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Visualizations and Translations

At chemistry education conference, participants discuss the challenge of communicating chemistry

October 4, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 40

Students from South Africa use microchemistry kits developed as part of an IUPAC-UNESCO program.
Students from South Africa use microchemistry kits developed as part of an IUPAC-UNESCO program.

Throughout its long history, Istanbul has served as a geographic and cultural bridge. As it played host in August to the 18th International Conference on Chemical Education (ICCE), the city once again served as a bridge--this time between chemistry educators in developed and developing nations. More than 350 educators at all levels from 66 countries gathered to discuss ways to improve chemistry education. Throughout the conference, whose theme was "Chemistry Education in the Modern World," speakers emphasized that educators around the world face many of the same challenges, regardless of where they teach.

Organized by the Turkish Chemical Society, the biennial meeting was sponsored by the International Union of Pure & Applied Chemistry (IUPAC); the Republic of Turkey; the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons; and the United Nations Educational, Scientific & Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Such a meeting helps fulfill the mission of IUPAC's Committee on Chemistry Education to propagate good practice in chemistry education and to encourage an appreciation of chemistry in the general public, said Peter W. Atkins, committee chairman and a physical chemistry professor at the University of Oxford.

Atkins set the stage for the rest of the meeting in the opening plenary lecture by addressing the challenges and opportunities in communicating chemistry to students and the public. He structured his talk using a modified Turkish flag, changing the crescent moon into the "c" in chemistry and using two overlapping triangles to form a six-pointed star, one triangle representing the challenges and the other representing opportunities.

Like Istanbul, chemistry education can be viewed as a bridge, this one between what we observe at the macroscopic level and what we must imagine at the microscopic level, Atkins said. "When we look at everyday objects, we want people to imagine that there is an inner world of atoms and molecules that gives them their properties," he said.

Atkins chose to focus on three difficulties--abstraction, mathematics, and complexity, none of which is completely independent of the others--that stand in the way of effectively communicating chemistry. The other triangle in his six-vertex star which he did not discuss, represents the opportunities offered by graphics, the curriculum, and core ideas in chemistry.

"The core concepts are what we should have in mind in the background all the time," he told C&EN. "The message we really want to get across is the concepts, but the packaging is the curriculum, which involves lab experience as well as classroom pedagogy."

ABSTRACTION can't be escaped when teaching chemistry. From the very beginning of talking about atoms and molecules, energy and entropy, abstraction is necessary to convey the concepts to students.

"Being able to go from the very simple idea of an atom or molecule--the abstract entity--to bulk behavior often requires very complex thought of how the microscopic contributes to the macroscopic," Atkins said.

Graphics can help overcome abstraction, he pointed out, and the use of graphics tools shouldn't be restricted to large molecules. "Graphical representation should pervade all teaching," Atkins stated.

He advocates graphics as a way to move beyond students' difficulties with and fear of mathematical abstraction by displaying mathematical concepts in a visual format.

"Because chemists are predominantly visual thinkers, making mathematics accessible through the eye rather than just through the brain is really playing to the strength of chemists," Atkins said.

Atkins also suggested teaching mathematics in a chemistry context on a "need to know" basis. Usually, math is taught first and chemistry second or the two are taught in parallel. Instead, Atkins proposed that students, especially at the introductory college level, be taught chemistry until they can't get further without resorting to mathematics.

Peter G. Mahaffy, a chemistry professor at King's University College, Edmonton, Alberta, also sees visualizations as an important tool in teaching chemistry. Such visualizations can go beyond the usual computer-based graphics generated by experts to include student-generated representations in a variety of media such as art, dance, music, and drama.

At ICCE, Mahaffy described a collaborative research project that is being launched to determine the effects that different cultural settings have on the way students perceive and understand visualizations. The team for the study includes chemistry professor Zafra M. Lerman of Columbia College, Chicago. Mahaffy and Lerman are collaborating with a physicist, a cognitive psychologist, a cultural anthropologist, and a secondary-education specialist. Funding for the project is still pending, but they hope that the three-year study will begin in 2005.


Westerners have "often adopted a one-size-fits-all approach to visualizations, where we take visualizations from North America and transport them into all sorts of cultures, mainly just translating them into other languages," Mahaffy said. "We really don't have a very good idea as to whether we're using these materials effectively or appropriately."

THE TEAM PLANS to study how visualizations affect the learning and understanding of chemistry by students from different cultural backgrounds. Preliminary work was carried out in Eritrea, Kenya, and Russia. The new project will focus on high schools in Chicago, Puerto Rico, and South Africa.

In the study, some teachers will use expert-generated computer visualizations. Other teachers will have the students develop their own visualizations using art, dance, music, drama, and so on. The third group of teachers will teach chemistry in the way they always have.

"Hopefully, one of the outcomes of this project will be that we will understand how to use some of these very sophisticated, computer-based animations more effectively," Mahaffy said. "I think one of the other outcomes may be that we will learn when those sorts of technology-based visualization tools are not so effective and when very simple things that students do or teachers do with students may in fact be more effective ways of conveying some of these concepts."

In his plenary lecture, Mahaffy also discussed a concept that he called "tetrahedral chemistry education." A triangle has often been used to depict the thinking levels in chemistry, and Mahaffy started with the triangle containing symbolic, macroscopic, and molecular thinking levels that was put forward more than a decade ago by Alex H. Johnstone, a professor of inorganic chemistry at the University of Glasgow, in Scotland. "The planar triangle has served well in chemical education," Mahaffy said.

He suggested, however, that the "shape of the metaphor" needs to be "hybridized into three dimensions." The triangle should be stretched into a tetrahedron by incorporating the "human element."

Tetrahedral chemical education would emphasize the symbolic, macroscopic, and molecular in the context of the "web of human connections." At a curricular level, that implies the need for a "real world" focus on science and society with an emphasis on the human learner.

"Many good teachers already practice tetrahedral chemistry education," Mahaffy told C&EN. "Good teachers find ways of making chemistry relevant to the lives of their students. Good teachers are aware of different learning styles their students bring to the classroom and lab."


Mahaffy sees the tetrahedral metaphor as a way of avoiding a trap that chemistry educators have been prone to fall into--that of emphasizing either content or context at the expense of the other. Educators are often divided into two camps over the issue, he said.

"This is a way to say that we don't need to choose [between content and context]," he said. "In fact, that human element needs to be integrated into what we do with the molecular, with the symbolic, and with the macroscopic for both our majors and our nonmajors, as well as the general public."

Turkish high school student Can Etik (left) won a poster contest answering the question "What does it mean to live in a chemical world?" Mahaffy (right) showed Etik's watercolor painting as an example of student-generated visualizations and tetrahedral chemistry education.
Turkish high school student Can Etik (left) won a poster contest answering the question "What does it mean to live in a chemical world?" Mahaffy (right) showed Etik's watercolor painting as an example of student-generated visualizations and tetrahedral chemistry education.

Mahaffy believes that chemistry educators have done a better job addressing "chemistry of life issues" with nonmajors than with majors. He believes that it is possible to introduce chemical topics to chemistry majors through socially relevant topics. He cited energy issues as an example.

"There are hugely important chemical challenges that our majors need to know about in terms of energy resources, materials chemistry, catalysis, superconducting materials for energy distribution, storage batteries, carbon dioxide sequestration," he said. "Those are rich examples of introducing important and cutting-edge content in contexts that are interesting and really matter for our students. The context doesn't need to come at the cost of sacrificing content."

In another plenary lecture, John D. Bradley, a chemistry professor at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa, described several IUPAC programs intended to overcome language barriers, which can be a challenge in providing appropriate materials to teachers.

One IUPAC program run in cooperation with UNESCO provides basic resources to chemistry teachers, primarily at the secondary level. DIDAC, as it's called (from didactic), is meant to be a universal chemistry teacher resource and includes full-color transparencies with figures and diagrams. The only text on the transparencies is in the language of chemical equations. Additional resources provide commentary to the teachers about the content of the transparencies. Available materials, which are distributed free of charge by IUPAC and UNESCO, include a CD containing all the transparencies and booklets covering specific topics.

Bradley is also involved in an IUPAC-sponsored program to provide students with laboratory experiences. "Chemistry is fundamentally an experimental subject," Bradley said. "Education in chemistry must have an ineluctable experimental aspect."

The microchemistry kits put together by the RADMASTE Center at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, provide students with the necessary tools for a laboratory experience.
The microchemistry kits put together by the RADMASTE Center at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, provide students with the necessary tools for a laboratory experience.

HOWEVER, there is a gap between ideals and realities, Bradley explained. In many places, the closest that secondary school students get to experimental work are pictures in textbooks, drawings on blackboards, and questions in examinations.

IUPAC is heavily involved in the use of microscale chemistry to bridge this gap and provide the opportunity for experimental work in countries that otherwise do not have the resources.

Microscale chemistry is attractive for a number of reasons, according to Bradley. It is low cost and safe, with a low environmental impact. In addition, it's quick and easy to implement.

Introductory workshops on implementing microscale chemistry have been held in 60 countries. More advanced pilot projects have been held in half of those countries, with additional funding from UNESCO and local funding. Microscale chemistry has been extensively implemented in five African countries: Cameroon, Kenya, South Africa, Namibia, and Gabon.

Translation is another important issue in making educational materials available. Many teachers may be able to speak English but don't teach in English. Therefore, worksheets from the microscale chemistry program are available in a number of languages, including English, French, Persian, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Latvian, Arabic, and Uzbekh.

"This spread [of languages] indicates that indeed the UNESCO-IUPAC Global Program in Microchemistry has reached several countries in the former Soviet sphere, as well as the Arabic world," Bradley told C&EN.

However, translation issues affect all parts of the globe.

An IUPAC project for disseminating information on the Internet involves testing machine translation as a way of making information accessible. The project, originally started by Yoshito Takeuchi at Kanagawa University, in Japan, includes researchers from around the world.

"Globalization is only practical when everyone has access and can disseminate information in one's own language on the Internet," said Masato M. Ito, a professor in the department of environmental engineering for symbiosis at Soka University, in Japan, who is involved with the machine translation study. "Computer-aided translation is the only way to achieve that goal."

THE OBJECTIVE of the study that Ito and others described is the translation of chemistry education materials from English to other languages and back again. "Teachers need to have access to literature that is understandable," said Maria Elisa Maia, from the department of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Lisbon, who also participated in the translation project.

The languages initially planned for the project included Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, French, Korean, Chinese, Malay, Italian, and Japanese. Articles from the publications Chemistry International and Chemical Education International were used as samples for translation.

Effective translation requires more than a simple mechanical substitution of words and phrases, Ito said. It requires knowledge of grammar and syntax. In addition, correct translation of technical terms requires a chemical dictionary.

Translation takes place in three steps, said Liberato Cardellini, a professor in the department of materials science and earth science at Marche Polytechnical University, Ancona, Italy, who is also involved with the translation project. First, the machine translation is performed with commercial translating software. Then, the technical dictionary is superimposed on the translation. Finally, the translation is improved manually.


Comparing the initial and final versions of articles, Cardellini found a variety of errors, including wrong words, phrases needing reconstruction, grammatical errors, and missing words. However, he found that errors were less likely to involve chemical terms than incorrect phrase construction.

In the case of Portuguese, Maia said that teachers studying in a master's degree course were asked to comment on the translations. Those who could understand English expressed a very negative opinion. But others with a weak knowledge of English, although saying that the Portuguese version was terrible, found it useful because it improved their understanding of the material.

Providing Russian translations of chemistry materials is the purpose of the Chemistry Clearinghouse that has been started at Mendeleyev University of Chemical Technology, Moscow, with the support of IUPAC. The idea behind the clearinghouse was to take IUPAC materials, translate them into Russian, and then distribute them to high school teachers, said Natalia P. Tarasova, professor of chemistry at Mendeleyev University. People were particularly interested in issues of nomenclature, toxicology, microscale chemistry, and curricula from other countries.

Communicating chemistry is a challenge no matter where educators are located. Organizations such as IUPAC and meetings such as ICCE can serve as avenues to address that challenge.


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