Debate on chemistry education gets to nitty-gritty


BOSTON - An academic argument over how to teach college chemistry is now well into its second decade, but may gain some resolution in the near future with a point-by-point, detailed debate over 126 proposed changes or requirements for what should be in a beginning course.

Depending on the results of this process - which began today with a presentation at the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society - bored students may one day wake up, and painfully confused students may find understanding and use for what they learn.

And for Stephen Hawkes, a professor emeritus of chemistry at Oregon State University who compiled the 126-point list and is provoking this debate, the results may satisfy a personal quest that has consumed much of his career and improve not only the teaching of chemistry but even breathe life into other sciences as well.

"I've taught so much rubbish to students in my career, forcing them to learn complex calculations they'll never use while they remain ignorant of basic concepts," Hawkes said. "And that's because we're all working from textbooks with approaches that were developed 100 years ago and are totally outdated.

"Almost every textbook author in the United States bases much of their book on the ones before it, or the way they were personally taught," he said. "And curriculums in other countries are based on those in the U.S. We're literally alienating students all over the world."

According to Hawkes, this phenomenon is not unique to chemistry education. It can probably find parallels in almost every other branch of science education, he says, and may go a long way towards explaining the disturbingly low number of students who pursue advanced careers in science.

"Almost everyone is born curious about science and the world around them, and in the K-12 curriculum they've actually taken some pretty good steps to sustain that interest," Hawkes said. "But in college, especially college chemistry, I believe the traditional first course is difficult, boring and irrelevant. We torture these students and it's time for it to stop."

Many of his colleagues disagree with that assessment, Hawkes said, and overcoming the inertia to change anything in higher education is not easy. But other college educators are highly supportive, he said, and the next step will be a high level debate within the American Chemical Society.

What Hawkes wants to see in a beginning chemistry course is a solid understanding of basic concepts, like the difference between an acid and a base. He wants students to learn the chemistry relating to some of the most important issues in the world, such as global climate change, pollution, acid rain, genetic engineering, biomedical advances, material science and other such topics. And he wants their first course - which is all many students ever take - to relate reasonably well to the careers they later pursue in medicine, engineering, science or just becoming an informed and chemically-literate citizen.

"What I don't want is to see students memorizing complex mathematical or chemical formulas, which they will almost immediately forget and would probably never do them any good anyway," Hawkes said. "And I also think we're too caught up in the artificial world of laboratory chemistry, when we ought to be learning more about messy, real-world chemistry."

In a nutshell, Hawkes said, if we are serious about encouraging more students to study and pursue careers in science, then the course - especially the first one - has to become more interesting. And quantitative algorithms, anions and angstrom units may have to become history.

Hawkes advocates what he calls a "zero based curriculum," where every single thing that is taught in an introductory chemistry course is challenged for its modern-day relevance, usefulness and interest. If it doesn't pass the test, throw it out, even if the concept has been taught for a century.

Hawkes says he anticipates the debate over what to leave in, and what to throw out, to be a spirited one, but done in the best interests of the student and the professions of science. And he hopes it will result in a general consensus on what every basic chemistry textbook should and should not have in it, a standard to which authors will then be held accountable, and an outline of the knowledge that national testing services will be able to test for and measure.

"Making our courses interesting and relevant does not mean making them shallow," Hawkes said. "There's evidence that high school students who have taken more progressive approaches to science education actually do better later on than those who take traditional courses."