Even though chemistry is a cornerstone of scientific literacy—standing smack in the intersection of physics and biology—we haven’t done a good job communicating either its importance or how interesting it is. Chemistry isn’t often a favorite school subject. If you admitted at a social gathering that you enjoyed chemistry, you are likely to be viewed as a curiosity and given polite nods followed by someone adding, “I was never good at chemistry.”
Yet knowledge of chemistry is critical to our understanding of the natural world, as well as to our ability to understand some basic issues facing our society. What is the big deal about burning fossil fuels? What does fertilizer runoff do to water quality? How can we educate new citizens to make informed decisions when they are not even sure what a chemical is?
I am embarrassed to say I missed some inadvertent references in one accepted paper that made chemicals sound like a dangerous word. I thought that the objections were overblown so I asked my own fourth grader what chemicals were and she indicated that chemicals were in fact potions and both dangerous and bad. Thinking this must be a fluke, I asked my fifth grader, who agreed with his sister and added a connection to drugs —all of which he insists are bad as well. Looks like we have some work to do at home as well as at school.
This chem-o-phobia has contributed to a cycle of neglect and negativity that has fed back into the curriculum and teaching. Many of your colleagues may not have felt comfortable with their understanding of chemistry in their own school years. Perhaps they avoided it in college or, if they did take it, it never made sense. This can translate into avoidance—how can we teach what we don’t understand? Or, it can result in teaching that may not be stellar. In either case, kids lose. In this issue, both in columns and in feature articles, we strive to present ideas for developing understanding of basic ideas of matter for adults and kids.
What could be more basic than understanding what happens in a chemical reaction? In Science 101 (page 48), Bill Robertson explains what a chemical reaction is by going back to the basics—atomic structure. Without this foundation, chemistry can’t make much sense. “Indicators for Inquiry” (page 37) puts this background information to use with an exploration using homemade acid–base indicators.
Another basic is addressed in Science Shorts (page 45), in which students explore the property of solubility and develop their investigative skills. The Early Years (page 20) interprets chemistry for younger children and helps children understand some basic elements of scientific investigation—these same goals are extended in the article “Mixing and Making Changes” (page 28).
Safety, too, is an essential element of any science lesson. Although we are unlikely to use dangerous chemicals in elementary grades, we need to set the stage for safety. “Safety First!” (page 26) reveals a clever way one teacher developed awareness and safety skills in her classroom.
Teaching is full of opinionated people. I have a teacher friend, Chris, and we share much beyond a first name. Many of our ideas of teaching, learning, and schools are similar. So obviously I respect her opinions! But we differ on a few issues. One is the place of teaching molecular structure in elementary classrooms. She has had quite a bit of success in teaching atomic and molecular structure to her fifth graders. I want a little more research to convince me that the topic is appropriate.
The article “Fun with Phase Changes” (page 23) provides Chris with support for her position. The author describes classroom activities that lead to an understanding of the molecular structure of water and changes in state. This article highlights an important issue. We sometimes talk about our ideas of “developmentally appropriate” based on beliefs and not as much on evidence. We need to collect evidence about the successes and challenges of presenting complex, abstract ideas in the upper elementary years. We encourage you to try this set of lessons and share your experiences with us.
The principles of chemistry are critical to a broader scientific literacy. We hope that this issue provides you with some resources to extend and improve your chemistry curriculum.
So long, chem-o-phobia!