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Vol. 26 No. 6
November-December 2004

Tetrahedral Chemistry Education: Shaping What is to Come

by Peter Mahaffy

The tetrahedron is a geometrical figure instantly recognized by chemists as shaping countless compounds found in nature and synthesized in laboratories. At the beginning of the 20th Century, Jacobus van ‘t Hoff was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work that led to the prominence of this image in chemistry. Might the tetrahedron also be a geometrical figure that can help us describe and shape chemistry education in the 21st century?

In the last decade chemistry education has been fruitfully described by planar triangles, particularly the triangle of thinking levels (symbolic, macroscopic, and molecular) suggested by Alex Johnstone as being central to understanding chemistry.1 We’ve been very well served by that triangular metaphor, which has helped educators address misconceptions students have at each of the three thinking levels as they learn chemistry.

Yet chemistry education must respond to global challenges. Professional associations, including IUPAC and national chemistry societies, as well as the chemical industry are calling for fresh approaches to building trust between chemists and the general public and increasing global interest and understanding about our chemical world. Research presented to 350 delegates from 60 countries at the 18th International Conference on Chemical Education (ICCE) in Istanbul 3–8 August 2004 highlighted innovative ways of reaching the human learners in our classrooms and helping citizens around the world make responsible decisions about chemical substances, reactions, and processes central to their lives.

To build trust and public understanding we need to emphasize new contours of chemistry education, highlighting the human element in and outside the classroom. And the language and metaphors that we use to describe chemistry education need to reflect that new emphasis. In the opening session of the ICCE Conference, I suggested a new conceptual metaphor for our work with students and the public—that we move chemistry education into three dimensions, visualizing the shape of things to come in chemistry education as tetrahedral,2 rather than triangular planar. We need to find new ways of integrating the web of human connections into our students’ discovery of the symbolic, macroscopic, and molecular levels of thinking about chemistry.

Tetrahedral chemistry education can challenge us to find new ways of bringing chemistry to life for students and the public. This means grounding the macroscopic, molecular and symbolic dimensions of chemistry in “real world” problems and solutions, including industrial processes and environmental applications. We should stress educating science and non-science majors about the processes of science, and the interactions between science and society. Tetrahedral chemistry education also emphasizes the human learner—through case studies, investigative projects, problem solving strategies, active learning, and matching pedagogical strategies to the learning styles of students. Numerous examples of innovative and successful “tetrahedral” strategies were presented throughout the week of the ICCE Conference.

The Committee on Chemistry Education pays attention to the vital human element of IUPAC’s educational mandate. The committee, which has responsibility for the biennial ICCE conferences, focuses its work in two areas: Public Understanding of Chemistry (PUC) and Chemistry Education for Development (CED). Individuals, divisions, or standing committees with suggestions for activities and initiatives to shape the future of chemistry education are encouraged to contact CCE Chair Peter Atkins, PUC Subcommittee Chair Peter Mahaffy, or CED Subcommittee Chair Ram Lamba.

References
1 Johnstone, A. H. “Thinking About Thinking.” International Newsletter of Chemical Education 36, (1991): 7–10.
2 Mahaffy, P.G. “Moving Chemistry Education into a Third Dimension,” Alberta Science Education Journal Special Issue on Chemistry Education 36 (1), September 2003, 9–16.


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