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Chemistry International

The News Magazine of IUPAC

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Volume 36, Issue 4


Scoping the Future of Education in Chemistry

Stephen Matlin
Published Online: 2014-07-17 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/ci.2014.36.4.28

New technologies are bringing open access to knowledge to an ever-expanding fraction of the world’s learners, while research is providing new understanding of how people learn at different ages and stages of their development. These twin forces are reshaping the nature of education in the 21st century and present a profound challenge to those concerned with education in chemistry. Continuing advances in the range of computer applications that can help to explain and illustrate chemistry principles, structures and phenomena; a myriad of internet sites offering course materials on chemistry-related topics; and new mobile phone applications under development promise to provide unrivalled opportunities to access information and visualize chemical structures and experiments in any location and even while on the move. While offering unprecedented opportunities for learners, these developments require comprehensive rethinking of the roles of the chemistry teacher, the classroom, and the laboratory. Nevertheless, one factor remains constant: teachers and learners require support materials to provide them with reliable, up-to-date knowledge, explanations, examples and illustrations.

These challenges formed the background to a consultation co-convened in Namur 14-15 January 2014 by CHEMRAWN and the International Organization for Chemical Sciences in Development (IOCD), in which a dozen invited experts from around the world reviewed current developments in education in chemistry and considered some critical future needs and advised IOCD (an IUPAC affiliate) on its potential future role in the field.

The meeting was opened by IOCD’s Executive Director, Alain Krief (Emeritus Professor in Organic Chemistry, University of Namur) and Leiv Sydnes (Past President of IUPAC and current chair of CHEMRAWN). It was noted that chemistry was often failing to gain an appropriate level of attention in educational curricula and was being neglected, for example, as a subject in web sciences. It was also felt to be important to see the role of chemistry education beyond the school, encouraging greater public understanding and more informed and balanced treatment of topics in the media. Beyond traditional classroom teaching, chemistry learning needed to be supported through informal approaches and through learning by doing, with the creative aspects of the subject being stressed.

Stephen Matlin (Adjunct Professor, Institute of Global Health Innovation, Imperial College London; Head of Strategic Development, IOCD) provided an introduction to IOCD; a perspective on global changes that set the scene for the discussions; and IOCD’s ambition for the outcomes of the meeting.

Created at UNESCO in 1981 and registered as an NGO in Belgium, IOCD has a record over more than 30 years of supporting chemists in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) in collaborative programs with high-income countries (HICs). IOCD’s work now focuses in three areas: chemistry for better health; chemistry for a better environment; and capacity building in chemistry education.1

Reflecting on the value of education in chemistry, Matlin observed that the substantial benefits from the chemical sciences in terms of wealth and health had been very unevenly distributed. Technical progress (a combination of technological advances and their diffusion and uptake in different countries and the capacities of the countries themselves to conduct and apply research) is a crucial factor globally.2 LMICs cannot do without homegrown capacity for scientific research and technological know-how: increasingly, a nation’s wealth will depend on the knowledge it accrues and how it applies it, rather than the resources it controls.3 The uneven distribution of general literacy and scientific literacy around the world remains a major challenge4 and science curricula need to be reinvented to harmonize with changes in the practice of science/technology, an information age, and the quality of life.5

In the case of chemistry literacy, challenges include how to make good quality, relevant chemistry education available, accessible and affordable to all; how chemistry education must change, with regard to modes of teaching and learning and with regard to its relevance not only to the latest scientific knowledge and theories, but also to the wider world of work in general and to the need to support and enable social responsibility by all people; and the often neglected question of how to address a range of gender issues in teaching and learning.

Another challenge in the changing world of chemistry education includes the problem of how to provide an education in experimentation, since chemistry is an experimental science which uses observations to create and test theories and to help train the learner in deductive reasoning; and experimentation develops the practical skills of the future chemist or chemical technologist.

Figure 1. Pyramidal model of stakeholders in chemistry education

Matlin emphasized that chemistry education in the 21st century needs the engagement of five critical groups of stakeholders, with the learners of chemistry being supported by inputs from teachers, researchers, industry, and policy makers (Figure 1). He highlighted the persistent challenge of getting the results of research on chemistry education into policy and practice.

One common thread running through all the modes of education, whether it is the textbook in the classroom or texts that can be mailed in the post or downloaded from the internet, is the need for materials to support teachers and learners, to provide them with reliable, up-to-date knowledge, explanations, examples, and illustrations. In the digital age, the support materials need to take the form of a knowledge base—a set of digital files and resources that can be accessed through computers and mobile devices using the internet and mobile networks. IOCD is working to develop such a comprehensive chemistry knowledge base (ChemKnowBase), which will be available on open access to teachers and learners of chemistry everywhere.

Leiv Sydnes summarized CHEMRAWN’s strategy6 and the work of IUPAC, emphasising IUPAC’s philosophy that “we have to act globally if we want to move forward collectively.” Mei-Hung Chiu (Professor of Science Education, Graduate Institute of Science Education, National Taiwan Normal University; Chair, IUPAC Committee on Chemistry Education, CCE)7 gave an overview of the work of IUPAC and the CCE and then described the work of her own Institute in the field of “augmented reality.” This was supporting the teaching of chemistry in Taiwan high schools by providing new ways of visualizing complex chemical entities such as DNA and linking chemistry into the wider world through the use of mobile phone technology, with applications in field trips and experiments as well as in the classroom.

Stefano Cerri (Professor of Informatics; Deputy Vice-President for International Relations, Montpellier University), spoke on “Distance learning and web science: Empowering human connected communities.” He outlined projects undertaken by his group in Montpellier, including successive “AGORA” programs8 (a shared desktop approach) that had overcome spatial isolation and enabled scientists and educators to communicate and collaborate effectively over great distances. He stressed the important roles played by teachers as champions, helpers, and guides, ensuring the transformation for the learners of data from information, to knowledge, to competence.

Gary Molander (Professor of Chemistry, University of Pennsylvania) surveyed the rapidly developing field of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) in Chemistry. The range and level of chemistry courses offered in MOOCs varies greatly. As yet the business model remains unclear, since the courses have cost many millions of dollars to develop and mount, but on average only about 4% of those viewing courses actually complete them. Other challenges include how to arrange assessment and certification.9

John Bradley (RADMASTE, School of Education, University of the Witwatersrand) spoke about the microscale science kits that RADMASTE has developed to help meet the challenge of widening access to experimental chemistry and other sciences.10 These low-cost, versatile kits are especially suitable for use where budgets, supplies and facilities are limited, as they use very small quantities of reagents and minimize problems of waste disposal. It was noted, however, that the effectiveness with which teachers can exploit such kits is limited by their knowledge of chemistry and the proposed ChemKnowBase project could assist in meeting their needs.

Alain Krief explained the concepts underlying ChemKnowBase, being developed by IOCD as an online knowledge base within ChemKnowCore, a suite of interrelated resources to support teaching and learning in chemistry. As well as ChemKnowBase, ChemKnowCore will include a chemistry dictionary, experiments, courses, research accounts, games, and links to other useful sites. ChemKnowBase will provide a detailed, in-depth, and comprehensive coverage of the field of chemistry, available as a freely accessible online resource that teachers can draw on in developing their lecture notes for specific courses and that students can use to further explain and exemplify the curriculum elements they need to learn. ChemKnowBase is initially being developed as a university-level online resource, but it is planned that there will also be versions at the school level and for the public understanding of science.

Christa Jansen (Head of School Sponsorship, Merck, Darmstadt) summarized her unit’s work in the Darmstadt region to provide support to schools at primary and secondary levels in teaching chemistry and stimulating interest in students to learn chemistry. Initiatives included provision of materials from Merck’s extensive catalogue, assistance with projects and visits to Merck industrial R&D laboratories as well as to “Junior Lab”—multi-university/Merck cooperative centres attended by up to 3500 pupils per year, where students can conduct experiments themselves. Merck also offers awards, prizes and lectures, assists teachers in developing experimental learning both in the classroom and in out-of-school settings and organizes an annual conference for about 150 teachers.11

Other contributors to the discussions included Henning Hopf (University Professor, Institute of Organic Chemistry, Technical University Braunschweig), Goverdhan Mehta (National Research Professor, Hyderabad University, India), Chris Stevens (Professor, Faculty of Bioscience Engineering, Gent University) and Niceas Schamp (former Secretary-General, Royal Flemish Chemical Society and first chair of the Scientific Committee of the EU’s INTAS program). The importance of connectivities within the branches of chemistry and with the sciences generally was stressed. “Learning through connectivity” was an important transition for chemistry education to make in the 21st century and was a field where IOCD could make a distinctive contribution. Chemistry should always be placed in the context of its applications—which cover a vast range from the chemistry of life to energy, renewable materials, the environment, food and nutrition, and much else—and chemistry education must be framed by an understanding of who are the learners and what is the purpose of their learning.

It was recommended that IOCD should form a Working Group in education that would integrate some of its existing programs and incorporate ChemKnowCore/ChemKnowBase as a central new element. ChemKnowBase must integrate experimentation into the resource materials developed, so that teachers and learners can understand and gain experience in the practical art of conducting experiments and in the use of experimental observations to test and validate theories and explore new knowledge.

A further area that the Working Group should consider is to greatly extend the existing information base on the IOCD website to provide linkages to high quality open access external resource materials that support teaching and learning in chemistry, providing an invaluable resource for the chemistry education community globally. Existing chemistry resource materials on web sites are highly scattered and it is not always easy for the user to locate them or to evaluate their quality. Similarly, there could be a collection of information about industry-school initiatives such as the Merck school sponsorship program.

IOCD and IUPAC have shared interests in strengthening the learning of chemistry and a wider understanding of the subject among the general public and should pursue opportunities to collaborate and to jointly promote the field.

Stephen Matlin < > is adjunct professor in the Institute of Global Health Innovation, Imperial College, London, UK, and is a member of the governing board of IOCD.


About the article

Published Online: 2014-07-17

Published in Print: 2014-07-01

Citation Information: Chemistry International, Volume 36, Issue 4, Pages 28–30, ISSN (Online) 1365-2192, ISSN (Print) 0193-6484, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/ci.2014.36.4.28.

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