September 2014 | Editorial
A History of Chemistry Education and ACS’s Role To Support It
By George M. Bodner
Note from the Editor:
George M. Bodner is a member of the Board of Directors of the American Chemical Society (ACS), the sponsoring organization of the American Association of Chemistry Teachers (AACT). In this article, he shares with readers a more than 140-year history of chemical education and how ACS has been involved, complete with the creation of AACT.
The 1870s were an important decade in the history of chemistry. Dimitri Mendeleev published his ideas about the periodicity of the elements, J. Willard Gibbs set the foundation for applying thermodynamics to chemical reactions, and Ludwig Boltzmann extended the work of James Clerk Maxwell about the velocity distribution of gas particles and provided a statistical basis for the concept of entropy.
The decade also marked a seminal transition point in the history of the teaching of chemistry. In 1872, when Ira Remsen tried to obtain some desks and apparatus for laboratory instruction at Williams College, the president of the college objected to his attempts to transform the institution into a “manual training school.” Remsen was more successful in bringing laboratory instruction to the U.S. when he moved to Johns Hopkins University in 1876.
Another transformative event in the history of chemistry from the 1870s occurred when 35 chemists met at what was then known as the College of Pharmacy of the City of New York on April 6, 1876, to form the American Chemical Society. In recent years, ACS annually has had more than 160,000 members and is the world’s largest scientific society. But let’s go back for a moment to 1937, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed into law an act of Congress that made ACS a federally chartered organization. The goal of ACS outlined in the charter was:
“To encourage … the advancement of chemistry ... the promotion of research in chemical science and industry ... the improvement of the qualifications and usefulness of chemists through high standards of professional ethics [and] education … [and] the increase and diffusion of chemical knowledge.”
The federal charter for ACS recognized the role that chemistry plays in people’s lives by “fostering public welfare and education, aiding the development of our country's industries, and adding to the material prosperity and happiness of our people.”
Fast forward to 2013 when the ACS Board of Directors created a strategic plan for 2014 and beyond based on four goal statements. One goal focuses on the teaching and learning of chemistry and calls on ACS to offer programs that “foster the development of the most innovative, relevant, and effective chemistry education in the world.”
ACS Division of Chemical Education
ACS’s efforts to support effective chemical education can be traced back more than 90 years to the ACS fall national meeting in 1921, when what is now known as the Division of Chemical Education was formed. At the second meeting of this new organization, Harry Holmes from Oberlin College presented the topics he covered in his college chemistry course and L. W. Mattern reported on the content of his high school chemistry course. The similarity of the two courses resulted in such a heated discussion that a national committee—consisting of three high school teachers, three college chemistry instructors, and three chemists from industry—was created to study the correlation between high school and college-level chemistry courses.
Only 35% of high school chemistry teachers have both a bachelor’s degree and certification to teach chemistry.
The formation of this committee indicated that the nascent Division of Chemical Education was going to try to meet the needs of both high school and college chemistry teachers. The committee created an outline for a high school course that covered a specific set of topics. But when the time came to publish the committee’s recommendations, the editors of existing journals noted that the content of the report was not suitable for publication in their journals. A letter was sent to 750 ACS members who had expressed interest in chemical education, asking their opinion of how to resolve this issue. Most of these individuals supported an independent journal, the Journal of Chemical Education (JCE), was born.
Until recently, I had a bound copy of every JCE issue. Every so often, I would open an issue that had been published before I became interested in chemical education in the 1970s. At first, I concentrated on articles from the 1950s and ’60s and noted how appropriate much of the content was for people working in the field now. But then I looked at an issue from the 1920s and found references to the idea that chemistry classrooms were getting so large that students needed to bring their field glasses to class to see the instructor (1). Another paper, “A plea for a pedagogical scrapheap in chemistry,” appeared, and it addressed changes that could be made to encourage more high school students to enroll in chemistry.
The first issues of JCE contained mainly articles that were expressions of opinion. But they also contained papers with ideas supported by data collected from student performance. In the early years, there was a reasonable balance between papers related to the teaching of high school chemistry and those that looked at introductory college-level courses. With time, however, more and more JCE content was devoted to the challenges of teaching advanced-level chemistry courses
Good news about the state of chemistry instruction at the K-12 level can be found by noting that the percentage of high school graduates who have taken chemistry increased from 32% in 1982 to 70% in 2009 (2), the most recent year for which data are available. But there are still significant problems that need to be solved. Only 35% of high school chemistry teachers have both a bachelor’s degree and certification to teach chemistry (3); the problems teachers face in the first few years on the job are often overlooked (4); and traditional discussions of the role of chemistry instruction in K–12 schools focus on the high school course, neglecting the large number of middle school teachers who incorporate chemistry into their instruction.
When teachers were asked if they would join an association for high school chemistry teachers, almost 60% said yes.
Creation of the American Association of Chemistry Teachers (AACT)
ACS created a Board–Presidential Task Force in 2008 to consider what the Society could uniquely do that would have a transformative effect on education in the U.S. The task force recommended that ACS explore the need for an organization focused on supporting K–12 teachers. In 2010, ACS staff surveyed more than 17,000 high school chemistry teachers and conducted focus groups to learn more, and when teachers were asked if they would join an association for high school chemistry teachers, almost 60% said yes. Only 4% said that they would not join such an organization, and the others noted their decision would be based on the cost and benefits of membership.
In response to these findings, DivCHED and the Society Committee on Education (SOCED) formed a joint task force in 2011 to consider ways in which a chemistry teachers association could be created that would meet the needs of K–12 teachers of chemistry. At the ACS spring national meeting in 2012, both DivCHED and the SOCED unanimously endorsed the creation of a chemistry teachers association supported by ACS and governed by a volunteer board that would work with staff in the ACS Education Division. When requesting funding from ACS, the task force argued that the association would present the opportunity to
- enable ACS to provide more of what teachers want, rather than what ACS thinks they need;
- foster a dialogue between K–12 teachers and subject matter experts to help craft effective approaches to teaching chemistry in the K–12 classroom;
- create an active network of K–12 teachers that would facilitate the dissemination of pedagogical content knowledge among these teachers;
- create an inclusive K–12 chemistry education community;
- harness the knowledge base and power of the world’s largest scientific society to work with the community of K–12 teachers;
- provide opportunities for teachers of chemistry to continue to grow and learn and become increasingly effective in their classrooms;
- recruit and retain the best teachers of chemistry and enable them to help new teachers implement best practices; and
- inspire teachers of chemistry who can motivate students to pursue STEM careers while at the same time helping students become enlightened citizens/consumers who are scientifically literate and able to make decisions based on good scientific understanding.
It is both a pleasure and a privilege to note that the ACS Board of Directors at the 2013 fall national meeting agreed to provide the necessary funding to create the American Association of Chemistry Teachers, which will focus on supporting an underserved, yet critically important, sector of the global scientific community: K–12 teachers of chemistry. Members of the Board look forward to working with the governing body of AACT to bring about the goal of fostering “the development of the most innovative, relevant, and effective chemistry education in the world.”
(1) Davison, H. F., J. Chem. Educ. 1925, 2 (443).
(2) U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2014). The Condition of Education 2014 (NCES 2014-083), High School Coursetaking
(3) Hill, J. G.; Gruber, K. J. Education and Certification Qualifications of Departmentalized Public High School-Level Teachers of Core Subjects: Evidence from the 2007–08 Schools and Staffing Survey (NCES 2011–317); U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics: Washington, DC, 2011; http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2011/2011317.pdf (accessed Dec 2013).
(4) Simmons P. E., Emory, A., Carter, T., Coker, T., Finnegan, B., Crockett, D., Richardson, L., Yager, R., Craven, J., Tillotson, J., Brunkhorst, H., Twiest, M Hossain, K., Gallagher, J., Duggan-Haas, D., Parker, J., Cajas, F., Alshanna, Q., McGlamery, S., Krockover, J., Adams, P., Spector, B., LaPorta, T., James, B Rearden, K., and Labuda, K., Beginning teachers: Beliefs and classroom actions. J. Res. Sci. Teach. 1999, 36 (8), 930–954. DOI: 10.1002/(SICI)1098-2736(199910)36:8<930::AID-TEA3>3.0.CO;2-N