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Chemistry International
Vol. 24, No. 1
January 2002



IUPAC Divisions and Education: A Case for Joint Projects

by Bob Bucat

Bob Bucat

Is Chemistry Education merely a subfield of the discipline of chemistry? This article contends that chemistry is a complex and ill-defined field that requires considerable skill and effort to teach and learn, and requires the joint efforts of chemistry education specialists and content specialists in all fields working together to analyze the demands of learning chemistry to find better ways forward.

There is a syndrome pervading our discipline that "people interested in chemical education" occupy a specific compartment, in a corresponding way to those who we label polymer chemists, or organic chemists, or thermodynamicists or surface chemists. This, I believe, does a disservice to both the chemistry-related education enterprise and the discipline of chemistry in general.

There is minimal value in chemical educationists restricting their reflections and research findings within their own community. The people who wear this label make up a very small fraction of those engaged in teaching chemistry.

Chemistry education should not comprise one compartment of the discipline of chemistry, because it transcends all such compartments. I have been to myriads of conferences on chemistry education, and invariably I find chemistry educationists talking with chemistry educationists– but nary an organic chemist, a polymer chemist, a synthetic macromolecular chemist, or an NMR spectroscopist listening to their significant findings. And then they (the chemistry educationists) publish their work in chemistry education research articles, which are read by so few outside of that community. Such a waste of talent and effort!

To prove the point, let me ask how many chemists intend to go to the International Conference on Chemical Education to be held August 2002 in Beijing?

Conversely, I'd love to hear from those organizing international conferences on, say, carbohydrates, callixarene chemistry, ESR spectroscopy, computational chemistry, environmental chemistry, analytical chemistry, or any other specialty. What fraction of time do they expect to devote to education about their field of chemistry? Experience tells me not much–but how I'd love to be wrong!

Of course, I don't question the value of chemists talking among their own kind. This communication is one of the ways that the field advances. Another way is the development of new generations of practicing chemists, as well as the development of more knowledgeable engineers, lawyers, biologists, and agricultural and environmental scientists.

Still another, commonly overlooked, way that barriers to advancement are removed is an increase of the level of appreciation of the science enterprise by the public, including politicians, who give us the go-ahead to spend their money as an investment in the quality of life of our children and grandchildren.

Let's Hear It for the Teachers
Chemistry is a complex and ill-defined field that requires considerable skill and effort to teach, except perhaps for those students who are so talented and motivated as to go on to postgraduate work in chemistry. This fact is being borne out by myriad research studies that diagnose chemistry students' less-than- adequate understanding of a wide range of topics, at all levels of chemistry–with the same misconceptions common among the students of many countries.

IUPAC and Chemistry Education
Following the report of the ad hoc Education Strategy Development Committee, the educational role of IUPAC has been enhanced and considerable responsibility assigned to a new Committee on Chemistry Education (CCE), whose terms of reference include addressing matters related to the public appreciation of chemistry. CCE includes in its membership one Associate Member from each of the IUPAC Divisions; a policy designed to improve the engagement of each Division with educational issues.


Dimensions of Understanding Chemistry
To demonstrate the complexity of chemistry, and the challenges involved in educating the public about the field, it might be helpful to distinguish some of the ways, which I call dimensions, involved in an understanding of chemistry.
  • Propositional (knowing that . . . ) knowledge: the "facts" of chemistry, which might include, for example, knowing that fluorine is the most electronegativeelement (and presumes that the meaning of electronegativeis known).
  • Procedural (knowing how . . . ) knowledge: the skills and techniques of chemistry, which might include, for example, knowing how to purify by recrystallization, or how to calculate an equilibrium vapor pressure at a given temperature from that at another temperature.
  • Understanding the role of modeling in the progress of chemistry, and recognizing that chemistry concerns people and their imagination and ideas as much as it does the behavior of substances. This concept includes progression to a degree of comfortableness with various models in place of a dualistic right/wrong approach to theories.
  • The ability to switch between the macro world of bulk properties and their continuous variation, the discontinuous submicroscopic world of atoms, molecules and ions, and the intramolecular world of bonds and electron distributions. And at the submicroscopic level, we sometimes use a single-particle picture (when we consider symmetry and polarity) and sometimes we need to use a many-particle picture (when we consider diffusion and competing reaction pathways).
  • The nature and quality of images one might have at the submicroscopic level. To take an elementary example, I would claim that a three-dimensional dynamic crowded image of liquid water with implied intermolecular interactions is preferable to the typical textbook two-dimensional, static picture with gross misrepresentations of the spacing between molecules.
  • The ability to understand the language of chemistry. This idea includes the massive demands of our symbolic representations: chemical equations, numerous different types of structural representation, reaction mechanisms etc. And then there is technical jargon used only in chemistry, as well as everyday terms that have different meanings when used in the chemistry context (such as spontaneous, saturated, property, and dispersion). If you need convincing about the problems faced by a novice in communicating through the language of chemistry, I refer you to almost any entry in the IUPAC "Gold Book" in which the glossary definitions are written for the practicing chemist (as indeed they should be), but are unintelligible to all others except advanced chemistry students.
  • The ability to operate at multiple levels of explanation, rationalization, and prediction. For example, the bonding in a molecule can be considered at a number of different levels–all perhaps useful for various purposes. Similarly, acid-base theory and prediction of the outcomes of perturbing systems at chemical equilibrium can be modeled at different levels.
  • The richness of one’s memory bank of episodes; i.e., images of phenomena that have been experienced. Examples might include demonstration of the critical point of diethyl ether, a measurement of optical rotation, or see-ing electrolysis of acidified water. All of these can make our understandings richer than a memory of words transmitted from lecturer or textbook.
  • The ability to distinguish between demonstrable knowledge and arbitrary knowledge. For example the "insolubility" of calcium carbonate is demonstrable, while the value given to the standard reduction potential of Fe3+(aq) to Fe2+(aq) is arbitrary.
  • Appreciation of the sources of our knowledge. Put another way, I would claim that we are richer for knowing why we should believe what we believe; i.e., the experimental evidence on which it is based. Try asking your students, even the advanced ones, why they believe that all matter is constituted of atoms.
  • Knowing what we do not know. This is perhaps an underestimated factor in the business of knowing, contradictory as it may sound.
  • Appreciation of the role and place of chemistry in society, at the local and international levels.
  • Understanding what chemists do.
  • Interlinking of one's learning, rather than compartmentalized knowledge. Chemical education research is increasingly pointing to the importance of links between knowledge "bits" in the same topic (including between theory and practical experience), to knowledge in other chemistry topics, to knowledge in other disciplines such as physics or biochemistry, and to real-world applications.

Pervading these dimensions of knowing chemistry, there are myriad concepts that are not easy to grasp, and whose understanding can be expected to grow only with experience. For example, there is the all-pervasive (and evasive) concept of energy, ranging all the way from calorimetry, through notions such as bond energy, vibrational and rotational excitation, stability of reaction mixtures, equilibrium, entropy as probabilistic distribution of energy among possible states, to prediction of structures by energy minimization calculations.

Challenge your students to explain where the energy has gone when we put a Bunsen burner under a beaker of water (or turn on the electric kettle). Challenge your students to explain why the average temperature of the earth is about 35° C warmer than it would be in the absence of our atmosphere, even though the net energy flux is zero. If they resort to notions such as carbon dioxide molecules "trapping" energy, how do they explain that the temperature is not continuously rising (at fixed greenhouse gas concentrations)?

Learning Chemistry is Not a Linear Process
Textbooks, of course, must arrange their content in a linear fashion, but has this seduced us into thinking that students learn in the same sequence? My view of learning is that it is a rather sporadic process with leaps of learning along one or more of the above-mentioned dimensions in sometimes unpredictable ways.

Some of the dimensions listed above are unique to chemistry, making learning chemistry different from learning about other disciplines. As well, the extent to which the subject matter depends on each of these dimensions presumably varies from topic to topic. For example, the demands of learning about thermodynamics are different from those of learning about stereoisomerism.

There is a growing awareness that effective teaching about any one topic requires reflective analysis, and perhaps classroom research, to analyze the topic in terms of the particular demands that it puts on the student. And when we understand these demands, we can transform our expert knowledge (perhaps expressible in the language we use to communicate with other experts) into forms of knowledge that the student can make sense of. Knowing ways of doing this is referred to as pedagogical content knowledge; the label recognizes the interaction between the expert's content knowledge and generalizable pedagogical knowledge to arrive at this sort of knowing.

One challenge for educational researchers and developers, working in concert with practicing chemists, is to devise and prove ways of teaching the "truth, " with all of its complications in real situations.

There is currently a tendency to cope with the difficulties of learning (and teaching) topics in chemistry by simplifying and idealizing the chemistry and its situations. I invite readers to find a raft of articles in the Journal of Chemical Education by Stephen J. Hawkes in which he points out how this strategy can, and does, lead to wrong chemistry. For example if we use concentrations rather than activities, and ignore speciation complexities, as we do at the introductory college level of education, we can predict solubilities of salts which are wrong by several orders of magnitude. But, at least so far as textbooks indicate, we continue to teach this wrong chemistry because it is too difficult otherwise. One challenge for educational researchers and developers, working in concert with practicing chemists, is to devise and prove ways of teaching the "truth, " with all of its complications in real situations. Perhaps we should be more strategic in our design of teaching, recognizing that each topic has its special demands?

Which leads me to a suggestion concerning IUPAC projects that demand joint consideration by the subject-matter experts and education experts with a sound understanding of the subject matter. What about, for example, a project entitled "The challenges of teaching about physical chemistry"?

But this is in two senses contrary to what I have been saying: firstly, it covers such a broad area, and might imply that the challenges of teaching quantum chemistry are the same as the challenges of teaching, say, about phase diagrams; and secondly, it implies that the challenge is on the teaching component of the teaching-learning process only. The challenges for teaching and learning in a particular field are, of course, closely related: What presents the greatest challenge for learning also presents the greatest challenge for teaching. So let me make some other suggestions with regard to the challenges of teaching and learning about:

  • computational quantum chemistry
  • phase diagrams
  • entropy
  • speciation in aqueous solution
  • reaction mechanisms in organic chemistry
  • molecular modeling of pharmaceuticals

The list, of course, is endless. And the case is made for only one type of joint proposal involving people from the various IUPAC divisions and others whose particular concern is the education process.

Different challenges arise when we consider the task of raising the public appreciation of chemistry, which has been given enhanced status in IUPAC's mission.

Let me conclude by saying that this article represents my personal thoughts as an individual, and although I was a titular member of the Committee on Teaching of Chemistry for eight years, I do not claim to be representing the views of that former committee

Robert (Bob) Bucat is associate professor in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Western Australia, in Perth.


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