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Canadian content in first-year chemistry.

Canadian Content in First-Year Chemistry

We have found the paper entitled "A new Gas from Radium", read to the Royal Society of Canada in 1901,[1] to provide an excellent basis for tutorial discussion with first-year science students. Apart from the obvious points for chemical discussion (what gas?, how would you then/now identify it and place it in the periodic table?) the paper leads to the natural discussion of questions unlike those arising from lecture notes or the textbook. "Who was Rutherford?" can be led into `what he did' and `how he did it' and the students can be encouraged to use the journals (with a little help) to find out the answers. The class can always be brought back to the curriculum by a discussion of Eve's 1914 paper on the "Modern Views on the Constitution of the Atom".[2] A discussion of his comment that "...there is a young school who go joyfully forward, selecting and suggesting somewhat wild hypotheses, and yet attaining an unexpected measure of success by their apparent reckless methods" can be made into a far better introduction to `the quantum atom' than is presented in any textbook. The "wild hypotheses" of today's science can also be fruitfully examined; the structure of DNA, the holes in the ozone layer, polywater and, why not, cold fusion!

And his footnote complaining that " Montreal, there are 11,000 people witnessing a wrestling match while few availed themselves of an invitation to meetings and discussions of the Royal Society", can be used as a starting point for a discussion (with many examples) of the specificity of language in the description of chemistry. The fun is having the students contribute to the discussion using (often for the first time) the vocabulary of science, thus realising the value of that vocabulary for the meaningful progression of the discussion.

Suitable for First Year

We have found papers published from the 1880s through to the 1960s suited for use in first-year chemistry which cover all areas of chemistry in the curriculum. The use of these published research papers, suitably chosen and if necessary `edited' (added explanatory comments, change of symbols, etc.) can make first-year chemistry come alive, giving it a sense of excitement and an interest and reality that does not readily come from the sanitized chemistry of the textbook. The use of data taken from research papers, for instance tabulated data suited to a graphical interpretation, and problem sets based on published research again gives a sense of `reality' to the problems posed. The student can be referred back to the original paper and the `problem' can be related to an experimental technique. The discussion of the experiment, its applicability, its limitations and its modern equivalent can all help to broaden the student's experience of chemistry. An example might be the 1924 paper by Maass and Morrison, [3] "The effect of molecular attractions on the total pressure of a gas mixture". A discussion of Dalton's Law of Partial Pressure and the van der Waals equation showing how poorly these predict real behaviour can be a useful experience for the students. With a good class, discussion can be extended to the vital expansion of the equation of state and the measurement of the coefficients, perhaps taking a look at papers by Schneider.[4] At least the students would become aware of the National Research Council of Canada and of its excellent record!

The discussions of such papers does not have to become a history (of science) addition to the course. The contents of the research papers must continually be related to the chemistry of the course, sometimes using the former to illustrate the latter, sometimes using the latter to help understand the former. Their use is thus still a `learning of chemistry', but from a different perspective. The learning arises out of the students' own curiosity and their ability (gained from finding and reading the papers) to satisfy that curiosity. A review article, such as that of Gillespie[5] (1963) or Bartlett[6] (1964), can be a much more `alive' focus for a tutorial discussion than the equivalent pages in a textbook. Given a little direction, the students can locate and understand the original papers; they learn to use the quoted references and even extend their reading using Chemical Abstracts. With this comes the realization that even at the first-year chemistry level, they can understand real chemistry, talk about the chemistry and even be critical of what they read. This is observed when the students question `why was this piece of research done' or `why was this assumption made'. Both problems can lead to the discussion of a wide spectrum of chemistry or bring in some physics or mathematics. This allows science to be seen as an interacting whole, particularly in the sense of the borrowing of ideas and techniques, something seldom found when the students are limited to the linear progression of the course textbook.

What the Student Gets

The suggestions made above are not new for the third- and fourth-year level. We often make use of our own or other researchers' work to make the course material connect with the excitement of today's research. Would the earlier introduction to the literature spoil this fourth-year rite-of-passage? What, in fact, does the introduction to `reading the literature' do for first-year students?

Their literacy skills can be poor, they have little understanding of the interaction between science and society (in terms of the environment or in terms of ethical considerations) and they are as ignorant as the non-scientist about the present or past science done in Canada. Any attempt to redress these sins or omissions (on our part, their mentors) must recognize that to be professionally competent the amount of chemistry to be known at the BSc level increases each year. The students themselves make a choice of elective courses that reflects a competitive economy, and those most valuable to their career goals lie in the areas of computing science, marketing and business.

Any attempt to put science in a social or historical context is viewed with suspicion by colleagues who find yesterday's science of little currency in the research laboratories and, in any case, sense that in both contexts science seems to have a less than glamorous image. It would thus seem that any attempt to improve upon the broader education of our students must come from within the curriculum. We suggest that the use of published papers in first-year chemistry can help. It certainly improves the level of chemical and general literacy and broadens the students' understanding of the `thinking' of the scientists and the development of science. The interplay between science and society can also be developed. Start with a look at MacFarlane's Presidential Address of 1887,[7] "The history of chemical technology for the last 30 years is the history of the utilization of waste products..." The acid problems of 100 years ago and the then proposed solutions can lead to a broader discussion of the general chemical pollution in Canada and the pros and cons of its treatment. Or use some of the papers of Barnes[8] dealing with the measurement of the fundamental properties of ice and show how much basic research is needed to solve a practical problem.


We make no apology for suggesting the use of `Canadian' research papers, we have much fine science to be proud of and if we talk about this research then perhaps by showing our students that science does exist in Canada, we shall be doing them and ourselves a favour.

We are presently engaged in putting together a collection of papers (written by scientists while researching in Canada) suited to the purpose of discussion, or of value by nature of the data given or useful for the design of a set problem, at the first- and second-year level. We welcome any suggestions you might have as to suitable material.


The authors wish to express their thanks for the financial support of this project from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (J.W. 1988), from the Simon Fraser University Community College Fellowship Programme (A.G. 1989), and for the excellent help of undergraduate research assistants Chris Hewer (Work Study Grant 1988/89) and Ian Carter (Capilano College Faculty Development Grant, 1989).


[1.] E. Rutherford and H. Brooks. Trans RSC Section III. 21

(1901). [2.] A.S. Eve, Trans RSC Section III. 9 (1914). [3.] O. Maass and D.M. Morrison, Trans RSC Section III. 49

(1924). [4.] W.G. Schneider, Can. J. Chem. 27, 230 (1940). [5.] R. Gillespie, J. Chem. Ed 40, 295 (1963). [6.] N. Bartlett, Endeavour 23. (88) 3, (1964). [7.] T. MacFarlane, Trans RSC Section III. 1 (1887). [8.] Perhaps starting with H.T. Barnes, Trans RSC

Section III. 37 (1896) or using H.T. Barnes, Trans RSC

Section III. 3 (1909).
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Author:Walkley, John; Gilchrist, Alan
Publication:Canadian Chemical News
Date:Mar 1, 1990
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