Sunday, August 28, 2005

A Practical Chemistry Curriculum

I've reflected and written quite a bit here, here, and here about what chemistry teachers do and why, and how it seems that the profession is out of synch with where it should be going. In my view teaching a large body of students a subject like chemistry, in the vein it's taught in college, on the whole is a waste of student time and effort for those in high school who first will indeed go onto college, and second who will actually have a need for a college chemistry course, and that doesn't represent the majority of students in a high school chemistry class - for sure we're wasting the time of the overall majority. On the whole college instructors only want students who have basic math skills, have basic familiarity with the language and nomenclature of the subject, honed study habits, and the ability to work hard when it's required - it also happens that this pretty much agrees with what employers are looking for as well (see my What Should We Be Teaching in High School Chemistry?)

Let me break this down a bit more: Teaching chemistry as an introductory discipline is a waste of time for the simple reason that maybe 2 or 4 out of 25 students will actually have anything to do with the subject in any depth when they’re in college (let’s assume that 20 out of 25 will go onto college.) What I mean by “any depth” is that they’ll major in some aspect of chemistry, be it a chemistry degree or a biochemistry degree, with the latter usually being a prelude to medical school. Even if we were to make the assumption that more than 10% of the students were going into the discipline high school chemistry's still out of synch with what college instructors want them to know when they get there (see reference above), indeed there's little at all that a high school chemistry student won't get all over again when they get into a 101 and 102 college level chemistry course. Between that and what the students are naturally inclined to just plain old forget anyway (studies say about 70% or more of what they learn they flush), it’s any wonder we spend as much time on the subject, in the way we do, as we do.

So what’s the purpose of chemistry? Is it to prepare students to go into the discipline in college? Well we’re failing that inasmuch as our expectations and requirements are out of synch with the post-secondary instructors, and the fact is that most of the students won’t take chemistry in any depth in college so why all the effort? Somewhere along the way it was just likely simply considered a good thing to do, and that was at a time when far fewer students completed a secondary level education and college wasn’t nearly the presumed option that it is today. What’s expected by the students, their parents, and post-secondary level educators has evolved but it really doesn't seem that secondary level education itself has.

I agree that we need to engage, to capture, and to stimulate kids regarding the subject, but not so much for chemistry specifically as science in general and in some of the tools that go with the overall discipline, which are used extensively in chemistry. Part of what’s required for that is to convince them that what comes with chemistry is indeed important to them, and that’s not that an acid plus a base yields water and a salt, but analytical thinking, practical mathematical application, and the simple practice of properly framing a problem and being able to solve it are all essential, in fact mandatory skills for anyone going into a workforce that’s highly competitive and less and less inclined to hire you simply for the muscle you can put to a job.

One or two kids may suddenly have a eureka moment ala Archimedes as they witness a demo or do a lab, but what’s more important, I believe, is to engage a larger majority of students by convincing them that this isn’t simply an academic exercise that they need to go through enroute to a diploma which they need before they can go on to whatever else is next in their lives. No, this discipline is carried by, is useless without, and interfaces with our world through a line of thinking that is essential for them to appreciate, on some level understand, and for them to be able to employ in their own cause. This thinking makes the difference between getting the job or not, getting the promotion or not, establishing themselves in whatever pursuit they chose to engage with some modicum of success, understanding the realities of the world around them, and in general having some measure of appreciation for what’s required to get them through the world.

Included in all of this is a practical application of mathematics (yes, chemistry teachers should be math teachers), a requirement to give oral presentations on science (oral presentations and communication skills are an area where students have been identified as weak in the study cited in an earlier post), and writing about science, possibly book reports and/or research papers. These practical skills mean far more than chemistry per se, but the fact is that chemistry teachers as a whole all too often see their subject as being special, somehow sacrosanct from the pedestrian and far more important reinforcements which should drive what they do. Most kids will not long remember or have a great deal of use for a redox reaction, but if in the course of it all we help to teach them how to think, apply math, and imbue a different perspective on the world through the lens of science I believe we make a far more lasting and significant mark on students.

Re-jiggering of the chemistry curriculum likely doesn’t seem like it would hold up well before the glare of No Child Left Behind Act requirements, where the objective is to teach to specific standards and then later be able to measure what's been taught. Even in the context of NCLB something such as I propose could be made to work so long as the overall class requirements were designed to incorporate those aspects of the learning experience that stretch beyond simply knowing the ideal gas law. Meeting science NCLB requirements isn't a lost cause with a re-focused curriculum, but focusing the curriculum to support the basics should reinforce
and help increase the scores in those areas that have generated the most concern regarding NCLB, specifically math and English language skills.

As it stands now in high school we’re far too focused on making chemistry courses "Mini-Me" college courses, and in the process doing students and their instructors a disservice. Yes, there’s much about chemistry that should instill wide-eye wonder in a student, but there’s not enough to take you through the depth of all that’s there. Frankly there’s little reason for why anyone should think much of it is important to students in high school who we should be getting ready for life in general, and the skills required there require reinforcement and high school chemistry does so only in the most tangential of ways.


Blogger she falters to rise said...

Making observations

Generating working hypotheses

Predicting how you will interpret your results before you actually have them

Interpreting your results (from many different vantage points) after you obtain them

Proposing follow-up experiments and new hypotheses

In other words--attaining basic problem solving skills.

You would be amazed at how many of our graduate students can not do the things listed above. I read fellowship applications (requiring grant proposals) that make me cringe.

If you combine problem solving skills with oral presentations and scientific writing, you have well prepared students, regardless of what field they will eventually choose to enter.

I still think demos are important when done correctly. Student-run/teacher assisted demos are an excellent way to teach students how to not only work in groups to complete a project requiring analytical collaboration, but can also be good tools for teaching students how to teach and learn from each other.

10:57 AM  
Blogger James said...

That got me thinking, and on the whole agrees with what a lot of other college level instructors are saying. The fact is that we're pumping out a lot of kids that don't know how to solve problems or think for themselves, and that's doing them a massive disservice and isn't going to do the country any good in the near or the long terms.

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