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Vol. 27 No. 6
November-December 2005

Conference Call | Reports from recent conferences and symposia 
See also www.iupac.org/symposia

Physical Chemistry: Education and Challenges

by Michel Rossi

An International Symposium on Physical Chemistry: Education and Challenges, took place at Shaanxi Normal University in Xi’An from 9–11 August 2005, just before the 40th IUPAC Congress in Beijing. This symposium was supported both by the IUPAC Physical and Biophysical Chemistry Division, as well as the Committee on Chemistry Education (CCE). Both organizers of this symposium, Yu Fang of Shaanxi Normal University and ZhongQun Tian of Xiamen University, convened a highly successful meeting that focussed on several aspects of physical chemistry of importance today.

A persistent challenge for chemistry educators is that many, if not most, chemistry students the world over perceive physical chemistry as too difficult. In China, this difficulty will most likely increase as bilingual teaching is gradually introduced into the curricula of selected universities in order to improve communication with the English-speaking world.

Participants at the International Symposium on Physical Chemistry, each wearing a gift from conference organizers—an example of the excellent hospitality afforded all attendees.

Chinese specialists in physical chemistry education, as well as teachers at the university level, agreed a potential obstacle to bilingual teaching would be the willingness of Chinese teachers to bear the brunt of the change. Apparently, the English-speaking abilities of the younger generation no longer represent a significant barrier to communication with the rest of the world. Chinese teachers face a double challenge: modifying their teaching approach, which may have to significantly change once they start teaching in English, as well as overcoming the language barrier itself. However, it was felt that the advantages of the gradual introduction of bilingual education into physical chemistry by far outweighed the potential difficulties that may be encountered. Teachers from Arab-speak ing countries of North Africa expressed support for this process as did representatives from the European Union who face similar challenges in teaching.

China’s access to the world scientific community will greatly benefit from the preparedness of its younger generation of practicing physical chemists who will be facing a field that is undergoing, or has already undergone, significant changes. Materials chemistry, nanoscience, and biological chemistry will from now on be major subjects in physical chemistry in their own right. The consensus of those present was that switching some courses to English represented a win-win situation, both for faculty and staff: Not only will Chinese students benefit from direct interaction with their peers abroad, but it also may lead to more frequent exchanges of visiting faculty, from which both education and research in China may take advantage.

A well-known teacher and textbook author of physical chemistry in China, professor Wenxia Shen of Nanjing University, highlighted both the options that the Chinese teacher in physical chemistry may face in the selection of subject areas as well as some of the modern teaching methods that are available today. On that latter point she claimed that a combination of either static or animated presentations (e.g., Power Point) should be alternated with more “pedestrian” methods such as using chalk and a blackboard, which have proven their worth over time. This, she said, will allow students more time to accommodate and internalize the reasoning of the teacher during more challenging parts of the course, such as key derivations.

Peter W. Atkins of Oxford University, chairman of CCE, presented visualization concepts in physical chemistry that translate the meaning of an expression in a qualitative sense before fully exploring its quantitative ramifications.

The educational component of this conference was underlined by the presence of many junior faculty, graduate students, and masters students from all over China who significantly contributed to the discussions.

The conference also showcased research and development in contemporary physical chemistry in China, as presented by young researchers. This afforded a useful overview of modern physical chemistry research, ranging from classical aspects of electrochemistry and materials chemistry to modern interdisciplinary studies of interfacial processes, molecular dynamics involving solid surfaces, nanoscience, and molecular biology. The thread throughout the presentations was the fundamental understanding from the point of view of physical chemistry principles. As an example, Xinsheng Zhao of Peking University discussed the question of the thermodynamic driving force for key biological or electrochemical processes, which will be increasingly important for classifying and ultimately understanding complex biological processes in molecular biology. In addition, the presentation of Mostafa A. El-Sayed of the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta put the emphasis on the understanding of “old” interfacial phenomena that are well known to “classical” physical chemistry in terms of modern concepts involving thermodynamics, spectroscopy, molecular dynamics, and chemical kinetics in a truly interdisciplinary fashion. Therefore, it may not come as a surprise if the teaching of electrochemistry in China, for instance, occupies a predominant place in the curriculum of physical chemistry as it is key to such novel areas as chemical biology, materials chemistry, (photo)catalysis, and molecular electronics. In contrast, electrochemistry frequently occupies a less visible place in many American or European schools.

Michel J. Rossi <michel.rossi@epfl.ch> is a professor at the Laboratoire de Pollution Atmosphérique at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland. He was IUPAC representative at the conference and is currently secretary of the IUPAC Physical and Biophysical Chemistry Division.


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