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Chemistry is Dead


Nick Falk
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Rowena -

There is MUCH more to biology than "just regurgitating facts".  I regard chemistry as crucial to understanding much of biology, and physics as crucial to understanding much of chemistry.  You won't help your cause by downplaying the importance of either physics or biology.

It's not easy to be a science student - regardless of one's major

Mike,

I didn't understand Rowena as "downplaying" physics or biology. But none of these narrow physical sciences will tell us anything about the micro or macro worlds (which strangely reflect each other) without an interdisciplinary approach that incorporates all and everything. And then of course, in this new and little understood postmodern world, it is all viewed through colored lenses and subject to the Uncertainty Principle. Academically, it is unfortunate that so many humanities students escape dealing with the mental rigors and precision of the physical sciences, in which, as a statistics professor once said to me, that "touchy-feely stuff" won't get you by here.

Tim

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>it is unfortunate that so many humanities students escape dealing with the mental rigors and precision of the physical sciences, in which, as a statistics professor once said to me, that "touchy-feely stuff" won't get you by here. <

As a former "humanities student" myself - I teach foreign languages - I can assure you that a predilection for "touchy-feely stuff" won't get you far in that branch of knowledge either! My own experience of studying the French and German languages and literatures was one of rigour and precision: I found myself applying the same exactitude to literary study as I had done when I learned school Chemistry, which I also enjoyed immensely. In the 1960s, there was a lot of talk about the "two cultures" of the arts and the sciences. Many students nowadays understand the "complementarity" of the arts and the sciences, often choosing to combine the two before and when they enter higher education. We certainly need more numerate arts specialists with a deeper understanding of scientific principles, laws and methods. But we also need more literate scientists who can appreciate drama, history and music and who know how to explain complex concepts and ideas to lay people. A broad and balanced curriculum in secondary education without premature specialisation is an indispensable preparation for the world of today.

David Wilson

http://www.specialeducationalneeds.com/

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I used to work at a Department of Applied Science as a teacher of technical English, and the head of the Engineering programme had a very nice way of introducing the subject on the first day.

He put up two lists of words on the board, one on the left where they nearly all ended (in Swedish) with '-i' or '-ik'; and one on the right where they all ended with '-a' (the Swedish infinitive ending).

He then said to the new students "you probably think that being an engineer is all about the left-hand words (such as Physics, Mathematics and Chemistry), but actually it's really all about the right-hand ones (such as explaining, formulating, planning and arguing)". His point was that anyone who could only do the left-hand list would never be much good as an engineer in the real world, since the problems engineers face are only partially to do with scientific theory.

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As an undergrad, I majored in biology and literature. When I tell people about that combination, they think it's pretty unusual - and I guess it is. But I've had a number of biology students over the years with the same attraction to the arts, which I regard as a very good thing.

Many of our students interested in medicine wind up majoring in both biology and chemistry - partly for practical reasons (they have to take so much chemistry anyway, why not get a major in it?). My college lacks a physics major - which I regard as a real tragedy in a liberal arts college. We never could get enough students to populate that major. Maybe physics is dead?

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Hello again,

I have to say, when I'm talking about the difficutly of studying chemistry versus other science subjects, that I am thinking more of the earlier grades (GCSE and 'A' level). I have absolutely no idea how difficult Biology or Physics are at university level having studied Geology, with Chemistry! And I imagine that all of the sciences are difficult at the level.

What I am trying to say is that at earliers levels biology is broken down into nice bite sized facts such as 'A cold is a virus' and ' Viruses cannot be treated with anitobiotics', and so the biggest piece of reasoning a student will have to do is 'can a cold be treated with antibiotics?'.

In Physics, you simply have to remember 2 or three formulae per topic and practise applying them in different ways. More complex than Biology, but still achieveable by many.

Then take chemistry. You spend several weeks teaching kids about the reactions of different substances and oxygen, such as combustion, and then the exam comes along and they are asked to explain why old copper coins are black. This is much harder to do than either of the above situations because you need to recall a number of facts and then string together a sensible arguement.

Most kids fail to score full marks for a question such as this and so consider chemistry to be difficult....and so as they move through school the pressure to perform well in exams pushes them towards subjects that they can perform better at such as Biology - they still have the caché of the science subject, but although most will tell you that they study biology because it is interesting (and of course it is) the underlying reasoning behind studying it is that it is a science that they can pass. Experience tells them this.

In response to Nicks questions about whether we should only offer Chemistry to the 'bright' or make it more simple I don't think we should do either. Its important that all students study a subject that involves some reasoning. What use do we have for random science facts later in life??? Reasoning however is a process that we can all use and is a skill that should not be removed from learning just to make things easier.

A solution to the chemistry is hard problem? Mix it all up. Students know even at KS3 whether a topic is essentially çhemitry, or physics or biology. We need to teach topics that are a mixture of all of these things, as in real life, so that students stop seeing the sciences as being discrete, which of course, they are not.

Rowena

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On the sciences vs arts front, I, like many, opted for scientific subjects because it was what the 'smart kids' studied. The serious kids who wanted to do something with their lives.

With hindsight I would say that there is more touchy feely stuff going on in science teaching than in a typical history or German class. I believe that I learnt more about logic from my arts classes than any of the scientific ones (which at the time were trying to make science more 'fun' and manageable by breaking it down into simple facts. History on the other hand was much more about looking at the bigger picture, linkages, causes and effects and not treating anything in isolation).

(I stress that this is referring to secondary (high school) and not college).

Rowena

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I don't have much experience teaching at elementary and secondary levels - though I do have some (mostly private schools, so probably atypical). My daughter is currently in high school. One factor that seems to steer students one way or another is the teacher. A teacher with a reputation as "fun" (not necessarily easy) often attracts pupils to whatever subject she teaches.

If biology is typically taught as "a cold is caused by a) a virus B) a bacterium c) a protozoan" we're in trouble. The essence of science is asking "how" and "why" - and neither of those questions is multiple choice.

Edited by Mike Toliver
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Hi Mike,

my point exactly, and in high schools in the Uk the multiple choice exam IS the way science is tested and therefor teaching is geared up to that kind of 'knowledge'. For as long as GCSE science exams are multiple choice, what hope do science teachers have?

Rowena

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Hi all -

It seems there's a connection between our discussion here and the one in "Finnish education is the best". I refuse to use standardized tests in my classes, though we're under some pressure to "assess" what we're doing and to connect that to national norms. The pressure comes from accrediting bodies (who appointed them the overseers of education?), and - because of that - the faculty assessment committee. I have the liberty to get away with my refusal (so far) because I'm at a private college. In public schools, one has to tow the line.

This is not to say that all assessment is bad, or that teachers shouldn't be held responsible for what happens in the classroom. But the "No Child Left Behind" nonsense and the move towards "McDonaldification" of education will give us very poor results.

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