Infusing curiosity for chemistry

Chemistry is everywhere – right from the food that students eat to the toys that they play with. If approached the right way, teachers can build on the natural curiosity of children and make chemistry a subject that they will enjoy learning.

It is rare to find a student who has a pronounced aversion to chemistry. Sure, he or she may find a particular topic or two difficult to really get into, but overall, chemistry does not get much of a bad rap as, say, mathematics does.

Kameshwari Sharma, a Std 12 student of Narayana Junior College, Hyderabad, lives and breathes chemistry. It is her favorite subject, and she “gets it” in a way that many of her peers don’t. But Kameshwari did not always love chemistry. When she was in the ninth class, it was her teacher who helped her see the subject in a new light. “He used to get all of us involved in the topic of discussion. He would also explain things in a funny way; and when we have had a laugh about a concept, we never forget it,” says Kameshwari.

Indeed, involvement, humour, and wonder can be powerful in helping students really understand the subject. “I find the lab experiments fascinating. Why, some experiments can even be done at home. For our chemistry exhibition at school, our team performed a magic trick by turning copper into silver and gold using the principles of electrochemistry, and also made a magic lava lamp using the confirmation test for H2S. Everybody loved it,” adds Kameshwari.

K. Manogna, another 12th standard student of Narayana Junior College, prefers physics over chemistry. Funnily enough, both of them describe their respective favorite subjects as “the central science which explains everything that happens in the world.” This goes on to show that whatever has captured the imagination of students, will be used by them to directly relate it to their environment.

Not surprisingly, another teacher had played a significant role in helping develop Manogna’s interest in chemistry. This teacher, who always used memorable examples, brought an extra dimension to the subject. He also told them about a few chemistry tricks such as how to make invisible ink from lemon juice. Like most students, Manogna too enjoys the lab sessions more than the theory, which she says can be “a little dry.”

Mrs. V. Manikumari teaches chemistry to plus one and plus two students at St. Pious College, Hyderabad. She makes a pertinent observation about how students react to chemistry. “From what I have observed, students are usually apprehensive about equations. They may know the meaning of the terms, but there is often no real understanding,” says Manikumari.

“If you make the subject interesting, students will understand it better. Fortunately, chemistry has interesting elements to pique the curiosity and interest of children,” adds Manikumari.

Droning on in a monotone and dictating notes for exams do not contribute much to the students’ real understanding of the subject. It is essential to get the students involved. Consider Kameshwari’s teacher who explained covalent bonds by getting all the students to join hands and pretend to be atoms. It is unlikely that any of the students who were in that classroom would forget the concept.

If students understand the “why” behind a particular concept, it becomes unnecessary for them to mechanically memorize anything. “Chemistry can seem like it is full of equations and abstract mathematical concepts which may be a little difficult to visualize. So use diagrams and models extensively. Give them real life examples such as the chemical process of a ripening fruit, the acids in various food items like lemons, etc. Encourage them to observe the environment so that they are part of the learning process rather than mere recipients of classroom lecturing,” suggests Manikumari.

Encourage the students to explore books beyond their prescribed textbooks. With the availability of online book retailers such as flipkart and others, buying books has become easier than ever before. There are also several websites that students might find interesting.

“Teachers must also read from other books, especially foreign authors, so that they have a well-rounded understanding of the subject and innovative ideas about how to present the concepts to students,” suggests Manikumari.

Encourage questions
“When teachers are not friendly and approachable, we hesitate to go them to clear our doubts. Teachers must welcome our questions and not be dismissive by asking us to refer the textbooks. The reason we have questions is because we don’t understand the textbook,” says Manogna.

Manikumari stresses the importance of involving students in the study process. “Discuss the concepts with them, encourage questions and do as many numerical questions as you can in the class. Once in a while, pose questions to students as well to check their understanding,” adds Manikumari.

Create some energy in the classroom
Let’s face it, most lectures are boring. Up the energy levels in the classroom and students will naturally react to it. “Vary your pitch, maintain eye contact with everyone, crack some jokes and get the ball rolling,” says Manikumari.

Revising the previous day’s topic before you start the day’s session is a good idea. Also, sum up the session as you end the class. Instead of dictating notes verbatim, encourage students to write in their own words. Illustrate concepts by drawing on the blackboard, and also use audio-visual and computer aids wherever possible.

Do not use jargon
While it is true that chemistry has a lot of terms that are not commonly used, it is not advisable to talk all jargon in class. Use simple, easy to understand language. “A good teacher will strive to create interest in the minds of the students. There are many things that you can talk about to make them feel curious and connect the subject to their daily lives. Explore the paper industry with them, food industry, pharmaceuticals, plastics… the possibilities are endless,” says Manikumari.

Bring up interesting topics, it could even be a little controversial, and everybody will be listening. The discussion can then slowly progress to fundamental concepts in the syllabus.

Challenge your students
Throw a challenge at the students. Tell them that no matter how hard they try, they will not be able to dissolve salt in kerosene, while it will readily dissolve in water. Ask them to find out why, and discuss the concept of polarity the next day.

Praise the students who were able to figure out the answer. Not only will they feel good about themselves and try extra hard the next time, it will also encourage the rest of the students so that they can also be congratulated by the teacher at the next opportunity.

Most students want to find out how things work and why, you just have to bring out that natural curiosity from within and they will learn all by themselves, with the teacher just guiding them along.

Here are a few books and websites that you can recommend to the students:

For young children

Fizz, Bubble & Flash!: Element Explorations & Atom Adventures for Hands-On Science Fun!
By Brandolini Anita and Michael P. Kline

The Cartoon Guide to Chemistry
By Larry Gonick and Craig Criddle

Basher Science: The Periodic Table: Elements with Style! (and other books in the Basher series)
By Adrian Dingle and Simon Basher

Horrible Science: Chemical Chaos 1st Edition (and other books in the Horrible Science series)
By Nick Arnold

For senior students

The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments
By Robert Brent and Harry Lazarus

Chemistry Made Simple
By John T. Moore Ed.D.

Chemistry: The Central Science
By Theodore E. Brown, H. Eugene H LeMay, Bruce E. Bursten, Catherine Murphy and Patrick Woodward

Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments: All Lab, No Lecture (DIY Science)
By Robert Bruce Thompson

Websites

Chem4Kidshttp://www.chem4kids.com/
This website provides basic chemistry information about things such as matter, elements, atoms, reactions, the periodic table and biochemistry.

The periodic table comic bookhttp://www.uky.edu/Projects/Chemcomics/
The website features a periodic table on the home page. You click on an element to see a list of comic book pages involving the element. Great way to really understand the periodic table.

Chemistry at Khan’s Academyhttps://www.khanacademy.org/science/chemistry
This popular website has several videos which explain basic and advanced concepts of chemistry.

Chemistry linkshttp://www.nclark.net/Chemistry
It has an extensive list of chemistry resources spread among the internet. Useful for both students and teachers.

The author is a freelance science writer. She can be reached at salim.nisha@gmail.com.


This is a republication of an article that first appeared in Teacher Plus in June 2013 under the title 'An Infusion of Enthusiasm'.

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