the chance to engage learners in science in a hands-on way, using examples that are relevant to them, we could still provide a secure foundation upon which to build an expert understanding for some. And we could also give a meaningful learning experience to far more children, giving them an enduring understanding of the scientific process and some key scientific ideas.

A curriculum and teaching revolution of this type would be deeply challenging in a climate where measurement of educational ‘value’ through assessment outcomes makes change seem risky. But those of us who have succeeded in grasping the more abstract and challenging concepts in chemistry need to bear in mind that we are in the minority. Of course we will continue to work to ensure the future of our discipline at the highest levels, but it would be preferable for both moral and practical reasons, to ensure chemistry does not retain its elitist label. We have much to gain by re-thinking what chemistry is, and could be in the future, for a truly diverse audience.

Jane Essex is a lecturer in science education at Brunel University, London, UK