What have chemists ever done for us?

27th May 2005 at 01:00
CONTEMPORARY CHEMISTRY FOR SCHOOLS AND COLLEGES. By Vanessa Kind. Royal Society of Chemistry. pound;19.95. Tel: 01223 432360. www.rsc.org

"What has chemistry got to do with the real world Sir?" After nine years as a chemistry teacher I have perfected my response to the provocative Year 10 pupil's Friday afternoon question.

It is cutting and lengthy and brings to mind the famous "what have the Romans ever done for us?" scene in Monty Python's Life of Brian. The problem is, as I reel off all the relevant things that chemistry does, I then immediately return to plodding through a syllabus dominated by ancient chemical techniques.

Chemistry teaching is at a crossroads. As my long list would show, as Sir Harry Kroto will shout to anyone who is listening, chemistry is cutting edge, and even biologists and physicists need to be chemists these days.

Every child wants to be a forensic scientist after watching CSI on TV, yet somehow the fact that a forensic scientist is a chemistry graduate passes them by. As A-level numbers drop and universities close their chemistry departments perhaps it is time for those of us teaching chemistry to take a hard look at what we are doing.

The RSC's Contemporary Chemistry for Schools and colleges is one attempt to do that. It is a flexible package of CD-Rom worksheets and exercises, practicals and a teacher's guide, all themed under new and exciting headings. So we have "fireworks", "future fuels", "hair", "chemistry and diet", "star chemistry" and "nanochemistry".

One glance through the experiments covered and you realise that what is good about this package is not that the author has devised some cunning new experiments, but has simply repackaged old classics into new areas.

What I particularly liked was the list of things core to chemistry in the introduction. Nothing to do with the contents particularly, but what a way to start an AS course!

The teacher's resources book is good, nicely written and full of ideas, web pages and little facts to help teachers, but the CD-Rom accessibility is less good. On it you have the worksheets and a separate student area.

The curious teacher, interest piqued by what's in the book goes to the contents page, clicks on the desired worksheet link, looks at it, wants to look at the next one and finds that the system does not allow him to do that, and the whole thing is reset to the introductory page.

My fear is that the casual flicker-through would give up after a while and not attempt any of the worthy exercises here.

Much as we are all electronic these days, I cannot help feeling that a simple photocopiable section in the main book would be very useful in addition to the CD-Rom I tried out the hair section with a Year 10 class. The first practical gripped them completely in a way I almost couldn't believe. All they were doing was comparing the pHs of well known shampoos and doing a "cleaning" test on some oil in a Petri dish - trivial for them, but they got involved because it was personal. It was relevant, they wanted to know all about it.

This resource has a lot of potential but teachers will need to do a lot of work to integrate all of it. It is designed to be dipped into as well, which I think may be best.

Keep the regular scheme of work, but when discussing flame tests, do the fireworks practicals and dedicate a lesson or two to it. Doing acid base titrations? Try the vitamin C scurvy titration as well. It is worth the effort.

Ray Dexter

Ray Dexter is head of chemistry, Haileybury College

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