In 1924, Chicago high school teacher, Herbert R. Smith, saw huge potential for human progress as a result of better chemical education. By his estimate, three-fourths of high school pupils did not do their best at their studies. He described how the then newly created compulsory child attendance laws resulted in poorer educational conditions and many students attending classes that had little desire to be there. The only way to compensate for this was to teach better. Teachers had to compete with the growing “amusement world” (para. 3). Getting students interested in learning would mean making the material applicable to student’s lives since “without contact with life the subject becomes dead to the pupil” (para. 3). He went on to give examples of what a good curriculum consists of. Herbert Smith speaks fondly of one of his chemistry teachers, Alexander Smith, because of his interesting way of wording questions. He suggested that students should at least have a good book, even if they do not have a good teacher like Alexander Smith. He praised Dr. Holmes of Oberlin College for “adding a human touch to cold science” in his book (para. 4). He also urges chemistry teachers to try to make experimentation directly applicable to student’s lives. He states that when students did an experiment with the same procedure involving vinegar or ammonia instead of standard lab chemicals, they wanted to repeat the experiment, rather than complain about having to do it again when they got a poor result. He quotes one student who was working on his twelfth trial with the household chemicals as saying, “…‘I want to be sure that it is right and it is fun anyway’” (para. 5). He even relates the story of a student who used chemistry to determine that a certain brand of ammonia was 2.3 percent ammonia, when she was assured by an unknowing grocer that it was 75 percent ammonia. He concludes that “[students] will endure drill and discipline if they understand its purpose” (para. 5). He complains, “…our high school teachers are out of contact with the service side of chemistry, and to use a commercial phrase they are salesmen trying to sell chemistry to our youth with little knowledge of its worth or power.” He ends by encouraging the American Chemical Society to use their practical knowledge of chemistry to create a journal that is accessible to “the secondary teachers, the pupils, and the public” (para. 5). (This article was in the first publication of the Journal of Chemical Education, which the American Chemical Society publishes.)
Despite being written eighty-five years ago, Smith’s article may have well been written yesterday. This shows how little science education has changed in the last century; the complaints are the same as today. The human element is often still missing. There is little, if any, connection made between what students learn in the classroom and how they use it outside of the classroom, especially in chemistry. This is extremely disappointing, because chemistry is an extremely practical field of study that affects everyone’s lives whether we realize it or not. Everything from digestion to de-icing a roadway falls under the field of chemistry; yet so many students are turned off to the subject due to a bad experience they had in high school. Chemistry may be challenging at times, but it certainly does not need to be boring, as Herbert Smith points out; all you need to do is make the content relevant and teach it in a way that sparks student interest.
The applications of this are immediately visible, not simply to chemistry teachers, but to teachers as a whole. (1) Show how the content relates to student’s daily lives; in this case, using common household materials really drove home the importance of the lesson for the students. (2) Find a book that your students can easily understand, so the students can learn content outside of the classroom without having to struggle. (3) Ask interesting question in creative ways; this is how Alexander Smith sparked interest in his students, including the eventual author of this article.
Smith, H. R. (1924). The response of high school pupils to chemical education. Journal of
Chemical Education, 1.
©2009 Jorge Eduardo Fernandez