Catalyst for a chain reaction

16th January 1998 at 00:00
He has taken his individual style of chemistry teaching to India, Nepal and Italy. At home, in Britain, he has spent 15 years trying to make his subject exciting to the pupils of Canford School in Poole, Dorset.

Andrew Browning, 36, has been rewarded for his efforts with the Salters' Prize for Chemistry - four years after he was first named a runner-up.

At Canford - an independent school which shot to fame three years ago when a #163;7 million Assyrian frieze was found on the wall of its tuck shop - Mr Browning devotes himself to enthusing his pupils about chemistry and making the subject relevant to their lives.

When it came to showing them how to analyse the purity of chemicals, for example, he brought into class the anti-inflammatory drug ibuprofen. He wanted to demonstrate the relevance of analytical techniques by employing a drug they might take themselves. Similarly, when the class looked at the purity of copper, pupils were asked to check the composition of coins - the sort of task which workers in the Royal Mint might carry out.

"To teach effectively you have to build a relationship with students. You have to communicate your enthusiasm and get feedback from them," Mr Browning says.

He thrives on sharing ideas, not only in far-flung corners of the world but just down the road in Kinson at Christ the King Junior School. For the past four years he has been taking a group of sixth-formers to the school once a week to take part in its science lessons.

Whether the topic be forces, switches or charges, the scheme gives his sixth-formers the chance to share their views with the enthusiastic 11-year-olds.

"We do lots of practical work with the juniors, and because there are so many of us it produces a good staff-to-pupil ratio," he says.

Although he enjoys his work in Dorset, Andrew Browning's dream is to take a sabbatical and spend time teaching chemistry in developing nations, including India and Nepal.

The seeds of his ambition were sown years ago when he met Dr Sharada Maharajan, a representative of the Nepalese Association of School Science Teachers on a trip to Britain. This led to a reciprocal visit by Mr Browning to Nepal. An enthusiastic supporter of microscale chemistry - using small amounts of chemicals to do experiments - he was soon showing his techniques to schools in Nepal which are often unable to afford large amounts of chemicals.

"Teachers in Nepal and India are doing brilliantly often with scant resources and limited practical experience," he says.

He tells of one school where the pupils proudly unlocked the chemical cupboard to show off its contents. He realised that the containers had never been opened because the teacher believed they might explode if someone touched them. "I asked them to take all the tops off and showed them basic reactions," Mr Browning says.

"It [microscale chemistry] is safe and cheap because only a small amount of the chemicals is used. It is fast because small amounts react quickly, and it is environmentally friendly because there is little waste.

"Many teachers here don't see it as real chemistry because it requires much closer observation, but there are a growing number of supporters. In the Third World, where they don't have the apparatus to do experiments, it is certainly relevant."

Canford has also forged a partnership with ITFS Einaudi, a school in Badia Polesine near Venice. Last year the two worked on a water analysis project to compare pollution levels in their respective rivers (the Stour and the Adige).

Andrew Browning is enthusiastic about building on that link-up, and confides that on top of his already busy schedule he is now learning Italian at night school. "This is what it's all about," he says. "Putting chemistry into the real world."

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