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A Perspective on Chemistry Education

One of the most important and strategic activities that IUPAC carries out is to promote the use of best practice and the most effective tools for chemistry education. That education includes public understanding and appreciation of the roles and achievements of chemistry, especially among the young. The Committee on Chemistry Education (CCE) is one of most popular and active bodies within IUPAC. In addition to its titular and associate members, numerous national representatives regularly take part in its meetings, which are among the best attended in every IUPAC General Assembly. The Union, through CCE, promotes best practice in chemistry education through the organization of international conferences and workshops, by providing guidance to countries that ask for assistance with their chemistry curricula, and by promoting an understanding and appreciation of the subject through programs such as the Young Ambassadors for Chemistry and the Flying Chemists.

But what is the point of all this effort? Why does chemistry education figure so prominently in many minds, playing a role in chemistry that is not mirrored so exhaustively in other sciences? Why is it regarded with suspicion by some and ignored by others? Does it have any successes? Should it be encouraged or put quietly to sleep? Are developments in technology, as well as changes in attitude, about to transform it or render it obsolete? These are some of the questions that arise in academic circles, in some cases leading the abolition of chemistry education departments and in others resulting in seriously effective and seemingly successful revolutions.

Chemistry education is a broad area of study and research, with several journals and conferences devoted to it and hundreds of professionals whose main job is to investigate the most effective ways to communicate and acquire the key concepts of chemistry. Thanks to their effort, and despite “chemistry education” not being an exact science, there is a solid and large body of data on several key areas, such as the detection and avoidance of misconceptions, how to make the teaching laboratory and homework more effective, and how to use ever-developing technology to help visualize concepts and procedures.

A major task of chemistry is to provide a bridge between the abstract and the real.

Despite all the impressive work done in recent decades and the evidence supporting better ways to teach chemistry, it is disappointing to see how little has changed in the classroom. General Chemistry (Chemistry 101) and many introductory courses are taught in large rooms, sometimes with hundreds of students passively listening to a single person who repeats, with minor variation, the same lessons as his or her colleagues everywhere else in the world. From atoms to molecules, from chemical bonding to materials, nearly all chemistry text books have the same structure, and even include very similar examples and illustrations. Researchers in chemistry education have provided clear evidence questioning the effectiveness of this passive way to teach chemistry, and against many of the examples presented in chemistry textbooks (which in some cases propagate widespread misconceptions). There are plenty of data in favor of a more student-oriented and personalized approach based on the particular background, skills, and interest of each individual student. Doing this with a large number of students in the classroom is a real challenge, but even when small class sizes allow for better practice, the more traditional method is still widely used.

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