Sunday, February 8, 2009

American Chemical Society and an educational proposal

On February 2nd, 2009 at Rudy Baum's blog [American Chemical Society] the issue of "chemistry" education was addressed.

As parents and citizens, we all know how vitally important education is. As chemists and scientists, we are painfully aware of the multiple deficiencies that exist in science education in the U.S. at all levels. Those deficiencies have been documented in endless reports and quantified in the results of numerous international standardized tests that show American students falling behind much of the rest of the world in their understanding of fundamental science and mathematics concepts.

It remains difficult, however, to wrap one's mind around education issues, especially how to improve science education. Perhaps it's just because science is so broad and the issues confronting successful reform of science education are so intractable.

The American Chemical Society has been deeply involved in education issues throughout its history. Late last year, ACS formed a Board-Presidential Task Force on Education chaired by Richard N. Zare, who is chair of the chemistry department at Stanford University and one of the most innovative chemistry educators in the U.S.

The charter of the task force states that it is charged with "1) reviewing recommendations contained in national STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education reports released during the past five years; 2) identifying specific actions that the Society could undertake in response to these recommendations; and 3) creating a priority list of actionable items where the Society can have a unique impact on STEM education."

The task force's charge extends across all levels of education, from primary (starting at pre-K) through graduate and postgraduate programs, and includes continuing professional development and informal educational institutions such as museums. As a reflection of this broad focus, the task force has formed subcommittees for primary, secondary, and tertiary education and for outreach.

The charter states: "Solving the challenges the world faces in the 21st century will require synergy among new scientific knowledge, policy makers who understand its use, and a public that embraces the results. Education is by far the most critical ingredient for creating this synergy and needs to be a top priority for all nations and their component institutions. As the largest scientific society in the world, the American Chemical Society has a special opportunity and obligation to provide leadership in education that is both an end in itself and a model to encourage others to bring their perspectives and resources to the task."

I know that Zare has specific ideas about involving the ACS local sections and a large number of ACS members in a commitment to improving chemistry education at all levels. In sharing some of his still-forming ideas with me, he wrote, "I am determined to make sure that this task force does not generate another space-filling report that collects dust. There have been enough of them already."

Mary Kirchhoff, the director of the ACS Education Division, is the staff liaison to the task force. "The work of the task force can play a significant role in shaping the society's impact on science education for years to come," Kirchhoff says.

Zare and Kirchhoff are soliciting input from ACS members and the chemistry community in general. You can offer suggestions at They note that you can have the most influence on the task force's deliberations by submitting your ideas before the spring ACS national meeting in Salt Lake City (March 22–26). "Concise suggestions with plans of implementation would be warmly welcomed," they add.

The ACS vision statement—"Improving people's lives through the transforming power of chemistry"—implies a focus outside the chemistry enterprise that I'm not sure ACS has yet to entirely embrace. The charter of the Board-Presidential Task Force on Education clearly charges the group with bringing the strengths of ACS to bear on transforming science education in the U.S. Please think about what the society can do to make this a reality and communicate your ideas to the task force.

His statement was followed by two responders:

Aaron Rowe wrote on February 2nd, 2009...

Here are my main suggestions for improving chemistry education:

1. Use more video in the classroom. It gets the students excited, and
can convey far more information than the best chalkboard lecture.
All teachers should be aware of the best chemistry videos on the web,
and ACS should curate a collection of educational web clips for
teachers. Teachers should not consider using video clips in class as
“taking the easy way out.”

Top 10 Amazing Chemistry Videos
Periodic Table of Videos

2. Place a much larger emphasis on science news. Standardized tests
should include questions about major developments in the basic
sciences. Teachers should be encouraged to assign articles from
popular science magazines to their students. This will give the
students a sense of what sort of opportunities await them in the
workplace, will build their enthusiasm, and will put the concepts from
their curriculum into a better context.

3. Make use of adjunct high school science teachers. Create programs
to bring doctoral students, industry scientists, and seasoned chemists
into high school classrooms very regularly.

4. Design elective courses for students who love science, and promote
them in public schools. Focus on the entrepreneurial opportunities in chemistry. The class would cover current events in science, but it would also teach the students about unsolved scientific challenges, and how they could make money by starting a business to solve real world problems.

5. Create a program to encourage chemists to write books and make
video clips about science for K-12 students.

6. Teach students more about the salaries and lifestyles of chemists.
Everyone knows that doctors make a lot of money and spend at least
eight years at universities. Most kids are not aware of how much money
chemists make, or what their day to day lives are like, and that
uncertainty keeps them away from our profession.


Lori Cox wrote on February 4th, 2009...

Any educational initiative to improve math and science education will have to involve parents, as well. For many, science and math are hard topics that were not approached in school in a way that is particularly relevant to “real life.” The math program at my son’s school is unique in that it contains a family newsletter to explain the topics being taught for that unit, partially as a refresher for parents, who may have forgotten those lessons from a long time ago. It is up to the teacher whether to use the newsletter, and I wish the teacher he now has sent them home. Science programs would benefit with such an outreach program.

All are good ideas but implementation is difficult. The appeal to teachers struck me the most. Now I realize that the following is highly localized and not necessarily representative of the whole system but it was enough to dampen efforts to become interested in the promotion of chemistry. Several years ago, I decided, as part of my household down sizing, to donate my life-long chemistry laboratory and related scientific equipment, including a library of about 300 books, to my highly-praised and well-accredited high school science department. I thought that this would be embraced and appreciated. I, after some difficulty, reached the head chemistry teacher. He said he would be by in a couple of days. So, I carefully spent a long time wrapping and boxing the delicate glassware and chemicals, labeling all boxes as to contents. Finally, the time arrived and the chemistry teacher made his presence. I was informed that he was in a hurry...he didn't want to be late for choir practice. Few words were exchanged and the whole transfer took about 30 minutes...and he was off. "Do, re, me" was paramount. Weeks went by...then three months--not a letter of evaluation or an appreciation note. Finally, a crappy "thank you" arrived on a piece of torn scrap paper with an evaluation of $3,000. I would have preferred to dump the chemistry down the drain, busted the glassware to be set out for BFI collection, and burned the books in the fireplace. I have discovered that things haven't changed much since then. So, the teacher approach may be questionable.

Aaron Rowe's comments are positive, good...and costly. Physical supplies cost money and educational systems are being strapped for funds and some school systems are simply down sizing science programs. It's not that students and teachers are not interested but is requires financial support that in many cases is just not there. Getting science authorities to visit schools and offer lectures are not going to be done for free and consideration of hiring speakers may just not be in the school's budget.

It's an uphill climb no matter what the perspective is.

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