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Back To School, But It’s Not The Same

October 25, 2010 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 88, Issue 43

Having read the cover story “Pedagogy That Works,” I wonder how well it works (C&EN, Sept. 13, pages 47 and 48). Should chemistry teachers really bother with the so-called assessments and evaluations that are promoted in the article titled “Measuring Success”? What is wrong with chemical education today is that it does much less chemistry than what used to be done.

I note that the pictures on the cover and in the article do not show students doing experiments. They no longer add zinc to acetic acid to generate hydrogen or produce oxygen from potassium chlorate or do gravimetric analysis of barium ions by adding sulfate to give barium sulfate. I read that the teachers of chemistry are now given titles, such as “Forward Thinkers,” “Process-Oriented Guided-Inquirers and Learners,” and “Innovators of Chemistry, Life, the Universe & Everything.” The problem is that the teaching of chemistry has been lost.

I also note that the authors of the article have fallen into the lazy habit of using nonstandard abbreviations of three- to five-letters, such as HHMI, STEM, MIT, SEA, and POGIL. Chemistry is of course taught in a symbolic form with one- and two-letter abbreviations for the elements in the periodic table that are put together to form compounds, such as NaCl, Al2O3, and the like. I once had a student who brought a manuscript to me in which “GOD” was used for the enzyme glucose oxidase. I told him that the abbreviation was inappropriate.

There are standard abbreviations, such as TLC, NMR, PAGE, SDS, and so forth for thin-layer chromatography, nuclear magnetic resonance, polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis, and sodium dodecyl­sulfate, respectively, that are widely used. In reviewing scientific papers, I have found that the use of nonstandard abbreviations is becoming much more prevalent. I reviewed a paper that used PG, AP, RMS, WCS, TEM, IM, DBE, NSF (that did not mean National Science Foundation) and would not be understood by most readers of chemical and biochemical journals.

My university reorganized departments and programs a few years ago and now uses three- and four-letter abbreviations for them, such as BBMB, GDCB, EEOB, FSHN, LOMIS, and more than 200 others that most people—whether associated with the university or not—do not generally understand. Are the new trends in education and communication to be uninformative and meaningless?

John F. Robyt
Ames, Iowa

In the articleMeasuring Success” a number of resources are mentioned that relate to assessment and evaluation for education innovation projects. There is even a special box to describe “Resources for Evaluating Chemical Education Projects.” Although the information provided in the article and resources section is adequate, it is disheartening that a leading communication vehicle of the American Chemical Society would generate such lists and exclude the ACS Examinations Institute of the Division of Chemical Education (ACS Exams).

No other academic discipline has established or maintained a testing program, whereas chemists have built and supported ACS Exams for more than 75 years. The existence of this resource, which is the envy of many other science educators who seek to improve assessments in their fields, has been a testament to the energy, enthusiasm, professionalism, and sense of service of literally thousands of ACS members over the years.

I would have expected reporters for this piece to have found this unique tool for chemists to be a rightful point of pride for the society and its members and to have chosen to highlight the manner in which chemistry education has always taken a lead in assessment in the sciences. On the contrary, in part by the omission of ACS Exams, the article implies that chemists have been dragged to the realization that improved assessment is important only because of the insistence of funding agencies. Such implications ignore far too many dedicated faculty who have been working hard for decades to use high-quality assessment in chemistry classrooms.

Thomas Holme
Director, ACS Exams
Ames, Iowa


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