Project is catalyst to reviving chemistry

3rd September 2004 at 01:00
Albert Einstein believed imagination is the most important quality a scientist can possess. Yet science at school is widely regarded by pupils as difficult and analytical, entirely failing to convey the wonder of the natural world or the satisfaction and thrill of discovery that scientists find in their work.

The past five years have seen a 30 per cent fall in entries to Scottish university chemistry courses, says Douglas Buchanan, the project manager of a Scottish Executive-funded initiative aimed at reversing the trend.

"It will lead to a decrease in public awareness and understanding of the importance of chemistry in today's society," says the Edinburgh University lecturer, "as well as a shortage of high calibre chemistry graduates for the UK chemical industry."

But the variety of contributory factors - poorly equipped laboratories, health and safety restrictions on exciting experiments, an overcrowded curriculum, competition from easier subjects - means there is no magic wand that will arrest the decline.

The Development to Update School Chemistry project, which is based at Moray House and funded with pound;130,000 over three years, will focus on providing teachers with continuing professional development courses, access to up-to-date resources and external support to help revive pupils' waning enthusiasm.

"We aim to co-ordinate and market more effectively what already exists and to develop new CPD in partnership with the Scottish Schools Equipment Research Centre and the Royal Society of Chemistry," says Dr Buchanan.

A principal teacher of chemistry, Don Sutherland of Deans Community High in West Lothian, has been seconded part-time to develop courses and already two have been prepared.

In "Effective Use of ICT", teachers learn to produce interactive materials for chemistry and S1S2 science, and to use 3D manipulation and drawing packages for images, formulae and equations.

"Brushing up on Demonstrations" is aimed at supporting non-specialists teaching the chemistry content of 5-14 science and includes a set of demonstations and experiments in electronic form, with protocols, background information, risk assessments, activity sheets and specimen answers.

Three other topics are in preparation, on making chemistry attractive through investigative approaches, promoting pupil talk in assessment and Intermediate 1 chemistry.

"We also organised this year's chemistry teachers' summer school in Edinburgh, which was built around the CPD for chemistry teachers being developed by DUSC," says Dr Buchanan.

"We are now working on linking the summer school with accredited CPD and gaining acceptance as a chartered teachers' module."

As part of the project, the Scottish Chemistry Online Teaching Service is being developed with support from BP. The website offers news of courses, curriculum support, a teachers' forum and links to websites valuable for teachers and pupils. The link to the Royal Society of Chemistry, in particular, with its stunning collection of images of the elements, should not be missed.

"This will provide up-to-date information on all activities related to the project, as well as sharing useful information for chemistry teachers and support for students," says Dr Buchanan.

The ultimate success of the Development to Update School Chemistry project will depend on how well teachers engage with its activities and how well it responds to their suggestions.

"Any thoughts, including ideas for the website, should be sent to Don Sutherland," says Dr Buchanan. "He will be delighted to hear from anyone who has an interest in the future of chemistry at school level and beyond."

Contact Don Sutherland at

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