THE CHEMICAL EDUCATION ENTERPRISE IN AUSTRALIA – A PERSONAL VIEW

 

Robert Bucat

The University of Western Australia, Australia

bucat@chem.uwa.edu.au

 

Does chemical education (or should it be called chemistry education?) deserve a place amongst the fields of study in the discipline of chemistry, alongside carbohydrate chemistry, polymer chemistry, surface chemistry and the like?  The American Chemical Society has a policy that every department of chemistry ought to have a chemical education group, but in Australia a recognisable chemical education enterprise has been Cinderella to its more prestigious fields of endeavour.  Have you ever seen an advertisement for a Lectureship in Chemical Education placed by a Department of Chemistry at one of our tertiary institutions?  Strangely, there are occasionally corresponding advertisements in other disciplines, notably medicine, but not in chemistry.  And yet almost everyone in such departments is paid to be engaged with the business of chemical education on a daily basis.  There seems to be a general view that ‘doing education’ is a bit like being an expert on the weekend football, or knowing how the country should be run, or walking, or even breathing – it’s either a matter of common sense or it just comes naturally.  And to some I’m sure it does.

 

But is the task of inducing a level of chemical literacy in a disparate population of students with widely different backgrounds, widely different aims, widely different levels of motivation such an uncomplicated, unsubtle task?  Can the academic who was top of the class throughout their formal education, so motivated and born with the chemistry-friendly genes possibly be sensitive to the situation of the less-switched-on student who finds chemistry heavy going, but needs some familiarity to progress along the path to becoming a molecular biologist or geologist (even if the chemistry course is specially designed for the purpose – and often it isn’t) while, because of the social conditions of 2001, he/she holds down two part-time jobs?  This question brings into focus the potential conflict between the satisfaction and passion we might derive from attention to the few students who become PhD candidates in our field, and the fact that the student in the service course pays us big money these days for a professional job.

 

Perhaps the above suggests that I am urging academics to undertake courses in educational psychology.  I’m sure that wouldn’t hurt, but I’m more concerned with a recognition of the complexity of what it means to ‘know’ chemistry with its intertwining and interdependent sources of evidence, concepts, theories, modelling, relationships and language, and the growing evidence from chemical education research of the importance of visualisation at the molecular level.  Complex interdependencies aside, is it a straightforward matter to teach about the meaning of single concepts such as resonance or entropy?  And if you are pleased that your students were able to reproduce the formula

DG = DG° + RT ln Q

and were even able to substitute numbers into it successfully, are you convinced that they knew what it meant to do so?

 

There has been a burgeoning science education research enterprise in Australia, and world-wide, over the last two decades – admittedly with a focus on the secondary level of schooling.  Perhaps the outstanding outcome of this research is that at all levels of schooling, in all countries, across all of the sciences, examination results are not good indicators of science understanding.  Time and again it has been shown that many students who have scored well on a particular exam question show serious deficiencies of understanding when one scratches below the surface through an interview about applied situations.  These findings of student misconceptions have led to a questioning of the ‘transmission’ mode of teaching (tell them and they will know) – at least in the area of conceptual understanding.  This has in turn given rise to the ‘constructivist’ movement which recognises the need of the student to struggle with experiences, and relate them to pre-existing knowledge, in order to make sense of new ideas, concepts and relationships.  And this approach suggests drastically different ways of approaching the teaching and learning task.

 

Does a corresponding situation apply at the tertiary level?  Well, there is so little research being conducted on learning in our universities, particularly beyond first year, that we really don’t know.  But from what has been done, and I have a significant research group working in this area, the signs are that for many students the provision of words (by the lecturer) leads to an expectation of regurgitating those words (in examinations) without a requirement for meaningful understanding.  There is so much more to be understood about the processes of chemistry teaching and learning at the tertiary level.  And in another time and place I will argue that the researchers who do so require more skill and more rigour of thought and method than many who are engaged in bench research.

Can the chemistry profession afford to have whatever research is done into chemical education conducted by non-chemists in departments of education and centres of science education?  I think not, but that is the current situation.  Nonetheless, there are many valuable outcomes of research emanating from such places.  But what cross-fertilisation is occurring between these researchers and academic chemists?  How many academics read the Australian journal Research in Science Education?  How many academic chemists contribute their perspective to educational research by attending the annual convention of the Australasian Science Education Research Association?  Why do we have chemists looking down their noses at ‘educationists’ while at the same time so many of the science education community look down their noses at academic chemists?  Why are there two such communities?

 

Perhaps I should restrict my comments to the bounds of the professional chemistry community, as defined by membership and activities of the RACI.  How many chemists attended the last convention of the RACI Chemical Education Division?  Why, at the upcoming World Chemistry Conference are there theme sessions put on to cater solely for “those who are interested in chemical education”?  Let those amongst who is not stand up.  Why, at conventions of the the various Divisions of RACI are presentations concerning the teaching and learning of their subject matter so infrequently invited or submitted?  Surely an education theme should pervade all Divisions?  IUPAC has recognised this, as Peter Atkins will tell us at the WCC satellite conference on chemical education on Sunday 1 July.

 

Now let’s get positive.  The chemical education enterprise can perhaps be divided into two fields: development and research. - which of course should be informing each other. In the area of development, significant work is being done.  Increasingly, departments of chemistry around Australia are modernising curricula to escape the blinkered vision of the physical-inorganic-organic compartmentalisation syndrome.  Departments like those at Deakin University and the University of Central Queensland are developing electronic methods of teaching across campuses.  Melbourne has recognised that to maximise multi-media educational use, serious resources need to be allocated for the purpose.  Perhaps one of the most surprising catalysts of chemical education developments has been Federal Government policy over the past ten or so years – initially through the demands for better recognition of teaching performance and innovation, and supported by the institution of National Teaching Development Grants.  Two of these grants laid the foundation for Roy Tasker and colleagues to develop the superb animations at the molecular level of chemical processes which are now so widely in demand by overseas publishers.  I suspect that recognition of Roy’s achievements is higher overseas than it is in his own country.  He will be telling us about, and showing us, his creations at the satellite conference. Two other projects emanating form NTDGs that will be presented at WCC are those of Mauro Mocerino et. al. on professional development of laboratory demonstrators, and the APCELL team on modernising the physical chemistry laboratory.  What a role model the APCELL workshop has provided for all of us by putting academics in the situation that students experience when they go to lab classes.

 

Turning to the research component of chemical education, I invite, or challenge, all chemists to read the articles of Stephen Hawkes in the Journal of Chemical Education over recent years.  Hawkes points out, time and again, the invalidity of much that we teach at the first- and second-year levels of university as we ‘idealise’ and approximate for simplicity and learnability.  One challenge for researchers and developers, working in concert, is to devise and prove ways of teaching the ‘truth’ with all of its complications in real situations.  Apart from ‘what to teach’, there is perhaps a more fundamental issue crying out for attention by chemical education researchers.  Textbooks, and even the IUPAC ‘Gold Book’ may use and define chemistry concepts correctly, but they seldom explore the subtleties and complexities of meaning, the language issues, the representational issues, the interdependence between meanings of different concepts, the modelling processes used by chemists, and the findings from educational research that are important to sensitive teaching about these concepts.  This sort of ‘craft knowledge’ of the content, which can influence one’s strategies for teaching about particular concepts, and is therefore called pedagogical content knowledge, usually accrues with the experience of each teacher – only to disappear from the profession when the teacher retires.

 

It is time to recognise the complexity and uniqueness of teaching about each field of chemistry – or indeed each particular concept or relationship in chemistry.  Adapting from Geddis in The International Journal of Science Education, 1993, 15(6), 673-683:

 

The outstanding teacher is not simply a ‘teacher’, but rather a ‘history teacher’, a mathematics teacher, or a ‘chemistry teacher’. While in some senses there are generic teaching skills, many of the pedagogical skills of the outstanding teacher are content-specific. Teachers need to learn not just ‘how to teach’, but ‘how to teach chemical equilibrium’ or ‘how to teach stereochemistry’. Good teachers need to be able to transform chemistry knowledge into forms learnable by the students.

 

The answer to the question of ‘how to teach stereochemistry’ relies on an exploration of the demands the subject matter to the learner.  That cannot be done from in front of the lectern.