Vol. 24, No. 1
and Education: A Case for Joint Projects
Education merely a subfield of the discipline of chemistry? This article
contends that chemistry is a complex and ill-defined field that requires
considerable skill and effort to teach and learn, and requires the joint
efforts of chemistry education specialists and content specialists in
all fields working together to analyze the demands of learning chemistry
to find better ways forward.
is a syndrome pervading our discipline that "people interested in chemical
education" occupy a specific compartment, in a corresponding way to
those who we label polymer chemists, or organic chemists, or thermodynamicists
or surface chemists. This, I believe, does a disservice to both the
chemistry-related education enterprise and the discipline of chemistry
is minimal value in chemical educationists restricting their reflections
and research findings within their own community. The people who wear
this label make up a very small fraction of those engaged in teaching
education should not comprise one compartment of the discipline of chemistry,
because it transcends all such compartments. I have been to myriads
of conferences on chemistry education, and invariably I find chemistry
educationists talking with chemistry educationists but nary an
organic chemist, a polymer chemist, a synthetic macromolecular chemist,
or an NMR spectroscopist listening to their significant findings.
And then they (the chemistry educationists) publish their work in chemistry
education research articles, which are read by so few outside of that
Such a waste of talent and effort!
the point, let me ask how many chemists intend to go to the International
Conference on Chemical Education to be held August 2002 in Beijing?
I'd love to hear from those organizing international conferences on,
say, carbohydrates, callixarene chemistry, ESR spectroscopy, computational
chemistry, environmental chemistry, analytical chemistry, or any other
specialty. What fraction of time do they expect to devote to education
about their field of chemistry? Experience tells me not muchbut
how I'd love to be wrong!
I don't question the value of chemists talking among their own kind.
This communication is one of the ways that the field advances. Another
way is the development of new generations of practicing chemists, as
well as the development of more knowledgeable engineers, lawyers, biologists,
and agricultural and environmental scientists.
another, commonly overlooked, way that barriers to advancement are removed
is an increase of the level of appreciation of the science enterprise
by the public, including politicians, who give us the go-ahead to spend
their money as an investment in the quality of life of our children
Hear It for the Teachers
Chemistry is a complex and ill-defined field that requires considerable
skill and effort to teach, except perhaps for those students who are
so talented and motivated as to go on to postgraduate work in chemistry.
This fact is being borne out by myriad research studies that diagnose
chemistry students' less-than- adequate understanding of a wide range
of topics, at all levels of chemistrywith the same misconceptions
common among the students of many countries.
and Chemistry Education
Following the report of the ad hoc Education Strategy Development
Committee, the educational role of IUPAC has been enhanced and considerable
responsibility assigned to a new Committee on Chemistry Education
(CCE), whose terms of reference include addressing matters related
to the public appreciation of chemistry. CCE includes in its membership
one Associate Member from each of the IUPAC Divisions; a policy
designed to improve the engagement of each Division with educational
of Understanding Chemistry
To demonstrate the complexity of chemistry, and the challenges involved
in educating the public about the field, it might be helpful to distinguish
some of the ways, which I call dimensions, involved in an understanding
(knowing that . . . ) knowledge: the "facts" of chemistry, which
might include, for example, knowing that fluorine is the most electronegativeelement
(and presumes that the meaning of electronegativeis known).
(knowing how . . . ) knowledge: the skills and techniques of chemistry,
which might include, for example, knowing how to purify by recrystallization,
or how to calculate an equilibrium vapor pressure at a given temperature
from that at another temperature.
the role of modeling in the progress of chemistry, and recognizing
that chemistry concerns people and their imagination and ideas as
much as it does the behavior of substances. This
concept includes progression to a degree of comfortableness with various
models in place of a dualistic right/wrong approach to theories.
ability to switch between the macro world of bulk properties and their
continuous variation, the discontinuous submicroscopic world of
atoms, molecules and ions, and the intramolecular world of bonds and
electron distributions. And at the submicroscopic level, we sometimes
use a single-particle picture (when we consider symmetry and polarity)
and sometimes we need to use a many-particle picture (when we consider
diffusion and competing reaction pathways).
nature and quality of images one might have at the submicroscopic
level. To take an elementary example, I would claim that a three-dimensional
dynamic crowded image of liquid water with implied intermolecular
interactions is preferable to the typical textbook two-dimensional,
static picture with gross misrepresentations of the spacing between
ability to understand the language of chemistry. This idea includes
the massive demands of our symbolic representations: chemical equations,
numerous different types of structural representation, reaction mechanisms
etc. And then there is technical jargon used only in chemistry, as
well as everyday terms that have different meanings when used in the
chemistry context (such as spontaneous, saturated, property, and dispersion).
If you need convincing about the problems faced by a novice in communicating
through the language of chemistry, I refer you to almost any entry
in the IUPAC "Gold Book" in which the glossary definitions are written
for the practicing chemist (as indeed they should be), but are unintelligible
to all others except advanced chemistry students.
The ability to operate at multiple levels of explanation, rationalization,
and prediction. For example, the bonding in a molecule can be
considered at a number of different levelsall perhaps useful
for various purposes. Similarly, acid-base theory and prediction of
the outcomes of perturbing systems at chemical equilibrium can be
modeled at different levels.
- The richness
of one’s memory bank of episodes;
i.e., images of phenomena that have been experienced. Examples might
include demonstration of the critical point of diethyl ether, a measurement
of optical rotation, or see-ing electrolysis of acidified water. All
of these can make our understandings richer than a memory of words
transmitted from lecturer or textbook.
The ability to distinguish between demonstrable knowledge and arbitrary
example the "insolubility" of calcium carbonate is demonstrable, while
the value given to the standard reduction potential of Fe3+(aq)
to Fe2+(aq) is arbitrary.
Appreciation of the sources of our knowledge. Put another way,
I would claim that we are richer for knowing why we should believe
what we believe; i.e., the experimental evidence on which it is based.
Try asking your students, even the advanced ones, why they believe
that all matter is constituted of atoms.
Knowing what we do not know. This is perhaps an underestimated
factor in the business of knowing, contradictory as it may sound.
Appreciation of the role and place of chemistry in society, at
the local and international levels.
Understanding what chemists do.
Interlinking of one's learning, rather than compartmentalized knowledge.
Chemical education research is increasingly pointing to the importance
of links between knowledge "bits" in the same topic (including between
theory and practical experience), to knowledge in other chemistry
topics, to knowledge in other disciplines such as physics or biochemistry,
and to real-world applications.
Pervading these dimensions of knowing chemistry, there are myriad concepts
that are not easy to grasp, and whose understanding can be expected
to grow only with experience. For example, there is the all-pervasive
(and evasive) concept of energy, ranging all the way from calorimetry,
through notions such as bond energy, vibrational and rotational excitation,
stability of reaction mixtures, equilibrium, entropy as probabilistic
distribution of energy among possible states, to prediction of structures
by energy minimization calculations.
your students to explain where the energy has gone when we put a Bunsen
burner under a beaker of water (or turn on the electric kettle). Challenge
your students to explain why the average temperature of the earth is
about 35° C warmer than it would
be in the absence of our atmosphere, even though the net energy flux
is zero. If they resort to notions such as carbon dioxide molecules
"trapping" energy, how do they explain that the temperature is not continuously
rising (at fixed greenhouse gas concentrations)?
Chemistry is Not a Linear Process
Textbooks, of course, must arrange their content in a linear fashion,
but has this seduced us into thinking that students learn in the same
sequence? My view of learning is that it is a rather sporadic process
with leaps of learning along one or more of the above-mentioned dimensions
in sometimes unpredictable ways.
Some of the dimensions listed above are unique to chemistry, making
learning chemistry different from learning about other disciplines.
As well, the extent to which the subject matter depends on each of these
dimensions presumably varies from topic to topic. For example, the demands
of learning about thermodynamics are different from those of learning
There is a growing awareness that effective teaching about any one topic
requires reflective analysis, and perhaps classroom research, to analyze
the topic in terms of the particular demands that it puts on the student.
And when we understand these demands, we can transform our expert knowledge
(perhaps expressible in the language we use to communicate with other
experts) into forms of knowledge that the student can make sense of.
Knowing ways of doing this is referred to as pedagogical content
knowledge; the label recognizes the interaction between the expert's
content knowledge and generalizable pedagogical knowledge to arrive
at this sort of knowing.
challenge for educational researchers and developers, working
in concert with practicing chemists, is to devise and prove ways
of teaching the "truth, " with all of its complications in real
is currently a tendency to cope with the difficulties of learning (and
teaching) topics in chemistry by simplifying and idealizing the chemistry
and its situations. I
invite readers to find a raft of articles in the Journal of Chemical
Education by Stephen J. Hawkes in which he points out how this strategy
can, and does, lead to wrong chemistry. For example if we use concentrations
rather than activities, and ignore speciation complexities, as we do
at the introductory college level of education, we can predict solubilities
of salts which are wrong by several orders of magnitude. But, at least
so far as textbooks indicate, we continue to teach this wrong chemistry
because it is too difficult otherwise. One challenge for educational
researchers and developers, working in concert with practicing chemists,
is to devise and prove ways of teaching the "truth, " with all of its
complications in real situations.
Perhaps we should be more strategic in our design of teaching, recognizing
that each topic has its special demands?
leads me to a suggestion concerning IUPAC projects that demand joint
consideration by the subject-matter experts and education experts with
a sound understanding of the subject matter. What about, for example,
a project entitled "The challenges of teaching about physical chemistry"?
this is in two senses contrary to what I have been saying: firstly,
it covers such a broad area, and might imply that the challenges of
teaching quantum chemistry are the same as the challenges of teaching,
say, about phase diagrams; and secondly, it implies that the challenge
is on the teaching component of the teaching-learning process only.
The challenges for teaching and learning in a particular field are,
of course, closely related: What presents the greatest challenge for
learning also presents the greatest challenge for teaching. So let me
make some other suggestions with regard to the challenges of teaching
and learning about:
in aqueous solution
mechanisms in organic chemistry
modeling of pharmaceuticals
list, of course, is endless. And the case is made for only one type
of joint proposal involving people from the various IUPAC divisions
and others whose particular concern is the education process.
Different challenges arise when we consider the task of raising the
public appreciation of chemistry, which has been given enhanced status
in IUPAC's mission.
Let me conclude by saying that this article represents my personal thoughts
as an individual, and although I was a titular member of the Committee
on Teaching of Chemistry for eight years, I do not claim to be representing
the views of that former committee
(Bob) Bucat is associate professor in the Department of Chemistry
at the University of Western Australia, in Perth.