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Current and Future Methodologies for Improving Teacher and Student Experiences of Chemistry in Schools: an Irish Perspective

Marie Walsh

Limerick Institute of Technology - Limerick ROI

[email protected]


In spite of the fact that Junior Cycle Science, which is approximately one-third Chemistry, has been made compulsory in up to 90% of schools in Ireland, after that level is reached participation in Chemistry decreases dramatically. The terminal examination at second level in Ireland, the Leaving Certificate, has less than fourteen per cent uptake by students for Chemistry. Factors that influence this include provision of the subject in schools, allocation of subjects to students within timetabling constraints and choice by students of the science and technology subjects. Choice of subjects is further influenced by attitudes to, experiences of and perceived usefulness of Chemistry, both by students and their guardians.
Several initiatives have been taken in recent years to address falling uptake of Leaving Certificate Chemistry but these appear to have made little impact on the numbers attracted to the subject. Industrial and governmental bodies have constantly reiterated the need for training in subjects that blend and enhance the Knowledge Economy. A number of research groups focussing on Chemical Education have been established at third level. A proposed new curriculum for Leaving Certificate Chemistry, with a more emphatic requirement for practical work, is currently in development.
This paper will present a review of the current situation and future prospects in Ireland for motivating more students to study Chemistry and more teachers to embrace the changes in Chemical Education which have become best practice in other countries.

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Comments about this Paper

Your comments are welcome

Date: 2012.12.20

Posted by Nadia Bechoux (Belgium)

Message: This paper specifies the Irish situation regarding chemistry teaching, particularly the difficulty to appeal to motivated students in those branches. The causes are clearly analysed as well as possible solutions that have been or could be considered. It focuses on the importance of the courses’ and careers’ appeal and on teachers’ training that seems to be lacking.

Date: 2012.11.15

Posted by Laurent Gruber (ENCBW-VINCI) (Belgium)

Message: This paper gives an overview of students’ interest for chemistry in Ireland, analysing the attendance rate in chemistry sections in Irish education.
It observes some disinterest towards the section, particularly in upper years, and assesses the different approaches applied or considered to raise the number of students in chemistry sections.
However it does not clearly address the causes of students’ disinterest / demotivation; a few lines mention the observation of a chief examiner but do not dwell upon the elements leading to that observation. According to that part, it would be mainly due to the difficulty of the studies, related to the abstraction level necessary to learn chemistry.
Indeed, the abstraction level is a relevant element of the demotivation of students, who are confronted to a complex task.
I have not found other causes in the paper, which goes on with leads for solutions, on the institutional level rather than feasible in the class, thus addressed to decision-makers rather than to teachers.

Date: 2012.10.22


Message: Current and Future Methodologies for Improving Teacher and Student Experiences of Chemistry in Schools: an Irish Perspective

 Why is this paper relevant?
This paper is a good summary of the current situation and future prospects regarding science teaching in Ireland. It points out the obstacles to chemistry learning and explains the possible courses of action to overcome them. It gives concrete examples of reforms in progress and identifies several difficulties to implement them.
 Does the paper explain the causes for the students’ lack of motivation to study chemistry?
If yes, do you consider them relevant? Why?
The main causes mentioned are a lack of awareness of career opportunities in chemistry and a poor esteem of chemistry. In Belgium, the situation is quite similar. Indeed, despite the numerous attempts by universities (such as “Le Printemps des Sciences”) and chemical industries to promote chemistry, careers in chemistry do not appeal to the youths and chemistry is often not well seen.

 Does the paper explain the students’ obstacles in addressing chemistry?
If yes, do you consider them relevant? Why?
Chemistry calls for abstract concepts. It requires rigour, precision and knowledge in mathematics. The paper states that few students achieve the level of abstraction that is necessary to understand abstract concepts.
These arguments are relevant. Indeed, the difficulty of chemistry lies in the comprehension of abstract concepts. Transition to the microscopic level is indispensable to understand chemical phenomena but this level of knowledge is achieved with difficulty by most students. Using relevant ICT resources could help them achieve the necessary level of abstraction.
Moreover, chemistry is a cumulative science. It requires a good knowledge of basic notions to build more complex learning. Learning should be built in a spiral in order to reactivate previous knowledge and refine them all along school education.
Rigour and precision also curb interest for chemistry. Indeed, the symbolic level and the use of mathematical tools are often complex for students.

 Does the paper / publication report successful experiences in motivating students to study chemistry?
If yes, do you consider them transferable to your situation? Why?
The paper does not really report successful experiences but it explains the main axes for reforms (initiated by the Ministry of Education) such as continuous professional development for teachers and mandatory experiments.
This Irish initiative seems interesting to me. Indeed, experiments are unavoidable to better understand chemical phenomena. Furthermore, assessing this experimental practice seems to me completely relevant.
In Belgium, several (technical and scientific) courses of study have a time slot that allows the implementation of an experimental approach with an appropriate assessment of it. It would be interesting to extend this practice to other types of teaching. However, the concrete implementation of this assessment seems difficult to carry out (number of students per class, number of laboratories with the appropriate equipment…). Nevertheless, an official directive currently sets the number of students per class to ease the organisation of laboratory sessions. We will be able to assess this measure in years to come.

 Does the paper / publication presents the difficulties of chemistry teachers to keep update to the continuous progresses of the research?
If yes, do you agree with the situation described?
 Does the paper / publication propose solutions to in order to exploit at secondary school level the most recent findings in the field of chemistry?
If yes, do you consider this solution feasible?

Date: 2012.09.28


Message: The paper presents a review of the current situation concerning science education in Ireland, in particular the decline of the number of students opted to study chemistry to higher school levels. It is noted that less than fourteen per cent of students uptake the terminal examination – the Leaving Certificate for Chemistry.

The paper comprises several parts: the first three of them describe the actual state of Irish chemistry school education, the students’ reasons for choosing to study chemistry upper second level and the teacher’s role to motivate students to study chemistry. The remaining two parts present the curriculum reform in Ireland, the teacher reaction to proposed reform and some particular issues to be addressed concerning government commitment.

The introductory part presents an overview of the role of chemistry as the central science supporting other sciences, along with the worrying reality that in the midst of the economic recession there is a strong public perception that jobs in science are neither plentiful nor prestigious.

The second part of the paper presents the structure of the Irish education system and the place of chemistry as a school subject in it. An explanation of the causes for the students’ lack of motivation to study chemistry and the important role of the teacher in engaging the students with the subject is proposed. The author comments that the main causes for students’ obstacles in addressing chemistry could be found in the general perception of chemistry as a subject: it is abstract, full of concepts which are commonly a source of misconceptions for both inadequately prepared teachers and for the students. In the light of these issues it is outlined the crucial role of the science teachers’ training and their continuous professional development.
The curriculum reform is regarded as a way to overcome some of the existing problems. The proposed new syllabus will see the introduction of mandatory laboratory experiments and assessment of practical work through compulsory questions.

No doubt, the most interesting part of this paper is the summary of the teacher’s reaction to the proposed reform. Some of the particular areas of teachers’ concern include laboratory availability and the length of the syllabus proposed.

In conclusion:
The content of the present paper is congruent with the need of knowledge about the actual state of European school chemistry education and the tendencies of the educational reform.

The article would be of interest to science education policy-makers, educators and science teachers.

Date: 2012.09.19

Posted by Niki Rapti (Greece)

Message: This paper is relevant as it describes the existing situation in Ireland in relation with the percentages of students who choose to study chemistry in tertiary education. In addition, it discusses different proposals for enhancing student motivation to learn chemistry and for convincing chemistry teachers to introduce certain changes in chemistry education.

The paper refers to certain issues for explaining the increasingly small percentage of students choosing the chemistry exam for entering a tertiary education institution. These issues could be connected with a low level of motivation and they are related to the following facts: a) the negative public attitude towards physical sciences and chemistry in particular. Students are not aware of the usefulness of chemistry in their everyday lives and they also prefer to choose a career that can more rewarding financially (such as business, law or medicine) b) not-well designed curriculum. These issues are also relevant with the Greek reality.

The paper refers to the following obstacles that students face in addressing chemistry: lack of logical reasoning and ability in mathematics, several abstract concepts that create confusion and misconceptions to both students and teachers. These, and several other obstacles, have been identified in Greek students as well and they are expected to prevent motivation.

The paper does present some initiatives that have been undertaken that could have a positive effect on students’ motivation. However, their success has been either limited so far or not yet assessed. In this way, the concept of the “Economy of Knowledge” has been applied in Ireland via initiatives like the following: a) programs like “Hearts and Minds” for improving the social image of physical sciences (and chemistry) b) changes in the course design aiming at presenting chemistry as an integral part of human life. However, over 60% of the teachers prefer the traditional teaching approach, c) changes in the curriculum design with the inclusion of many more experiments and more meticulous student evaluation. However, the successful implementation of these changes requires continuous technical support, reliable infrastructure and investment on teachers’ CPD (Continuous Professional Development)

Finally, the paper does present initiatives that are taken in order to cover the need of the teachers to keep update with the continuous research progresses. The paper refers to research results which point out that teachers’ update should include not only new knowledge but also training in the use of ICT for chemistry teaching.

National Reports on successful experiences to promote lifelong learning for chemistry The national reports on chemistry successful experiences to promote lifelong learning for chemistry are now available on the related section of the project portal. The reports presents examples of successful experiences in the partner countries and the results of testing of ICT resources with science teachers.