Nature Chemistry | The Sceptical Chymist

Don’t know much about chemistry…

I’m going to be moving house in a few days time, and the packing process is in full swing. Yesterday, as I was emptying my cupboards, I found some old notes for a talk that I gave at a local school. It was aimed at ten-year-olds, and was intended to fire them up about chemistry.

As I recall, the talk went quite well. I finished off with a few ‘kitchen chemistry’ experiments — indicators made from boiled red cabbage, acid-base reactions with vinegar and sodium bicarbonate, anything that was safe, colourful and went ‘pop’. The teachers asked the kids to write about what they’d seen, and showed me some of the reports about a week later.

I was shocked to see that almost every single report began with the words “When I found out it was a talk about science, I thought it was going to be really boring.” Fortunately, they always went on to say they actually really enjoyed it, and I was pleased to see how much they’d taken in.

Talking with the teachers, they said they weren’t surprised at the children’s initial response, as they often didn’t have time to teach some of the more fun aspects of science. This struck me as quite worrying, given recent concerns in the UK that science has fallen out of favour with university students.

So is chemistry education, especially for younger students, too restrictive? Is the situation different in other countries? And did any of you get hooked on chemistry because of an inspirational teacher?


Andrew Mitchinson (Associate Editor, Nature)


  1. Report this comment

    Philip (Editor, PCCP) said:

    It’s interesting how approaches to enthusing people about chemistry have changed over time.

    The Royal Society of Chemistry has just launched a new website on historical chemistry that’s got loads of interesting things on it. One of the best is a digitised version of Mrs Marcet’s “Conversations on Chemistry”, first published in 1805, which is written as a colloquial dialogue between a teacher (the author) and two initially unkeen pupils.

    It’s all available at – it’s well worth taking a look.

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    Uncle Al said:

    Chemistry sets unleash EPA, Haz-Mat, War on Drugs, and Homeland Security seizures. No supplier sells glassware, equipment, or chemicals to a home address lest terrorists destroy Western civilization. Thou shalt not grow a large crystal

    Heretical thought diverging from the principles of Homeland Security must be quashed, must be literally unthinkable. Our primary enemy is primary education. 1984, George Orwell: “Orthodoxy means not thinking — not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.”

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    Samia said:

    Hi Andy,

    It’s not that the kids can’t do fun experiments anymore, they can still do most of them despite “health and safety”. But the teachers are so worried about time pressure (blaming government targets) that they actually choose to show pupils computer animations of simple experiments, such a splint test for oxygen, rather than doing the real thing. I learned this while observing chemistry lessons a few years ago (was thinking of becoming a teacher myself). I think there needs to be more time for the practical aspect of chemistry to be taught – in reality this will probably mean more targets imposed – but isn’t this the bit that will get them hooked?

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    brennig james said:

    I don’t know much about chemistry too, but I try to make that little go a long way. How is it that a very diverse group, the amino acids in living matter ranging from glycine to tryptophan are specified by DNA trimers which all look similar?