Teaching Chemistry

Chemistry is the study of matter and the way it changes. Many of the things in life, such as food, fashion and technology, owe a debt of gratitude to this discipline and to chemistry teachers. However, the process of teaching chemistry can be complicated by a number of common problems.

Chemistry is interesting because students physically manipulate the equipment in the laboratories. They also witness experiments and see things change right in front of their eyes. As the paradigmatic laboratory science, chemistry offers countless opportunities for students to design their own experiments and may be the discipline best suited for student inquiry.

Chemistry is also changing constantly, which makes it innovative and new. Students learn about the newest things in science and technology. Chemistry is also everywhere and it is important to understand the chemistry behind everyday phenomena. Chemistry is the "central science" since it is the domain of important foundation concepts in the life sciences and bridges life and physical sciences. It is also necessary to understand chemistry in order to understand applied sciences such as engineering and medicine.

Chemistry has a rich history which begins with the ancient alchemists and continues to modern times. The ability to understand and manipulate chemicals is responsible for everything from modern food and drugs to plastics and computers.

However, teaching and studying chemistry can also be dangerous. Mixing chemicals can result in explosions, violent effervescence and noxious gases. Bunsen burners can cause burns and fires. Sharp implements can cause lesions and cuts. Equipment used in teaching chemistry is also expensive and this could cause problems for many schools and universities.

There is also the problem with the lack of student motivation. Chemistry is not easy to study because it requires an analytical mind, a logical approach, a wide knowledge of scientific laws, a grasp of technical terms and self-discipline. Students have to read a lot, often complex texts including equations, theories and hypotheses. As a result, they may lose enthusiasm for the subject because it is so demanding. Even students who study chemistry hard in school are often lured by much softer options in university such as forensic science.

On the other hand, there are the chemistry teachers who are responsible for imparting knowledge to students and helping them construct their own frameworks. People teaching chemistry need to have an above-average proficiency in math. They need to understand different measurement systems and sometimes perform complex mathematical operations. Classroom management is central in chemistry classrooms and labs because of the dangers associated with the experiments. One of chemistry teacher's ongoing efforts is also ordering and safely managing chemical supplies.

Chemistry teachers need to keep up with research in rapidly changing areas, such as new materials, environmental chemistry and nanoscience in order to stay current in the field of chemistry. However, being a chemistry teacher does not afford many professional development opportunities. A lack of appropriate professional development for teachers naturally affects chemistry teaching and this can cause problems. Many chemistry graduates prefer a higher status and higher salary in industry to a career in school teaching.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century people tend to forget the glorious past of chemistry and all of its contributions to daily life in the face of propaganda targeted against unnatural, artificial substances. Many people associate the word "chemicals" only with environmental pollution and unhealthy toxins. While Sir Harold Kroto of Sussex University, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1996 for the discovery of an unusual molecule of carbon, said that the world had been fed thanks to chemistry with the aid of fertilizers and pesticides, these chemicals have also helped tarnish the subject's reputation in the minds of many young people.

Kroto also noted the importance of chemistry in some of the leading breakthroughs of the twentieth century, from the development of life-saving antibiotics to the new materials used in modern electronics. With products such as more efficient solar panels and biodegradable plastics it will be at the heart of tackling unsustainable growth and pollution. If chemistry is the cause of dangerous environmental changes, those in the water and atmosphere in particular, the solutions to these challenges must also lie in chemistry. While universities are considering closing their chemistry departments amid a combination of a lack of funding and interest in students, the future drugs and vaccines are in the hands of those being trained as chemists.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Handbook of College Teaching: Theory and Applications
Keith W. Prichard; R. McLaran Sawyer.
Greenwood Press, 1994
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 16 "Chemistry Education: Context, Theory, and Practice"
Teachers and Teaching: From Classroom to Reflection
Tom Russell; Hugh Munby.
Falmer Press, 1992
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 6 "Transforming Chemistry Research into Chemistry Teaching: The Complexities of Adopting New Frames for Experience"
Instructional Strategies in Organic Chemistry Teaching: Perception of Science and Agriculture Undergraduate Students in Botswana
Mahajan, Deepa Sanjay; Singh, Girija Shankar.
Education, Vol. 123, No. 4, Summer 2003
Combining Cooperative Learning and Multimedia in General Chemistry
Pence, Harry E.
Education, Vol. 113, No. 3, Spring 1993
Teaching Chemistry with Models
R. T. Sanderson.
D. Van Nostrand, 1962
Analysing Exemplary Science Teaching: Theoretical Lenses and a Spectrum of Possibilities for Practice
Steve Alsop; Larry Bencze; Erminia Pedretti.
Open University Press, 2005
Librarian’s tip: Account 3 "Recollections of Organic Chemistry" begins on p. 29
Teachers Doing Research: Practical Possibilities
Gail Burnaford; Joseph Fischer; David Hobson.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1996
Librarian’s tip: "Teacher Research Finding Meaning: Chemistry Reconstructed with High School Students" begins on p. 117
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