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Vol. 33 No. 4
July-August 2011

Communicating Chemistry

With the International Year of Chemistry1 at the half-way mark, thousands of activities are either under way or planned that will engage the world with chemistry. This article looks at the implications of global engagement for the chemistry community and makes practical suggestions for building an interface between chemistry and the general public, and in doing so suggests that chemistry suffers isolation from the global community.

The article is divided into three sections, the first of which suggests a framework for visualizing perspectives on chemistry as a means of connecting these different perspectives, Section 2 describes the current state of chemistry teacher training and invites an approach to teacher education based on the communication of chemistry as opposed to the transfer of facts. Section 3 proposes a model for public interaction with chemistry. The conclusions suggest that it is the interface mechanisms between those outside chemistry and those inside chemistry that will effect public perceptions about chemistry.

Visualizing Chemistry Communication

We have two communities. There are those who belong to the Chemistry Community, who we will call Insiders (I). Those who do not belong to the Chemistry Community we will call Outsiders (O). An individual from either of these communities has a specific perspective on what chemistry is, how important it is, and its relevance to their life and work. They may have strong ideas about what actually constitutes “good” chemistry and what does not. It is precisely the isolation of these two communities that can contribute to alienating people from communicating with chemistry as a “culture.” We argue that what we need is a mechanism for creating an interface between these two isolated communities. In order to explore this idea further, consider the diagram below.

Insider-outsider perspectives on chemistry.

In this matrix, we can see how our two communities might interact with each other. In quadrant one (II), insiders of the chemistry community tend to have a perspective on chemistry which is dominated by the chemistry community to which they belong. In quadrant two (IO), we can see that chemistry insiders have a small understanding of the chemistry perspective of chemistry outsiders. Quadrant three (OI) suggests that chemistry outsiders have only a small understanding of the perspective on chemistry shared by insiders of the chemistry community, and in quadrant four (OO) we can see that outsiders of the chemistry community tend only to see chemistry as an outsider of chemistry.

This is clearly a crude analogy for interaction between those who work in and with chemistry and those who do not. Nevertheless, what this framework gives us is a starting point from which to begin to build instruments for interaction between the two communities so as to raise awareness of the multiple chemistry perspectives that exist. Doing so will facilitate making decisions about how to involve outsiders more in the chemistry community.
The following two sections in this article present two perspectives on chemistry and describe interfaces which a) respect and engage with different perspectives on chemistry and b) raise awareness of perspectives on chemistry, both with a view to making the communication of chemistry more effective for all involved.

Communicating Chemistry through Teacher Training

Trainee teachers are one of the most important target groups that can help communicate chemistry to the wider world. A significant aspect of this communication is related to the multiple dimensions of language in the classroom as we read in CI recently.2 In most countries, student teachers are trained in one subject plus methodology. Another significant group of colleagues move into teaching from industry, where they may have been a scientist or engineer. In some countries, as in Germany, students cover two subjects plus methodology.

Based upon experiences in teaching and teacher training in Germany,3 it seems that many trainee teachers, not just the scientists and engineers, are not familiar with the multiple aspects of language—we tend to focus on content, on facts. But we know from a whole range of national and international studies (TIMSS, PISA, DESY) that learning of competencies and content are both important. Language is the most important competence for accessing all the information around us and for constructing our world. It is intercultural awareness that enables us to place our learning within our known, home context, and step out of this domain to see our world from another’s perspective. Teachers who must learn two subjects are faced with the demands and the standards of a third subject: language.

While it is true that learning chemistry means learning a language specific to the field, we also use language to engage students with chemistry and we assume that students have learned this language in other subjects. We mostly ignore that we have to start teaching and moderating the learning process by diagnosing students’ “linguistic competence” and that the grammar and lexis of chemistry needs training and time.

In science teaching and teacher training, the subject-specific language of chemistry (names, equations, different types of formulae) is an important skill to teach to trainees. Based on what we call “basic concepts” and real-life contextualization, students show their competence (acid-base relations, redox reactions, substance, molecular structure, energetics) and partner groups moderated by the teacher trainer “awaken” the bits of language and develop “subject-specific” language. “Pictures” are described and rearranged, formulae are deconstructed and reconstructed, and text is written in formulae, equations, and models.

The next stage is to motivate teachers to move forward in small steps of understanding and overcome the temptation to focus only on the content. There should be initiatives to generate self-diagnosis and to find specific tutoring to help teachers in learning and using subject-specific language to teach chemical content in real-life contexts. Today, the training of chemistry teachers should focus on the interface between the subject and the learners more than just on the content itself. Meanwhile, we are still working in a world of chemistry with few approaches, resources, and activities that focus on bridging the gap between “so much content” in chemistry and the focus on “basic concepts” and competencies. Content and language-integrated learning4 help bridge this gap by default because of the methodology involved.

Communicating Chemistry to the Public

Teachers and students can be chemistry’s best ambassadors. All that is needed are suitable resources with exciting content and the means to show this content to the public. The Young Ambassadors for Chemistry5 project of IUPAC’s Committee for Chemistry Education (begun in 2003 and ongoing) has perfected the art of popularizing chemistry among the general public. Everyday chemistry products are immediately relevant to the general public, so they can be a rich source of content and a focus for chemistry popularization events.

Students in Korea participate in a Young Ambassadors for Chemistry event.

Simply putting chemicals together to compose a product is an ideal approach. By doing so, the public gains insight into compositions, which is easier and more illustrative than analyzing products. Examples of such activities include building the world’s longest DNA molecule from local sweets (world record 12m in South Africa) or designing, producing, and marketing an innovative cosmetics line. In the 11 countries the Young Ambassadors for Chemistry team has visited, the underlying theories are taken from national curriculum guidelines (polymers, emulsions, detergents, electrolytes). For the teachers, the teams provided innovative, new raw materials like emulsifiers that allow emulsion production without heating.

These public events involve not only chemistry but also language, art, geography, history, and citizenship. In fact, teachers of many different subjects are introduced to the world of chemistry at such events. Non-chemistry teachers can be great ambassadors too.

A Young Ambassadors for Chemistry event in the Philippines.

Once teachers become familiar with methods of popularizing chemistry, they can ask their students to communicate with the public themselves. To do so, the students need two main ingredients: location and interface. An inviting, busy public place enables ambassadors to demonstrate procedures and products and present results.

One of the best ways to get these events noticed is by making lots of “noise” (e.g., by having local and national VIPs attend). In Cyprus,6 a local mayor promoted chemistry on the Square of Freedom, which was broadcast by a national TV station.7 Other ingredients for success include gauging public opinion with questionnaires and marketing activities such as students presenting products through “TV ads” or taking home the products they created.

Conclusions

Chemistry Insiders and Outsiders constitute two communities in isolation, and it is clear that effectively engaging young chemists and encouraging them to explain what they are doing can develop communication between the two communities. Helping student teachers to focus on specific chemistry language demands and learn how to design chemistry projects that focus on communication also create an interface between chemistry outsiders and insiders. The outcomes from the evaluation instruments for the YAC project8 and post-project events show a number of factors that highlight the usefulness and effectiveness of interface instruments in public chemistry events. Teachers value YAC courses and events and are interested in learning more about the role of chemistry in their lives.

The evaluation report8 also highlights that “Students feel that YAC activities help them understand the connection between chemistry and their daily lives.”

According to data from questionnaires, the public considers YAC events to be an appealing and novel approach to helping students understand chemistry. This finding supports the idea that more YAC workshops and events are needed to promote public understanding of chemistry.

Teachers in classrooms can serve as ambassadors for chemistry by developing interface instruments, namely tasks designed specifically to promote communication rather than just the transfer of facts. Teachers and students can serve as ambassadors in public events to help the public better understand chemistry. With this in mind, teachers might need to be explicitly guided on designing projects for classroom chemistry communication and also on how to help their students be young ambassadors for chemistry during public science-awareness-raising events.

References (all links accessed on 09.12.2010):
1. IYC website: www.chemistry2011.org
2. “The Language of Chemistry: A New Challenge for Chemistry Education,” Keith Kelly: www.iupac.org/publications/ci/2010/3205
3. “Teaching Science using English as the Scientists’ Language: A Brief Note from Germany,” Egbert Weisheit (p.27, EIS Number 240, November 2010)
4. Content and Language Integrated Learning: www.onestopclil.com
5. Young Ambassadors for Chemistry: www.iupac.org/web/ins/2003-055-1-050
6. YAC Cyprus, 2010: www.iupac.org/publications/ci/2010/3204/pp3_2003-055-1-050.html
7. YAC Cyprus National TV Report: www.youtube.com/watch?v=5mJD5xthHf0
8. Evaluation of YAC program: www.iupac.org/web/ins/2007-005-2-050

Corresponding author Keith Kelly <keithpkelly@yahoo.co.uk> is a freelance bilingual education consultant based in Bulgaria. He is an experienced teacher and teacher trainer, and a team member of Science Across the World. Keith is also a founder and coordinator of the Forum for Across the Curriculum Teaching (FACTworld). He is author of the Macmillan Science and Geography Vocabulary Practice Series and is editor for the CLIL Teacher magazine and consultant to Macmillan’s www.onestopclil.com website.


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