The chemistry of daily life

1st January 1999 at 00:00
A new project helps secondary students from all over the world compare notes about how chemistry affects their lives. Mary Cruickshank reports

Natascha Felbrich, a 16-year-old student from Otto Hahn Schule near Frankfurt, has no doubt about the importance of chemistry in our lives. "We all eat bread," she says simply. "Bread is chemistry."

She was among students from Germany, the Netherlands, France, England and America at the Royal Society of Chemistry in London in November for the launch of Chemistry in Our Lives, the first unit in the Science Across the World (SAW)programme.

SAW grew out of a Science and Technology in Society (SATIS)meeting at the Association for Science Education conference in 1989 and is in the SATIS tradition of issue-led opportunities to talk about science. It involves students working on environmental science units and exchanging their results with secondary schools in other countries by post, fax, e-mail or interactive Web site.

Fourteen units are now in circulation, focusing on issues of universal concern - drinking water, food, energy, global warming and health - but with wide regional variations. As the programme has extended from Europe to Africa, America and Asia Pacific, so the opportunities for cross-cultural exchanges have flourished. More than 1,200 schools from 46 countries are currently active on the SAW database.

"Science must make connections and face up to issues that really matter," says Andrew Hunt, director of Nuffield Curriculum Projects. He developed Chemistry in Our Lives with an international team of teachers and representatives of chemical societies and BP, which supports the programme.

Aimed at 12 to 16-year-olds, it is available in 15 languages with more on the way. Schools can choose to exchange information in any language they like, which makes SAW an exciting resource for language teachers as well as scientists.

The most successful units start with the home culture and lead to exchanges that illuminate ways in which people in other countries deal with the same issues. Because of the language factor, highly technical subjects are avoided and equipment is kept as simple as possible.

A development team of teachers in each country ensures that the project will work for their region in terms of language, ability range and compatibility with the curriculum. One of the advantages, says Marianne Cutler, who directs the programme from the ASE office in Hertfordshire, is that a unit can either be completed in three to five hours or, if the school wants it to, can "really take off" and become a major project.

Chemistry in Our Lives starts with a survey of chemical products in the home and deals with issues of safety and labelling. Exchanges revealed wide similarities in products such as aspirin, but local variations in manufacture and use, and insights into traditional medicines such as the use of guava leaves in Zimbabwe.

Pupils from schools with light and heat at the turn of a switch swapped data with those who walk miles to collect firewood. Exchanging information on cosmetics, a school in Singapore described the use of banana leaves for soap; another in the Philippines used the vivid red flowers of the Gunmela plant to make nail varnish.

The unit also involves students investigating a local story relating to chemistry. In Zimbabwe they looked at the use of fertilisers; while a Swedish school recounted a disaster in which the water had been poisoned by chemicals.

Some schools took a historical perspective: Ohio students described how their grandparents used "goose grease" for sore throats and baking soda for upset stomachs, while their South African counterparts interviewed an old lady on a farm about soap making 35 years ago, which involved heating fat from slaughtered cattle in a big black pot over an open fire outdoors. A Polish school wrote about Marie Curie, who was born in Warsaw and lived and worked in France.

Other units in the programme - on domestic waste, road safety, and acid rain, for example - stimulate a similar range of responses and fascinating case studies that can be used across the curriculum.

Exchanging this material with other students has a wonderful motivating effect, says Nigel Heslop, head of science at Oak Farm community school, Farnborough, who has been involved in the project since 1991. "It gives students the opportunity to write scientifically for another audience. When the replies come in, it generates a lot of excitement."

There are unexpected spin-offs, too, he says, when preconceptions are dispelled with first-hand accounts from other countries. "Most importantly, it teaches pupils that there are applications of science outside the textbook and the school lab, in the real world."

Oak Farm exchanges material with about 30 schools from all over the world, many of which have become "old friends". "When we exchange our work with schools in the Netherlands or Germany it has an immediate impact - people across Europe are similar with similar ideas and problems to solve in school," says Mr Heslop. "When we exchange with Namibia, they see how different those problems can be in a much poorer country with limited resources."

Annual workshops for teachers, where the multicultural materials are developed, also provide a lively forum for debate and the opportunity to discuss broader issues of language, education and culture and public perceptions of science.

Those who adopt the programme soon become committed and find the initial investment of time is more than repaid in terms of interest and enthusiasm, and the quality of work with a truly global dimension.


* School purchases unit from ASE (address in box on opposite page).

* Unit contains registration form, introduction to topic, teacher's notes, photocopiable students pages in at least six languages, first contact sheet, exchange forms, follow-up discussion activities; support data and maps on the topic.

* Schools complete registration form and return to ASE for entry into SAW database.

* Students work on unit.

* Studentsteachers make preliminary contact with selected schools from the database using first contact form.

* Students complete exchange forms and send them to selected schools from the database by post office mail, fax, e-mail or Internet.

* Students receive exchange forms and discuss issues raised.

* A new registration form is completed each year for re-entry into SAW database of registered schools.


Each unit costs pound;19, which includes postage and free registration to the SAW schools database. The Chemistry in Our Lives unit is available in English, Spanish, German, French, Italian, Portuguese, Polish, Hungarian, Dutch, Russian, Danish, Swedish, Turkish, Catalan and Greek.

Details from Karen Shoebottom, The Association for Science Education, College Lane, Hatfield AL10 9AA. Tel: 01707 267411. Fax: 01707 266532. E-mail: Internet: http:www. bp.comsaw Language Through Science, a free booklet for language teachers focusing on four units with practical classroom ideas produced with the ALL and CILT, is also available. The next Science Across the World unit, on Solar Energy, will be launched in 2000.

The ASE will hold seminars on using the SAW Web pages (phone for details)

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