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Chemistry International

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Volume 37, Issue 4

Issues

A Perspective on Chemistry Education

Javier Garcia Martinez / Peter Atkins
Published Online: 2015-07-02 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/ci-2015-0403

One of the most important and strategic activities that IUPAC carries out is to promote the use of best practice and the most effective tools for chemistry education. That education includes public understanding and appreciation of the roles and achievements of chemistry, especially among the young. The Committee on Chemistry Education (CCE) is one of most popular and active bodies within IUPAC. In addition to its titular and associate members, numerous national representatives regularly take part in its meetings, which are among the best attended in every IUPAC General Assembly. The Union, through CCE, promotes best practice in chemistry education through the organization of international conferences and workshops, by providing guidance to countries that ask for assistance with their chemistry curricula, and by promoting an understanding and appreciation of the subject through programs such as the Young Ambassadors for Chemistry and the Flying Chemists.

But what is the point of all this effort? Why does chemistry education figure so prominently in many minds, playing a role in chemistry that is not mirrored so exhaustively in other sciences? Why is it regarded with suspicion by some and ignored by others? Does it have any successes? Should it be encouraged or put quietly to sleep? Are developments in technology, as well as changes in attitude, about to transform it or render it obsolete? These are some of the questions that arise in academic circles, in some cases leading the abolition of chemistry education departments and in others resulting in seriously effective and seemingly successful revolutions.

Chemistry education is a broad area of study and research, with several journals and conferences devoted to it and hundreds of professionals whose main job is to investigate the most effective ways to communicate and acquire the key concepts of chemistry. Thanks to their effort, and despite “chemistry education” not being an exact science, there is a solid and large body of data on several key areas, such as the detection and avoidance of misconceptions, how to make the teaching laboratory and homework more effective, and how to use ever-developing technology to help visualize concepts and procedures.

A major task of chemistry is to provide a bridge between the abstract and the real.

Despite all the impressive work done in recent decades and the evidence supporting better ways to teach chemistry, it is disappointing to see how little has changed in the classroom. General Chemistry (Chemistry 101) and many introductory courses are taught in large rooms, sometimes with hundreds of students passively listening to a single person who repeats, with minor variation, the same lessons as his or her colleagues everywhere else in the world. From atoms to molecules, from chemical bonding to materials, nearly all chemistry text books have the same structure, and even include very similar examples and illustrations. Researchers in chemistry education have provided clear evidence questioning the effectiveness of this passive way to teach chemistry, and against many of the examples presented in chemistry textbooks (which in some cases propagate widespread misconceptions). There are plenty of data in favor of a more student-oriented and personalized approach based on the particular background, skills, and interest of each individual student. Doing this with a large number of students in the classroom is a real challenge, but even when small class sizes allow for better practice, the more traditional method is still widely used.

Part of the reason why many chemistry educators do not use the best modern teaching techniques is because they are simply not aware of the work done by their colleagues on chemistry education. Few chemistry instructors, we suspect, read papers or attend conferences on chemistry education where they could learn about effective ways to improve their teaching skills.

One reason for the high profile of chemistry education in academic circles is chemistry’s mixture of the abstract and the everyday. The everyday is all around us, and chemistry deals with the tangibles that give texture, flavor, odor, rigidity, fluidity, etc. to the world: we can touch chemistry just as it touches us in our everyday activities from the cradle to the grave. Yet its explanations are in terms that, to a newcomer to the subject, and certainly to the general public, seem abstract. Every explanation in chemistry includes abstract concepts such as atoms, molecules, electrons, and energy, all of which on first encounter seem remote from what they are used to explain. A major task of chemistry is to provide a bridge between the abstract and the real. And because the seemingly abstract underworld of atoms is not within the normal horizon of familiarity, there is an opportunity for misconception to undermine understanding. The task of chemistry is to displace, rather than instill, these misconceptions.

The other bridge that our students must learn to cross spans between the mathematical and the physical. Chemistry is, and in part receives its power from being, a component of the physical sciences, where initially vague intuitions are given a mathematical spine that enables them to stand up to quantitative investigation. Many students arrive in the subject expecting to literally mess about with test tubes. While many fine chemists have made their achievements with only rudimentary resort to mathematics, we instructors are obliged to show our students how to express and develop concepts quantitatively. We have to build that bridge between the physical and unpalatable mathematics so that our students perceive and appreciate the extraordinary power that comes from this union. A quote from a book by the late Donald McQuarrie got it exactly right, reminding us that, if you intend to give up mathematics as a chemist, stand still and listen: you will hear the sound of doors closing.

Chemistry Education: Best Practices, Opportunities, and Trends is a collection of essays co-edited by one of us (JGM), with a foreword written by the other (PWA) [1]. Our goal is to present, in a single book, the extensive but not widely known work done in chemistry education by experts from around the world. Although the book is not formally an IUPAC project, many of its contributors are closely associated with the CCE and have served on it. The book is organized in 28 chapters, covering a wide range of topics. It contains practical advice, numerous techniques to improve teaching skills and examples of the result of using different teaching methods, and a large bibliographical resource. This book aims to help all those interested in communicating or learning chemistry more effectively learn about the main conclusions produced by years of research on Chemistry Education. There is more than one way to skin a cat, and each instructor must find his or her own way to teach, but ignoring the lessons that years of research have produced reduces our ability to communicate, inspire and promote chemistry and makes our work more frustrating and inefficient.

Technology is radically changing not only the way students access information, but also how they learn, create content, and interact with each other and with their teachers. Technology is especially relevant in chemistry education, as it helps to visualize complex concepts and structures, critically important skills, especially for visual thinkers. A significant part of this book is devoted to the role, the opportunities, and also the challenges that technology presents. Different visualization technologies, including those allowing the embedding of virtual reality into our “real experience”, are presented and discussed in detail, including some examples and resources.

The laboratory has always been an important part of chemistry education. There are now plenty of data, collected from hundreds of educational institutions, that identify the most effective techniques for integrating this practical work into chemistry courses, helping students to correct misconceptions, as well as to grasp new concepts and solidify old ones.

In both high profile meetings and informal conversations, science and education are universally accepted as part of the solution to virtually every challenge we face. From climate change to water scarcity, better technologies and a better public understanding of the problems are critical. However, many countries struggle with the way STEM subjects are taught, perceived, and learned. In some cases, insufficient funding is part of the problem, while in others it is a lack of infrastructure or the capacity to attract the best and the brightest. Research shows that the most important factor in improving the quality of education and the capacity of students to grasp new concepts and develop new abilities is the teacher. When educators know and practice the best teaching techniques, in addition to having a solid knowledge of their field and good communication skills, the quality of education increases significantly.

As instructors, we are aware that there is rarely a clear-cut ‘right’ explanation of a phenomenon or property. Chemistry is a multi-dimensional tug-of-war, with different teams of properties pulling in different directions. Atomic radius might be one team, ionization energy another; entropy might play a role, and what about the effect of solvation? How do we train our students to make plausible judgments about which is likely to be the “winning team”? There is a strong positive lurking beneath this difficulty: judging conflicting influences, which we try to instill in our students either explicitly or unconsciously, is exactly the kind of skill that people in commerce and industry often require, which is perhaps one reason why our students are often well equipped to take jobs where chemistry plays no ostensible role.

IUPAC is approaching its centenary. Chemistry has changed hugely in the last 100 years, but in most cases a chemist from the early twentieth century would feel at home in a classroom of the twenty-first. We are pleased that IUPAC continues to put great emphasis on chemistry education, and hope that this book will contribute not only to its efforts but also to the practice of individual instructors around the world.

Reference

  • 1. E. Serrano Torregrosa, J. Garcia Martinez (ed.) Chemistry Education: Best Practices, Opportunities, and Trends, Wiley-VCH (2015)Google Scholar

Javier Garcia Martinez < > is professor at the University of Alicante, Spain where he leads the Molecular Nanotechnology Laboratory and conducts world-class academic research on nanomaterials for energy and environmental applications. He regularly teaches at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. Engaged in IUPAC since 2006, he is currently a member of the Inorganic Chemistry Division, the Interdivisional subcommitte on Materials Chemistry, the Committee on Chemistry Education, and is an elected member of the Bureau.

Peter Atkins < > was an Oxford professor of chemistry and fellow of Lincoln College until his retirement in 2007. He has written numerous major textbooks, including Physical Chemistry, Inorganic Chemistry, Molecular Quantum Mechanics, Physical Chemistry or the Life Sciences, and Elements of Physical Chemistry. Until 2005, he chaired the IUPAC Committee on Chemistry Education.

About the article

Published Online: 2015-07-02

Published in Print: 2015-07-01


Citation Information: Chemistry International, Volume 37, Issue 4, Pages 8–9, ISSN (Online) 1365-2192, ISSN (Print) 0193-6484, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/ci-2015-0403.

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[1]
Javier Garcia Martinez
Chemistry International, 2016, Volume 38, Number 3-4

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