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The purpose of national chemistry week.

The Purpose of National Chemistry Week

The idea of a National Chemistry Week originated in Australia about nine years ago and the Royal Australian Chemical Institute has sponsored such an event every year since 1982.[1] In 1987, a National Chemistry Day was announced in the United States.[2] The American Chemical Society members were concerned that the general public were receiving an excessively negative view of chemistry [3]; that the main activity of chemists was to 'invent' more nasty, obnoxious and hazardous materials with which to pollute the environment and 'poison' the foodstuffs. The combatting of this chemophobia has become a major concern of the ACS, and their efforts have included a number of programmes such as "Chemistry in the Community" (ChemCom). The concept of a National Chemistry Event has also spread to Eire, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom.[4]

The intent of a National Chemistry Week in Canada was to serve the same purpose of combatting chemophobia. [5] Chemophobia certainly seems as prevalent in this country as elsewhere [6] and it is reinforced by our exposure to the media from south of the border. For example, Gerbner comments on movie roles: [7] "scientists, while on the whole positively presented, have a greater share of ambivalent and troublesome portrayals than other professionals...Scientists are a bit older and stranger than other professionals and more likely to be foreigners. For every villainous scientist in a major role there are five who are good. But for every bad doctor there are 19 who are good; for every bad law enforcement officer there are 40 good".

The companion of chemophobia is the misunderstanding of basic chemical concepts. There have been many studies of public ignorance of scientific ideas, the most recent showing that one-third of those interviewed in the UK agreed that common table salt consisted of calcium carbonate.[8] However, a most significant finding was that the better-informed respondents had a more positive attitude towards science. It is worth noting that Canadians are as ignorant as others: a recent study on scientific literacy among entering college students in Canada showed an appalling number of misconceptions of commonly-used scientific terms, such as pH and acid rain.[9]

At the Grenfell College, the members of the chemistry department have been concerned for some time about the public ignorance and misconceptions of chemistry, thus we enthusiastically appropriated the idea of a Chemistry Day from the ACS in 1987.[10] At that time, a few Local Sections of The Chemical Institute of Canada also organized events. We were most pleased to hear of the 1989 National Chemistry Week that was planned by the CIC and, indeed, we offered a similar essay competition to schools as we had done so successfully two years earlier.

However, upon reading the list of nation-wide events in the September 1989 issue of ACCN,[11] the authors became concerned that the original goals were being overlooked. The two preferred activities seem to be 'Open House' of an academic department or a chemistry 'Magic Show'. The former is likely to produce little educational advantage and it is more aimed towards a promotion of the image of that particular department. In addition, those that visit the campus are most likely to be themselves scientifically literate and not part of the audience that we need to reach the most.

The 'Magic Show', in our opinion, is actually deleterious to our cause. Like the slogan of the 1989 National Chemistry Week campaign, it promotes the view that chemistry is indeed 'magical' - that it is full of 'tricks' (water to wine, etc.) and of 'bangs & smells'. Real chemistry is fascinating but it is not 'fun'. Schebici[12] has discounted the value of demonstrations where the educational function is virtually non-existent while Nagel[13] has expressed concern for the predilection for dangerous demonstrations. We feel that such demonstrations encourage the wrong sort of student into chemistry while discouraging those of a quieter temperament, some of whom might make excellent chemists. However, we are not rejecting the idea of public demonstrations outright. As was shown at McGill,[14] it is possible to produce a public chemistry show with a high educational content.

In our view, the purpose of National Chemistry Week is to provide a particular time during which we should redouble our efforts to raise the image of chemistry among the community at large. This can best be done by involving the local media during Chemistry Week, and indeed, throughout the rest of the year. For example, one of us (P.K.M.) has supplied our daily newspaper with commentaries on such topics as PCBs, the ozone layer, and drugs in sports, and it is illustrative of the influence of such articles that they have been published by several other newspapers, such as the Regina Leader-Post. Nigel Bunce, FCIC, at the University of Guelph has also been active in this area.[15] However, as Pockley describes in detail, writing for the print media requires skill and effort.[15] Although readers are interested in reading about science, they (and the newspaper (editors) do not want to read lengthy, erudite pieces of academic prose. To illustrate the extent of the possibilities, the American Chemical Society arranged for 13 major newspapers across the United States to carry a 12-page supplement on chemistry entitled "Solutions for the Future" during their Chemistry Week in 1989.[16]

Another influential avenue is to aim activities towards schools. Some studies in Holland, Britain and the US have shown that students cannot relate chemistry to the challenges facing society.[17] Attempts to influence their views need to be done with careful planning and with support from, and involvement by, the chemistry teachers at the respective schools. For example, one of us (S.B.A.) is invited annually to give a presentation on "Careers Related to Chemistry" to chemistry students at our largest local high school.

It is more difficult to have a succesful National Chemistry Week in Canada with our smaller population base and with the CSC lacking the massive resources of the American Chemical Society or the Royal Society of Chemistry. However, we should certainly be able to mount an effort similar to that of Australia, New Zealand, or Eire. If we are to spiritedly embrace the idea of a National Chemistry Week as an annual event, we should be clear on the purpose and aims. We need to focus upon particular tasks. For example, in 1988 the Irish Chemistry Week activities were aimed at school children and their parents, as, it was argued, the damage to attitudes towards chemistry is done early in the educational process.[4]

In Australia, the Australian Chemical Industry Council has provided significant financial support including a subsidy for the production cost of an annual Australian Chemistry Resource Book.[19] This book has received world-wide acclaim. Among the events organized in Australia for 1989 were a National Chemistry Quiz; a National Chemistry Week Short Story Competition; a National Chemical Analysis Competition; and a National Chemistry Week Feature Article Competition.[20]

It is of note that the Irish National Chemistry Week was co-sponsored by the Irish Science Teachers' Association, the Institute of Chemistry of Ireland, and the Federation of Irish Chemical Industry. Although it would be a greater challenge to organize in this country, it certainly seems essential that a Canadian National Chemistry Week should involve other bodies, such as the Science Council of Canada, provincial science teachers' organizations, College Chemistry Canada, and representatives of the Canadian chemical industry. This does not mean the low activation-energy route of simply mailing letters to the appropriate organizations but a long-term strategy of developing contacts with these organizations. The ultimate goal should be a National Chemistry Week Committee having representation from as many of these bodies as possible and having a significant budget for the development and production of support materials.

At the same time, we should review the successes and failures of this year's events. Of equal importance, there should be an effort to acquire as much knowledge and experience as possible from the National Chemistry Weeks in other countries. For example, in 1987 the ACS circulated a package of materials containing advice on how to organise successful National Chemistry Day Activities. It is a distressing tendency for academics, when outside their own field of endeavour, to ignore rigorous methodology and instead 'reinvent the wheel' and repeat the mistakes of others.

Finally, the Canadian chemical community must seriously consider if there is enough interest and enthusiasm among Canadian chemists for a National Chemistry Week to make it a meaningful gesture. References [1.] J.H. O'Donnell, "National Chemistry Week:5-12 June

1982" Chem. Austral., 49, 227 (1982). [2.] J.J. Lagowski, "November 6:A Day of Opportunity" J.

Chem. Educ., 64, 473 (1987). [3.] A. Yankwich et al., "Recommendations of the American

Chemical Society Chemical Education Task Force" J.

Chem. Educ., 61, 845 (1984). [4.] "Chemistry for the People", Chem. Brit., 24, 101 (1988):

"Chemistry Week: 17-24 October" Chem. Brit., 24, 1237

(December 1988). [5.] O.S. Tee, "National Chemistry Week", ACCN, 41, 38

(January 1989). [6.] G.W. Rayner-Canham, "Public Chemophobia - A Canadian

Perspective" Chem 13 News, 3 (Oct. 1984). [7.] G. Gerbner "Science on Television: How it affects public

conceptions" Issues Sci. Technol. 3, 109 (1987). [8.] J.R. Durant, G.A. Evans, and G.P. Thomas "The Public

Understanding of Science", Nature, 340, 11 (1989). [9.] S.B. Abhyankar, "What Do the First Year College Students

Know about Some Commonly Used Scientific

Terms?" presented at the North American Chemical

Congress, Toronto, 1988. [10.] G.W. Rayner-Canham, "A Celebration of Chemistry

Day", ACCN, 40, 8 (February 1988); "The Grenfell College

Chemistry Day Competition", ACCN, 40, 39

(April 1988). [11.] "National Chemistry Week, October 29 - November 4,

1989", ACCN, 41, 48 (September 1989). [12.] R.A. Schibeci, "Demonstrating the Romance of

Chemistry" Educ. Chem., 25, 150 (1988). [13.] M.C. Nagel, "Dangerous Demos" J. Chem. Educ., 63,

81 (1986). [14.] W, Worthy "Montreal Trio Brings Chemistry to the

Public", Chem. Eng. News, 66. 29 20 June 1988. [15.] N.J. Bunce. "Universities and the Public Image of

Chemistry", ACCN, 41, 13 (January 1989). [16.] P. Pockley, "Communicating Science to the Sceptics"

Impact Sci. Society, 38, 219 (1988). [17.] G. Burton, "Chemistry: What Impressions Do A-Level

Students Have?" Educ. Chem. 25, 176 (1988). [18.] "Activities Across Nation Mark National Chemistry

Week" Chem. Eng. News, 67, 26 (13 November 1989). [19.] C.L. Fogliani, "Chemistry - Bonding the Asian Pacific

Region" Chem. Austral., 56 206 (1989). [20.] C.L. Fogliani, "Australian National Chemistry Week:

July 23-29, 1989" Chem. Austral., 56, 212 (1989).
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Author:Abhyankar, Sudhir B.; Monaghan, Patrick K.; Rayner-Canham, Geoffrey W.
Publication:Canadian Chemical News
Article Type:column
Date:Mar 1, 1990
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