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A Bit of Classroom Chemistry

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Life as a new or otherwise inexperienced chemistry teacher isn’t easy. You may be asked to conduct labs that are unfamiliar to you. Your classroom equipment may be outdated, or in short supply. Your class sizes may be too big, which makes managing a hands-on chemistry activity difficult.

If this sounds familiar, you might be interested in a new report published by the National Research Council. It focuses on “strengthening high school chemistry education through teacher outreach.” Unlike some reports by the congressionally chartered NRC, this one doesn’t contain specific findings or recommendations. Instead, it examines some of the common challenges facing chemistry teachers and looks at how teaching might be improved through professional development and other means. It was based on a workshop in 2008, which brought together teachers from top high schools, academic researchers, federal officials, and others.

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Perhaps not surprisingly, the report says that research shows that students who are exposed to high-quality chemistry tend to get better grades in that subject in college. High school course requirements in chemistry have increased over the years, and many more students report taking those classes than they did a decade ago, it says. (Page 13)

Yet teachers report major hurdles in trying to prepare adequate chemistry lessons for students, the authors note. While most high school chemistry teachers have taken college classes above the level they are assigned to teach, they also say they need help in using technology in instruction, in working with students with special needs, and in using “inquiry”-based lessons, or crafting lessons based on the way that actual scientists perform science. Teachers also report struggling to connect the work that goes on in chemistry labs to students' everyday experiences. Lab work also tends to be disconnected from coursework, an issue I looked at in a story from a few years ago. (Chapter 3)

The report examines a number of options for helping prepare teachers for chemistry lessons, including teacher-to-teacher mentoring, professional development, and informal networks in which chemistry teachers can share ideas. It also mentions a few programs (some sponsored by the federal government) that put K-12 teachers in touch with professional scientists. (Chapters 5 and 6)

After you’ve had a chance to peruse the report, give me your thoughts. What are the most common challenges that chemistry teachers face, and how can they overcome them?

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