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Vol. 26 No. 6
November-December 2004

The Future of Chemistry Education

Istanbul is a 2600-year old city, former capital of the Byzantine and Ottoman empires, and a melting pot for civilizations and cultures. Today, Istanbul is a world leader in scientific and cultural activities. It should therefore be no surprise that the 18th International Conference on Chemical Education held in Istanbul from 3–8 August 2004, was extremely successful and offered a vision of what the future of chemistry education ought to be.

by Lida Schoen

Also See These Side Stories
Tetrahedral Chemistry Educations: Shaping What is to Come by Peter Mahaffy
Chemistry is Everywhere

Delegates from 60 countries attended the conference, which was organized by the Turkish Chemical Society. The 353 delegates, including a large local contingent, could choose among 9 plenary lectures, 10 keynote lectures, 179 talks/presentations, and 153 posters in the well-equipped Hilton Convention Centre.

The Challenges of Today and Tomorrow
After, an impressive formal opening in Istanbul’s Military Museum by the traditional brass band and welcoming remarks in which IUPAC was called the United Nations of Chemistry, John Bradley introduced the first two plenary lecturers: Peter Atkins, chairman of the IUPAC Committee on Chemistry Education (CCE) and Peter Mahaffy, chairman of the CCE subcommittee on Public Understanding of Chemistry.

Peter Atkins (University of Oxford, UK) described the importance of chemistry in Turkey and pointed out that on the Turkish flag the moon in its last quarter resembles the “C” of Chemistry and emphasizes the theme of the conference: “Communicating Chemistry: the Challenge.” One of the best approaches to chemistry education, Atkins stated, is for teachers and communicators to demonstrate that the underlying ideas of chemistry are very simple—doing so will help bridge the concept-context gap for students and the general public. He said that the general public will lose interest if too many technical details are provided.

Atkins said that abstraction is the root of the public’s fear of chemistry. And although sophisticated computer graphics can help the public better understand chemistry, Atkins doesn’t regard the computer as the key to solving the problem. He also pointed out that an intensive focus on mathematics when teaching chemistry tends to put off students. Integrating mathematics in chemistry on a need-to-know basis can reduce this burden. Atkins also discussed how chemistry classes often become overly complex due to the interplay of influences, multiplicity of concepts, and avalanche of facts. On the positive side, and using superimposed triangles to make his point, he pointed out that there are many multi-media teaching aids and new techniques such as computation, or even electrochemistry (clean energy) that can drive motivate students and chemistry forward.

Peter Mahaffy and Hale Bayram (18th ICCE Secretary General)

In his lecture called “Shaping What is to Come,” Peter Mahaffy (King’s University College, Alberta, Canada) introduced a fourth element to the more traditional trilogy of symbolic, macroscopic, and molecular levels of thinking about chemistry: the human element. As proposed by Mahaffy, Tetrahedral Chemistry Education is a new conceptual metaphor for working with students and the public (in print page 13). In his presentation Mahaffy recognized Can Etik’s entry in last year’s poster competition “It's a Chemical World!” Etik, a teenager from Istanbul, was presented with a certificate in recognition of his winning poster “Chemistry is Everywhere.” (in print page 13)

Chemistry Education for Development
Although we live in an age of globalization, the gap between richer and poorer countries continues to widen. Not surprisingly, studies have shown that countries with higher gross national products have populations with higher science literacy. Developing countries, which view science and technology as essential components of their economic development, are at a distinct disadvantage. “How Can We Close the Gap?” was the question John Bradley (University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa) posed in his lecture.

As Bradley pointed out, chemistry educators, however inventive, need resources. In some countries a textbook is all they can expect. But teachers need more: reliable sources of chemistry information, pictorial matter (posters, transparencies, videos), and resources for practical activities. Over the past few years, said Bradley, joint programs of IUPAC and UNESCO have focused attention on these needs. The DIDAC teaching resources—a set of (language-free) transparencies, supported by text (available in six languages), for teachers—have been made widely available on CD, and were recently posted online ( Another example is the microchemistry concept, which has been promoted in developing countries. Some 15 countries have adopted the system as national policy and have acquired kits and chemicals using their own national budgets and donor funds.

Pedagogical Content Knowledge
Robert Bucat (University of Western Australia) argued that we now know that formal learning often constitutes little more than the ability to reproduce symbols and words, and to apply algorithms. Therefore, the question is no longer “What should be taught?,” but “What is learned?”

According to Bucat, despite extensive knowledge about conditions necessary for effective learning, teachers have been provided with little guidance about the best methods for teaching particular chemistry topics. This may be partly because much of the chemical education research has used chemistry subject matter just as a vehicle to develop ideas and theories of pedagogy, such as constructivist approaches to learning, co-operative learning, learning styles and on-line learning, all of which can be considered independently of subject matter.

Bucat did not deny the importance of generic pedagogical issues, but he wants to know, “What happened to the content?” He stated that there is a need for pedagogical content knowledge (PCK), which refers to knowledge about the teaching and learning of particular subject matter. A vast difference exists between knowing about a topic and knowing about the teaching and learning of that topic. As Bucat pointed out, the drives of competent teachers are seldom recorded, their PCK retires with them, and so new teachers need to develop their abilities from scratch. The chemical education enterprise is crying out for topic-specific PCK according to Bucat.

Mei-Hung Chiu

Misconceptions About Chemical Concepts
Mei-Hung Chiu (National Taiwan Normal University) reported on a study that examined students’ understanding of a selected set of concepts. Although many studies have been conducted in the area of misconceptions, few studies have systematically collected students’ conceptions of their understanding of chemical concepts. In this four-year study sponsored by the National Science Council in Taiwan, students’ in Taiwan were systematically surveyed about their understanding of selected concepts. The potential causes for student misconceptions were examined in detail, and included sources such as experiments, reference books, language, textbooks, and after-school programs. All of these influence how students learn chemistry.

About 14 000 students—from grades 6 (elementary), 8 and 9 (junior high), and 11 (senior high)—were selected as the target samples. The students answered questions in a multiple-choice test and then had to explain why they gave their answers. Compared to other national surveys, results showed atypical misconceptions.

Norita Mohamed (Universiti Sains Malaysia in Penang) discussed how first-year chemistry students in Malaysia struggle with basic chemistry concepts. She suggested that knowledge and understanding of learning styles or preferences is the key to getting students actively involved in the learning process. As Mohamed noted, research suggests that the more students are actively engaged, the more they achieve. According to Mohamed, a survey is being conducted in Malaysia that will identify students’ preferred learning style (Felder’s Learning Style Inventory) and determine the correlation, if any, with their performance in chemistry (overall grade at the end of the semester).

Ram Lamba (University of Puerto Rico, Cayev, PR) asked not only what and how the students learn, but more exactly how they filter what is taught. Although lectures are a way to present information quickly, they do not always lead to effective learning. Students are often lost due to the lack of interchange and interaction of ideas with their fellow students and the teacher. Lamba also demonstrated that there is a limit to the amount of information the students—or in this case the audience—can process in a given time. During his presentation, Ram instructed the audience to remember numbers in a special way, but the audience gave up after it was asked to remember too many things at a time. Ram believes that teachers often ask students to store too much information at one time in their long-term memories.

Ram reported that the University of Puerto Rico has developed an introductory laboratory course that uses experiments to provide students with experiences similar to those in the real world. The students work in groups and take advantage of each other’s experimental conditions and data. Research showed that students who participated in the guided discovery approach received higher final grades and had different attitudes toward chemistry than students in typical chemistry courses.

Jan Apotheker

Jan Apotheker (University of Groningen, Netherlands) also reported that cooperative learning in the chemistry classroom can be a powerful tool. Cooperative learning involves peers helping to educate one another. While the influence of peers has an important role in education, the techniques of cooperative learning are not always easy to implement in the classroom. Apotheker presented two worksheets designed to help overcome start-up problems.

Chemistry in the Arts and Everyday Life
As several speakers discussed, there is a growing panoply of alternative teaching styles that can be used to demonstrate to non-science majors the value of chemistry in everyday life. Nan-Kan Chen reported that in Taiwan, non-science majors lack a science background, and even enter college with “chemophobia.” To attract the interest of these students, some chemistry professors are emphasising the practical and daily applications of chemistry with the aid of multimedia presentations, laboratory visits, and demonstration kits.

Nan-Kan Chen

Tuija H. Timonen (Helsinki, Finland)—one of the few actual school teachers attending the conference—discussed how integrating chemistry into arts and crafts lessons is another way to help students relate chemical principles to everyday life. As Timonen pointed out, colors play an important role in how teenagers perceive their appearances. Natural colorants offer a many-sided theme for integrating science and environmental protection. Timonen described a project in which the arts, crafts, and chemistry were integrated. In the chemistry lessons students isolate anthraquinone pigments from the fungus Cortinarius sanguineus and the roots of Rubia tinctoria. During the isolating process students learn the basics of laboratory work. The result is a colorant, which they then use in craft lessons for dying and printing yarn and fabric. The dyed materials are then made into products, which are shown in an exhibition at the end of the project. According to Timonen, girls especially thought that this project was more interesting than traditional learning.

In Portugal, ceramic tiles, which decorate churches, palaces, fountains, and even simple houses, are a very important part of the artistic heritage. Maria Elisa Maia (Lisboa, Portugal) reported how chemistry students are playing a role in the conservation and restoration of these national treasurers. Maia reported that the secondary school Rafael Bordalo Pinheiro has a special vocational program in ceramics. Students and a teacher from the school collaborated with technicians, restorating the tiles in the Nossa Senhora da Nazaré Church. Salination is the main problem at Nazaré, which is located near the Atlantic. According to Maia, the students prepared a kit for identification of the ions, worked on location, and took samples back to school to do a more complete analysis. Another fieldwork example, was presented by Šefka Horvat-Kurbegovi (Zagreb, Croatia), who discussed the restoration and conservation of works of art at the cathedral of Zagreb.

Zafra Lerman

The molecular dance* of chemistry is an inspiration for the performing arts, and as Zafra Lerman (Columbia College, Chicago, USA) argued, the arts can be effective tools to communicate, teach, and learn chemistry. While the public learns from the media about popular topics such as gene therapy, cloning, the human genome, and stem cells, it doesn’t know that the basis for this research is chemistry. Lerman explained that students who major in art, music, dance, drama, and poetry are happy to enrol in a chemistry class to get inspiration for their work. The chemical bond has become one of the most attractive subjects for drama and dance productions. For example, those lovers, sodium and chlorine, were portrayed in a mock performance of Romeo and Juliet by a troop of students from Columbia.

Between lectures and posters, delegates were exposed to topics as varied as chemistry curriculum, new approaches to teacher training, micro-scale chemistry, student attitudes and perception, distance education, interdisciplinary education, green chemistry, and chemistry and society. It seemed that no subject was forgotten!

As we were reminded by John Bradley at the end of his plenary lecture: Those of us attending the 18th ICCE are fortunate. We have an opportunity to engage in professional discourse, to learn a lot, and to teach others in this very diverse, stimulating international meeting. This good fortune brings responsibility. Most of us go home stimulated and energized and few of us successfully transfer these feelings and the new knowledge to our colleagues. But we could do more . . .

The 19th ICCE will be held 12–17 August 2006 in Seoul, Korea, on the theme of “Chemistry and Chemical Education for Humanity” <>. In 2006 the Korean Chemical Society, which has 5000 members, will celebrate its sixtieth anniversary.

*The molecular dance is a favorite simile of John C. Polanyi (1986 Nobel prize winner), who acknowledged that observing a chemical reaction is like observing dance partners while they are on stage rather than in the wings before or after the dance. <>.

Lida Schoen <[email protected]>, based in the Netherlands, is a titular member of the IUPAC Committee on Chemistry Education and the Subcommittee on the Public Understanding of Chemistry, and is a member of the Science Across the World team.

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