Teaching Chemistry to Nonscience Majors

By Michael Edmonds 15/05/2013

A recent article in Chemical and Engineering News, “Lab Lessons for Reluctant Chemists” describes the work by American tertiary educators to improve the teaching of chemistry to students who will not continue on to further study in chemistry.

In order to do this most of these more innovative courses focus on showing students how the process of science works, and teaching in context, i.e. showing students through experiments how chemistry affects their everyday lives.

Of the various approaches, I find that of Professor David A. Katz of  Pima Community College in Tuscon the most interesting. In his course “Consumer Chemistry” students extract and quantify the oil in potato chips, prepare and test a sun screen, extract flavour and colour compounds in candy, and extract essential oils to make perfumes.

Professor Marc L. Richard of Richard Stockton College of New Jersey used an experiential approach where students laboratory experiences are left somewhat open ended, allowing students to explore, actually learning how to ask and then answer scientific questions.

Other chemistry professors base their courses on current issues, for example, nanotechnology, or after the destruction of the space shuttle Columbia, a look at carbon fiber composites. This is an interesting approach, and in some respects I would see it as more challenging, as I would expect such a course to still need to cover the key concepts in chemistry.

But with so many interesting ideas, my main question after reading this article is why should these ideas just be applied to non-science majors? Surely students who intend to proceed on in chemistry or the other sciences deserve to have chemistry taught this way too?

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