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Making science fun!


Recent issues of popular magazines have publicized the generally low level of scientific knowledge exhibited by the North American public. Yet all of us realize that a better understanding of scientific issues is essential to function effectively in today's technological society. One way to address this need is for scientists to actually get out into schools and participate directly in scientific education. This is what the Partners in Education programme is all about. Each year some 40 Dow volunteers go to junior-high schools in the community and share scientific principles with students in grades seven to nine.

This is the third year Dow has sponsored the Partners in Education programme. The Dow volunteers deliver presentations, with hands-on experience, on "Man's Use of Geological Formations and Sedimentation", "Manufacturing Compounds from Basic Elements", and the "Principles of Matter". The programme's objective is to help students see a connection between theory and practical applications in the real world.

For the last three years, I've been teaching grade nine students a class on "Manufacturing Compounds from Basic Elements". This module was developed by a group of chemists from Western Canada Division and science teachers from schools in the area. The module builds on concepts learned by the students in their science classes in previous months. These include Dalton's Atomic Theory, and basic ideas on atoms, molecules, and compounds. Our teams of four go into the classrooms to demonstrate that what we do at Dow, manufacture chemicals from basic building blocks, is based on the very same concepts the students are learning in their science classes. Eighty-eight minutes can be a long time for grade nine students to sit and listen to us talk about chemical concepts no matter how fascinating it is to us as chemists! For that reason, we've structured the class such that the students break into small groups and do some actual experiments themselves. One activity involves using molecular models to build various compounds starting from familiar natural resources. The second activity demonstrates recovering elements from compounds using a candle experiment. The students all have a chance to use a 'talking' gas detector to monitor oxygen levels. This seems to be a popular part of the experiment with this age group. In addition to these activities the class views a video of a lab demonstration on the manufacture of chlorine and nylon polymerization.

Feedback regarding the programme from both students and teachers has been very positive. For the students, their favourite part is doing the experiments. Teachers comment on the fact that our demonstrations add relevance to the theory they are teaching. Hopefully students leave with the idea that products they know and use such as cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and compact disks, are manufactured using the basic chemical principles which they are learning in school.

For the participants from Dow, the programme has benefits too. I personally enjoy the opportunity to do something different for a few days and get out into the classrooms. It gives me a chance to see first hand the youth of today and hear their perceptions about science directly. As a chemist and also a parent, I am interested in seeing how science is taught and in contributing to scientific education. I also feel it is an opportunity to encourage young men and women to consider a scientific career particularly since there seems to be a decline in the numbers of young people entering the sciences. Junior-high students are making important decisions about the careers they might wish to pursue. From this point of view, I feel there is tremendous benefit from having a group of practicing technical professionals, men and women, come into their classrooms.

Since the programme started three years ago, it has grown considerably. Approximately 1,300 students in Fort Saskatchewan and area schools have taken part in the programme each year. Western Canada Division plans to continue the programme. Representatives from Dow are meeting with school boards to see if any presentations need to be changed to meet the new science curriculum planned for Alberta schools this fall. For all the participants in the programme, this means we'll all continue to have a chance at Making Science Fun!
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Author:Fairhurst, Mary
Publication:Canadian Chemical News
Date:Sep 1, 1990
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