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Scholars Blast Weak Chemistry Education

Posted January. 05, 2008 07:23,   


“Even if you don’t know the periodic table of elements, you can get into college.”

Baek Seong-hye, a professor at the Korea National University of Education, spoke Friday on the problems with high school chemistry textbooks.

“The most important part of chemistry is missing in chemistry textbooks,” she said.

The periodic table is a tabular method of displaying all atoms in the order of the number of protons. To learn the principle of chemical reaction and combination, such as why one atom of oxygen combines with two atoms of hydrogen to become water, understanding of the periodic table is necessary.

High school students who want to study liberal arts, not to mention those who want to study science, do not learn the table because “Chemistry II,” which contains the periodic table, is an elective course.

Professor Baek said, “Whenever chemists take issue with the matter, the Korea Institute for Curriculum and Evaluation always says, ‘Students find it difficult,’ or ‘Students won’t choose chemistry if they have to learn the periodic table.’ They are losing more important things in trying to draw student interest.”

○ No More ‘Why’ in Chemistry Textbooks

Textbooks draw interest from students by using everyday stuff. The number of students who take chemistry has increased, so “ChemistryⅠ” is considered a successful science subject.

“Chemistry textbooks are more like those on literature and art,” a member of the Korean Chemical Society said. “It is so regrettable to hear that earth science and biology will follow the example of chemistry textbooks.”

“Science is science because it shows the principles behind phenomenon. As chemistry textbooks exclude in-depth explanations, non-thinking students with shallow knowledge are produced.”

Professors and the Korean Chemical Society are now making a chemistry reference book that includes content necessary for those who want to study the science. In the existing curriculum, making textbooks with detailed explanations about principles is difficult. A Seoul National University professor said, “I will never participate in making textbooks because of interference from publishing firms.”

○ Inaccurate Understanding and Memorizing Formulas

As textbooks choose easy explanations over in-depth ones, errors are often found. A good example is “boiling point elevation” of the “dilute solution chapter” in ChemistryⅡ.

When a solute (salt) is dissolved in a liquid solvent (water), the boiling point elevates to 100 degree Celsius. Many textbooks explain that the rising boiling point of a solvent covers the surface of the liquid, reducing the surface area and making solvent particles jump into the air.

Professor Baek refuted the explanation, saying, ”If that is true, the boiling point of water contained in a bottle with a small bottleneck will rise.”

In other words, an easier approach draws a wrong analogy or skips necessary explanations.

She said, “Students are busy learning complicated formulas without an appropriate level of understanding. Easy textbooks are leading to the calculization of chemistry.”

Some say the lack of in-depth understanding of principles explains why Korea fell from first place in 2000 to 11th in 2006 for science in the Program for International Student Assessment.

○ 18th Century Textbooks

One of the most confusing chemical concepts for high school students is the difference between an element and an atom. Most textbooks say an element is an indivisible unit of pure substance, a definition dating back to the 17th and 18th centuries and far before the emergence of an atom. As the concept of the atom advanced, the element was redefined as a substance grouped with the same kind of elements. As atoms are divided into electrons and protons, the definition of an element further changed into a substance consisting of atoms with the same number of protons.

One chemistry professor said, “An element was a pure substance under a past definition, and with no explanation about atoms, an isotope should be understood as a totally different concept.”

The basic chemical definition of acid and base is not keeping up with trends. In middle school textbooks, students learn that a base is a substance that releases the hydroxyl ion (OH-). But in high school, the definition changes into a substance that accepts the hydrogen ion (H+). In college, a base is defined as a substance that gives electron pairs. Only if they get higher education do students learn the latest definition.

”The electron pair is not a difficult concept,” said one chemist. “Inserting the latest definition in high school textbooks is one way to minimize confusion in college.”