Chemistry is well recognised as being full of abstract concepts that interface with other Science Technology Engineering & Maths (STEM) disciplines.
The subject is perceived as being difficult to understand, and this may in part be due to the juxtaposition of macroscopic and sub-microscopic properties of chemical systems. Chemical education is the study of how humans create the models to explain what they see, what are the particular challenges and misconceptions associated with the models, and how these can be overcome – essentially this topic is the study of how humans think about learning chemistry.
Practical chemistry teaching has the added complication of the setting in which the learning takes place. Manual dexterity, safety, planning and experimental design, social interactions, equipment are all examples of additional components that have to be considered by the experimentalist. These add significant mental demands for the scientist (known as cognitive load) and can detrimentally affect the learning experience in the lab environment if not managed correctly.
Within chemical education we have three main strands of interest:
Investigating potential barriers to learning in chemistry: Threshold concepts and common misconceptions.
Chemistry is a very conceptual subject, and many of these concepts are abstract. Consequently, there are a variety of aspects to the subject that students struggle to grasp. Our interest is in identifying these barriers, and how to develop resources to address them.
Illustrative examples of ideas we are investigating are given below, relating to the representation and interpretation of structures in both 2D and 3D.
Creating new practical resources, using modern pedagogical methods to develop the ‘skills’ students need for their future careers and help students to learn strategies to manage the cognitive load placed on them. This includes trying to illustrate how common instrumentation works.
The Department of Chemistry’s wide-ranging outreach programmes aim to inspire young people to aspire to study the chemical sciences post-18 and to support them to attain this goal.
Our research in this area focuses on the efficacy of our programmes in achieving these aims. Particular areas of interest include: the key transition phases between primary and secondary and secondary and university where young people move between institutions; teacher and technician expertise; the impact of content on perceptions of the utility of chemistry; and student reflections on the inclusivity of the chemical sciences.