7 YBA Chemistry Teacher

In my blog yba teacher I confess to a small white lie or being economic with the truth – teaching is a great job but Chemistry teaching is the best!

[Now I know there are frustrations, problems, annoyances, SLT (hey I’m one) BUT here are my positive thoughts.]

What it is about Chemistry and teachers?  It’s a great subject to teach, though not easy (are any?) so what do I think makes our subject unique , intriguing and beguiling.

It has a great intellectual capacity and challenge. There is no doubt there is a lot to know, a lot to understand, a great deal to work out,  a challenge of how it all applies but at its most basic Chemistry is about ‘problem solving’. From the exam questions to the global problems and from the latter the history of discovery, serendipity, heroes and well a few anti-heroes too, some absolutely lifechanging discoveries and developments and some we are overwhelmingly embarrassed about. but it generates huge curiosity. One of my first ever lessons with a brand new shiny y7 and I added acid to indicator, then added alkali and as it went from red back to green a small child open-mouthed, staring from a silent audience in my lab said “bl**dy hell that’s amazing” and the whole class and me gasped, his face said it all, one of astonishment and yes we had a word about his words. but who couldn’t read about our subject and not be curious. There are patterns and themes and exceptions and rules and maths and observation and theory and practice, what could be more intriguing?

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For me the real highlight is that it has great stories : of discovery, of changing the world for the better, of poison and intrigue, of dedication, of enviable cleverness, of battling against the odds. Stories of people (too many to list) and materials. it has a great history, it’s involved in culture, it is …everywhere. If you are a non chemist reading this get hold of ‘Chemistry world’ from the RSC in a local library and I defy you to read two or three copies and still not agree: medicines, dyes and paints, fuel, energy, food, agriculture, materials from plastics to metals, detergents, cosmetics, …..just soooo wonderful. I might even claim the history of mankind is driven by Chemistry, you can’t fight a battle against warring invaders in a bronze age without..bronze, and you can’t fly aeroplanes to escape without Aluminium. I can only tease you here, otherwise it’s a book on the way!

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Resources: the subject has come along way in classrooms since I learnt in the 70’s from a textbook and the occasional copy of “New Scientist”. There are fantastic books and blogs, magazines and great stuff for children like the wonderful “Chemical Chaos” We have great writers like John Emsley, how could you read anything he has written without being desperate to share the story. But it creeps in elsewhere in Physics and Biology from DNA to solar panels…we are here, there everywhere –  #loveChemistry. I have taught Salters’ Chemistry since it was first piloted in the 1990’s but if you don’t teach it, get the Chemical story book and I’ll refund your money if you don’t make good use of it

People: The subject is a living one and so we study past, present and future at school and then there are graduates, PhD’s  and post docs, researchers and professors, retired Chemists who blog and write and tweet, there are Uni researchers sharing their research. Check out the RSC Learn Chemistry  and make sure your school is involved. If you are not on twitter get started, and follow the likes of…actually it’s not fair to mention a few here, there are so many keen to help and half the fun is finding them on twitter, some may even retweet this blog. In due course I might get around to listing the bloggers and tweeters. Alternatively search for #Chemistry or #lovechemistry. There are also the phenomenon that are twitter chats such as #asechat. Over my 30+ years I have had the great genuine pleasure of meeting all sorts of academics, industrialists and educators. They have always been willing to share and help and support. I’m not sure I have capitalised on this but it can be done. My school had a wonderful industrial link with Boots locally for many years when industrial visits were part of the specification – Boots were hugely helpful and my students found the visits to….essentially pipes and pots…fascinating. How? The whole visit was around solving problems in production of Ibuprofen and hey….they were good. [see ofqual there is more to teaching than assessment ut your is a critical role!]

Web based resources. In recent years we have seen a growth in resources on school websites and university websites and fantastic links to be pursued and followed. Organisations well preeminently the RSC but also the ASE. Local sections, paid staff and volunteers, publications and websites and the most wonderful CPD.There are foundations like Nuffield, organisations like CIEC, NSLC and University departments too numerous to mention, my experience is that these people are always willing to respond and support too and I’ll add in any more if you let me know any obvious one’s omitted. I have though to mention @RSC_Eic because their website and magasine has a special place in my work but it is always an inspiring read with something to make you think and something for you to try and use. stuff for students, events to take students along to and great ideas to use with them. I can’t leave this section without referring to videos ( hey we watched the Christmas lectures in my day) and of course youtube has great links. You really must store periodic table videos from the University of Nottingham in your favourites but here is my all time favourite video all the way from 1947.

Practicals: From demonstration to class practicals through to investigations. I still love demo’s, yes a few bangs and a few ‘ooh agh’ colour changes or explosions but also the finer details, demonstrating a titration properly and seeing youngsters learn and do their own, aiming for really good results. Class practicals, especially if we keep them a little open ended and coax some extra curiosity. No not those we have to use in coursework or controlled assessments, just great practicals. If you get a chance make use of local companies or Universities willing to show/use some of their big kit too. I am still scared when we start our Investigations with Y13. Perhaps ten or twelve different experiments over 3 weeks, carefully planned, executed only to find this is Chemistry and sometimes doesn’t do as it should, written up, analysed and evaluated and all that for 90 UMS, and they enjoyed it. Not sure where this is going in future Ofqual!

Making nylon

Exam questions ( well applying Chemistry) I mentioned intellectual curiosity and once pupils have learnt enough basics ( although my University tutor claimed that took 3 years as an undergraduate) we can then solve problems. I refer readers to OCR specification assessment materials, they are a major challenge as pupils look at their problem solving in a new context. All the exam boards have stuff like this. You can’t really look at solutions to an ozone crisis without understanding bond energy. You can’t look at fuel replacements without a deep knowledge of thermodynamics and despite the interest in a manufacturing process you really do need to get a good grasp of equilibrium and kinetic Chemistry. I recall one bright A Level student say to me after their exam “Sir that was really hard, you never taught us about poisoning deer” which was true, the derivation of course was Arsenic chemistry (also not taught but worked from the pattern of N and P). I love those new and different contexts and I always reckon one of these young pupils might just be able to replicate photosynthesis in a test tube one day.

Frontier stuff: Yes we can share the here and now, sure we have to cover atomic models established back at the turn of the last Century but we can look at the major modern progressive stuff too:green chemistry or clean technology, computer modelling and yes we can read about whoever won the Nobel Prizewinners in Chemistry (another brilliant website) and we can think why and what it might mean.

Chemical education research it’s not just a subject with diverse, interesting and challenging content from the worlds of Industry, academia, research, Art, culture. But we do have proper chemical educational research, and like the content it’s not just a UK tradition. if you need a starter, try this site, but do look at stuff going on in Higher Education too as much can be brought down into secondary.for example there is a lot of discussion going on about ‘flipped classrooms’ bet we can draw from that. ( oh and they might learn a bit from us too). So lots of wonder CPD and commitment, including the RSC’s latest paper on Chemistry teaching and I added a positive but challenging voice in a recent endpoint, whatever happens the commitment is there for the profession.

Rare orchid, smells of chocolate, makes the milk of cows that eat it turn blue!

Rare Swiss orchid, smells of chocolate, makes the milk of cows that eat it turn blue.

Activities  Pupils do love their practicals but we are richly blessed, we can stimulate great data analysis, we can develop and try out micro scale practicals, we can turn to molecular and computer modelling. Back in the day I tried so hard to think in 3D and I think my inability prevented my progress but then along comes molymod models and then computer graphics. This will light up the Chemical world. I have a few old OHP I drew to explain electrolysis, atoms with a bit missing (cations) and atoms with a little extra electron being picked up and I flashed these up quickly to make a video. Laughable now as we can see so many animations, we can even do ‘play’ experiments in school altering the temperature and pressure etc of complex reactions or processes.

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Ah – the Element of surprise

Careers– I think Chemistry qualifications show some sort of standard even in this ever changing time. Our pupils are well served by a GCSE in Chemistry, an AS or A level and BTec’s in linked areas ( though I wish the vocationals could be sorted properly!) and of course a massive variety of degrees and linked degrees. But we chemistry teachers can get great careers too, after all these teachers are good problem solvers ( theoretical and practical) they are good communicators, they know about research principles and hopefully they are a touch eccentric and they share great good humour: need I say more! Interestingly the fantastic Chemistry teachers I have met and worked with, very often still think of their classroom lessons as the highlight, they really do #lovechemistry.

Colleagues – I work with and have always worked with great chemistry colleagues, sharing ideas, learning from each other, thinking how to improve what we do or frankly working out how to use some new spec or new assessment model to advantage. Just discussing Chemistry with another person interested in the world of Chemistry, is frequently uplifting.

Students– best bit of the job, trying to teach them, trying to help them learn, coping with their lows and highs, getting them through mocks, tests, exams, answering their questions, moving their ideas, challenging their understanding, helping them solve problems, sharing the stories, working out how to motivate this one, challenge that one and support them all. The best being when they get it, when the proverbial penny drops, when they see the bigger picture. The other reward when they enjoy chemistry, decide to choose it into y12 or y13 or HE. Especially those having chosen it as a ‘ best of a bad choice’ who find they too #love chemistry and then think of HE or employment in the world of Chemistry. Seeing them sailing off into the Chemistry sunset….or sunrise 🙂

So if you are a prospective chemist wondering about teaching at school or in HE…go for it, you won’t regret it, and if you are a Chemistry teacher in the broadest sense:

Q1 What else do you think makes it a great subject?

Q2 Are there other things professional bodies could do to help us?

Q3 What obstacles that stand in the way do we need to shift?

Q4 How else can we share our enthusiasms?

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