Teaching Secondary Chemistry
Geraldine Mooney Simmie, SLSS,
Department of Education and Science
Before we begin an examination of what is involved in the teaching of chemistry, it helps if we stop and ask “what is chemistry”? What in terms of the broad brush strokes is the subject about, what would we like our students to understand after their encounter with the subject and will we in any way affect their future thinking about science in the everyday world?
While a considerable amount of what I have to say in this paper applies directly to a study of Transition Year chemistry, I am deliberately keeping it broad as I believe the guiding principles that I want to share with you affect all chemistry teaching, right through from science in the Primary Curriculum, through Second Level and on to any number of Third Level studies of the subject.
“Chemistry is the scientific study of the composition, structure and properties of matter and its changes. Chemistry is important to the other sciences, as it encompasses all materials in the Universe, whether the composition of gases in far-off stars or the complex structures within living cells” (1 and 59). Therefore, chemistry is all around us, in the home, in industry, in nature and it has several branches including biochemistry, nuclear chemistry, astrochemistry, environmental chemistry, organic chemistry to mention but a few. So how does our school chemistry course communicate the vastness and the relevance of the subject?
We want students to have knowledge of some of the elements in the Periodic Table, to see some patterns in the Table and from this to be able to make some predictions about the possible behaviour of other elements. We want students to understand what a chemical change is, what factors affect the rate of this change and from this to have a broad understanding how new products are designed and manufactured. We want to promote scientific thinking (2), and develop good observation skills and nurture a spirit of curiosity. In the laboratory the students to become investigators:
“You can disprove theory by finding even a single observation that disagreed with the predictions of the theory”
We want to develop scientific literacy. Scientific literacy is the phrase we use to signify that essential scientific understanding which should be part of everyone’s education. It has become an important concept in thinking about scientific education in the United States and the American Association has entitled its reform of curriculum in science and technology as “Benchmarks for Science Literacy”, 1993:
“science literacy requires understandings and habits of mind that enable citizens to grasp what those enterprises are up to, to make sense of how the natural and designed worlds work, to think critically and independently, to recognise and weigh alternative explanations of events and design trade-offs, to deal sensibly with problems that involve evidence, numbers, patterns, logical arguments and uncertainties.
Scientific literacy is usually defined in terms of what someone who has it can do. It means functioning with confidence in relation to the scientific aspects of the world around, being able to look at something in a ‘scientific way’. The achievement of scientific literacy depends on, but is more than, the acquisition of scientific knowledge, skills, values and attitudes. It has to be a conscious goal, by giving attention to linking together ideas from a range of experiences, problems and events both within the classroom and outside it.”
To devise a chemistry course that will give a flavour of what I have just outlined, I’d like you to journey with me through the well researched stages (3) that are involved in putting together a chemistry teaching programme that is planned and prepared taking the latest research into account, that is well-grounded in theory (4) and where the practice is relevant to the students. A programme that takes the student’s their needs into account, that is designed making the best use of the skills and talents of the teacher and the local resources of the community and has inbuilt into it a review mechanism which ensures that the programme stays relevant, meaningful and enjoyable.
The broad aims of the programme are the aspirations and goals that describe the vision and rationale of the programme. They take into account that for some students the programme will be step four of six steps for those who are going to progress on to choose chemistry as a Leaving Certificate option, for a small number of students it may well be a taster course, while for the majority of students it will be the last time they will do a chemistry course in their lifetime.
Some suggested aims may include:
(b) to give an opportunity to students to learn the scientific method, and the skills and competences that are associated with this;
(c) to nurture curiosity in the students, and to develop the skills of enquiry;
(d) to develop a set of competences that develop well from chemistry: problem-solving, scientific literacy, communication skills, critical thinking and observation.;
(e) to develop a set of skills that follow on from a study of chemistry: laboratory skills, research skills, communication skills;
(f) to catch up some understandings from Junior Certificate Chemistry, concepts of bonding and atomic structure in particular;
(g) to get a flavour of chemistry as a Career by doing a career investigation and/or taking a work placement in a chemistry related area;
(h) to develop attitudes that contribute to the development of the good learner, co-operation, innovation, an enterprising spirit and self-assessment (5).
Specific Learning Objectives
After the broad aims and vision have been written down we now search for the content that will back up that rationale and from this we search for the specific learning objectives, which are best arrived at when we ask ourselves:
“At the end of the course what will the student be able to do, to know, to understand?”
For example, some specific learning objectives may well read as follows: At the end of the module the student will be able to
The subject matter may be approached in a variety of ways. One suggested route involves a re-visiting of all the Fundamentals of Chemistry (Periodic Table, Elements, Atoms, Compounds, Chemical Changes), and enhancing this with taster Modules on Forensic Science, Chemistry in the Home, Cosmetic Chemistry, the Chemistry of Aromatherapy, Industrial Chemistry, Environmental Chemistry, Chemistry of Water, Air Pollution and Organic Chemistry.
Chemistry lends itself to links with other subjects. For example, the chemistry and geography teacher can link together to do a joint field study, where the chemistry students will gather specimens from the sample study to test and identify in the laboratory (water samples, metals, plastics (6)).
Chemistry and Biology unite in a variety of ways including the study of enzymes as biological catalysts (biological detergents), and other areas including the study of DNA and DNA fingerprinting.
Cross-Curricular Themes are a way of presenting subject specialisms as no longer in isolation but part of a bigger picture. They give an opportunity to present the curriculum as a whole rather than as discrete units. Many themes are appropriate, one popular one used throughout Europe (7) is “Environmental Studies”. The process involves teachers of different disciplines sitting down together and planning the material to be covered and how they are going to collectively approach it and in the dialogue between them deciding the modes of assessment and evaluation they are going to use.
Teaching and Learning Strategies
“Teaching and learning
strategies are those planned, and unplanned activities by which pupils
interact with and come to understand the content, skills and concepts
of chemistry. Many of these activities, such as talking and discussion,
writing and reporting, reading and researching, games, drama, computer-aided
learning and practical experience, will also be used by teachers and learners
in other subjects.”
We want to promote the notion of the student as the learner taking responsibility for their own life and learning. All recent research (9) points to the multiplicity of intelligences and the many ways learners learn. To make their own of the material and to develop a deep understanding of the concepts discussed, chemistry teachers are encouraged to use a variety of teaching and learning strategies (10).
context of education is no longer fixed for a long period of time. Knowledge
changes and changes fast. For some time already, the school has not been
the only place to learn. Learning itself is changing. The focus is on
the acquisition of competencies and on the combination of knowledge and
ability. In this respect the personal responsibility of the student is
increasing. The task of the teachers is to motivate the students, to make
them and to keep them curious to learn. Teachers realise this by creating
challenging learning environments and by making education meaningful to
In the classroom situation this translates into approaching chemistry from a discussion and clarification of the basic principles and laws, practicing balancing equations, learning the new language of “terminology”, drawings the diagrams and being able to confidently name and identify the equipment used in the laboratory. Setting the chemistry in context involves an ability to debate the issues raised using the scientific facts (11), to work well with others (12), to be able to use the Internet as a research tool, to be able to do some basic chemistry experiments and write up the results, and to be able to make sense of popular chemistry articles (13) to develop the scientific literacy aspects of the subject.
There are a wide variety of experiments both on and off the syllabus that can be tried (14,15). From experience, the following considerations are significant:
The following experiments, give a flavour of chemistry and use the basic techniques of mixing & boiling, separation, evaporation, filtration, and distillation.
Much practical work takes place in the laboratory, but fieldwork in chemistry can provide good examples of applied chemistry. For example, an activity linked to pollution could provide links to the cross-curricular themes “environmental education” and “economic and industrial understanding”.
Project work fits in well with chemistry and with the rationale of getting students to take more responsibility for their own learning. There are a number of publications that give information on how to conduct good project work with students (20,21). All point to the fact that the title needs to be specific and related to the students own interests, that the work needs to be kept in a jotter that is regularly signed and dated by the teacher, and that the final report is presented and assessed in a variety of ways .
Other teaching and learning approaches may include
A Skills and Competencies Checklist
It is well known that we assess what we value, and we value what we assess. Assessment measures the extent to which the specific learning objectives have been reached and as a summative approach gives information as to where the learner is at relative to school and/or national norms. Assessment can also be formative, and has a role in developing the student as a learner.
The student is involved in modes of self-assessment and builds up a portfolio (25 of best pieces of work (my favourite experiment, a piece of research, my best assignment, an oral presentation) and this is discussed at interview with a panel of teachers. In this process, the student speaks about and owns their own part in the learning process and in turn the teachers are affirmed in their work, and find ways in which to make the chemistry more meaningful, enjoyable and relevant to a wider range of students.
Assessment takes into account both the student assessment and the teacher assessment approaches (written tests, practical examinations) under the three headings of Attitude, Skills & Competences, and Knowledge.(26)
“It would be difficult to overstress the influence of attitudes and interests in the lives of individual people. They determine what a man will do or say in particular situations, what he will enjoy or dislike, his approach to other people, and his reactions to events in his own life and in the world around”. Evans, 1965
The crucial part of designing the chemistry curriculum for teaching, involves the building in of methods of review, which tell the teacher what is working well in the programme and what parts, if any, need improving. From experience, this is the most important tool for real change in the classroom and helps to ensure that the quality of the programme is maintained, that the course is relevant to the learners and it also offers a rich source of affirmation to the chemistry teachers. It is recommended that both informal and formal methods be used. This involves some discussion as well as feedback in the form of written reflections (27)
1. The Teaching of Science in Primary Schools, Wynne Harlen, David Fulton Publishers 1-85346-398-1
2. Complete Chemistry, Rose Marie Gallagher and Paul Ingram, Oxford 0-19-914799-X
3. Writing the Transition Year Programme, TYCSS, Blackrock Education Centre, Kill Avenue, Dun Laoghaire, Co. Dublin.
4. Teaching Secondary Chemistry, Editor Bob McDuell, John Murray 0-7195-7638-5
5. Transition Year Programmes, Guidelines for Schools, Department of Education and Science.
6. Platform, Plastics Industries Association, Confederation House, 84/86 Lower Baggot Street, Dublin 2.
7. ISTA Bookshop, Randal L. Henly, 81 Offington Avenue, Sutton, Dublin 13 and www.scienceacross.org
8. OPEN Chemistry, Edited by Mark Atlay et al, Hodder & Stoughton 0-340-58487-4
9. Multiple Intelligences, Curriculum and Assessment Project, Editor: Aine Hyland, Education Department, University College Cork.
10. Experiential Learning in the TY classroom, Laois Education Centre, Block Road, Portlaoise, Co. Laois.
11. ENFO Fact Sheets, 17 St. Andrew St., Dublin 2
12. Chemistry in Context, Truman Schwartz et al, American Chemical Society, 0-697-29158-8
13. Cracking Crime, Jim Donovan Forensic Detective, Niamh O’Connor, O’Brien Press 0-86278-715-7
14. The Salters’ Chemistry Club Handbook, The Salters’ Chemistry Club, Salters’ Hall, Fore Street, London EC2Y 5DE, Fon 0044-20-7628-5962, Fax 0044-20-7638-3679 www.salters.co.uk
15. Cosmetics, by Chris Wilshaw and Paul Wright Science at Work Series, Longman Publishers 0-582-02872-8
16. Leaving Certificate Applied, Science Elective, Inservice September 2000
17. Sheila O’Driscoll, Director. CDC, ST. Patrick’s Comprehensive School, Shannon, Co Clare.
18. BASF Mini Lab, Suppliers: Lennox
19. The Salters’ Chemistry Club Handbook, The Salters’ Chemistry Club, Salters’ Hall, Fore Street, London EC2Y 5DE, Fon 0044-20-7628-5962, Fax 0044-20-7638-3679 www.salters.co.uk (free handbook to chemistry teachers, “Practical Challenge”, gives practicals on Forensic Science)
20. The Visual Dictionary of Chemistry, Dorling Kindersley 0-7513-1064-6
21. Project Work, Supporting Active Teaching and Learning, TYCSS, Blackrock Education Centre, Kill Avenue, Dun Laoghaire, Co. Dublin.
22. Health Matters, European School Awards, Tel. 0044-019325672243 Email:firstname.lastname@example.org
23. TAPS, A Taste of Science and Technology in Transition Year, TYCSS, Blackrock Education Centre, Kill Avenue, Dun Laoghaire, Co. Dublin.
24. Work Experience Guidelines, TYCSS, Blackrock Education Centre, Kill Avenue, Dun Laoghaire, Co. Dublin.
25. Esat Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition, Esat Fusion, Grand Canal Plaza, Upper Grand Canal Street, Dublin 4.
26. Portfolio Assessment Video, TYCSS, Blackrock Education Centre, Kill Avenue, Dun Laoghaire, Co. Dublin.
27. Information for Students, TYCSS, Blackrock Education Centre, Kill Avenue, Dun Laoghaire, Co. Dublin.
28. Evaluation of a Specific Topic, TY Resource Pack, TYCSS, Blackrock Education Centre, Kill Avenue, Dun Laoghaire, Co. Dublin.
29. ASE, Association for Science Education, College Road, Hatfield, Hertfordshire AL109AA, www.ase.org.uk
30. CLEAPSS HAZCARDS, Brunel University, Middlesex Tel. 00441-995-251496
31. Advanced Aromatherapy: The Science of Essential Oil Therapy, Kurt Schnaubelt (Paperback, 128 pages, 1998)
32. Forensic Science, T.H. James (Stanley Thornes publishers).
33. GCSE Puzzle Aid Chemistry, ISBN 0572-01484-8 Martin Williams, from W. Foulsham ltd., Yeovil Rd., Slough,Berks., England.
34. Problems in GCSE Chemistry, by Bennetts, Hannon and Mundic (Hodder & Stoughton ISBN 0340-490802)
35. Chemistry Counts, by Graham Hill.
36. Chemistry for GCSE, Colin Johnson (Heineman)
38. Extending Science Series (Stanley Thornes) - AIR, WATER ….
39. Forbairt Scientists, Glasnevin, Dublin.
40. The Double Helix, by Watson and Crick, Penguin
41. Murder under the Microscope, Philip Paul
42. Periodic Table of the Elements, on the Internet
43. Understanding our Planet through Chemistry, on the Internet http://helios.cr.usgs.gov/gips/aii-home.html
44. Chemistry Teacher Resources, on the Internet http://rampages.onramp.net/~jaldr/chemtchr.html
45. Molecules, P.W.Atkins, Scientific American Library, ISBN 0-7167-5019-8
46. Chemistry, University of Bath, Science 16-19 Ken Gadd and Steve Gurr ISBN 0-17-448236-1
47. Science Desk Reference, McMillan, USA ISBN 0-02-860403-2
Geraldine Mooney Simmie is currently on secondment from Coláiste Iognáid, Galway to the Second Level Support Service, Department of Education and Science. Geraldine is well known to chemistry teachers and has written several publications for Irish teachers including:
“Integrated Chemistry”, Folens, 1987.
“Integrated Chemistry Workbook”, Folens, 1988.
“Science Workbook”, School & College Publishing, 1994.
And produced a number of videos:
“Organic Chemistry, Part I”, Science Teaching Centre, National University of Ireland, Galway, 1989.
“Organic Chemistry, Part II”, Science Teaching Centre, National University of Ireland, Galway, 1990.
“Water”, Science Teaching Centre, National University of Ireland, Galway, 1991.
Vitamins you needVitamin A
Keeps the cold germs away
And tends to make people nervy,
Bs what you need
When you’re going to seed
And C is specific for scurvy.
Vitamin D makes the bones in your knee
Tough and hard for the service on Sunday,
While E makes hens scratch
And increases the hatch
And brings in more profits on Monday.
Vitamin F never bothers the chef
For this vitamin never existed.
G puts the fight in the old appetite
And you eat all the foods that are listed.
So now when you dine remember these lines:
If long on the globe you will tarry
Just try to be good and pick out more food
From the orchard, the garden and dairy.
Quoted in A Treasury of Words and Wordplay, Richard Whiteley, Ronson Books, 2000
Have you got any good examples of mnemonics that you use to teach chemistry or science? Please send them in