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    Philippa On The Ice Philippa Werry at an Antarctic research camp 2016

New Zealand Science Teacher

Science Curriculum/Scientific Literacy

Bringing chemistry alive

Chemistry teacher Ian Torrie was awarded an ASG Excellence in Teaching Award in late 2014.

ian torrie Small

(Above: Ian Torrie with some chemistry students. Photo: Independent Schools of New Zealand.)

A teacher at St. Cuthberts College, Ian was honoured at the National Excellence in Teaching Awards in October 2014, where he was the only Auckland recipient of an ASG Excellence in Teaching Award for secondary education.

Hi Ian, congratulations on your award.

What are some of the specific things you do in your classes to really bring chemistry alive?

I tell a lot of anecdotes about the history, the people and the importance of chemistry in our everyday lives. I’m currently collating a resource of many hundreds of short snippets about how chemistry impacts on our lives. These vary from the mundane, such as why egg whites whip better in a copper bowl, or why ice cubes always crack in the interior, to the more serious such as the thalidomide story.

Often these have a historical perspective (e.g. why Napoleon III used aluminium plates for his most important guests and why hatters were indeed often mad); sometimes involve serendipity (e.g. most artificial sweeteners were discovered by accident through bad workplace practices) and often the people behind the stories (e.g. the unfortunate Thomas Midgely who was not only responsible for the development of lead additives for petrol but also the introduction of CFCs).

Our corridors and walls are also filled from top to bottom with chemistry cartoons, different Periodic Tables such as Middle Earth and fantasy character versions plus one that is floor to ceiling high. There are also series of visually appealing posters about the chemicals in our lives (take a look at Compound Chem.)

I like to use a lot of humour and short multimedia experiences to break up lessons. Sometimes I feature musical videos (such as the YouTube series from Mr Parr or Rosengarten) and of course no lesson would be complete without the use of a high-quality Flash interactive animation.

Why is it so important that students have a good grounding in chemistry? Many of your students go on to careers in chemistry, but what role does the subject play in the life of a non-scientist?

All students need to be aware that we eat, breathe, sleep, and work in a world of chemicals and that nothing in this world is “chemical free”. They should have enough understanding to be able to make informed decisions about their lives, for example, whether we should fluoridate our drinking water, and be able to evaluate the validity of information they will find on the internet about important issues such as global warming and use of pesticides. (Have a look at this spoof site, DHMO.org.)

They need to be aware that any chemical such as Vitamin C has exactly the same properties and effect on us regardless of whether it was assembled inside a green plant or inside a factory and that “organic” does not necessarily mean better or safer. They need to appreciate that all chemicals (whether natural or human-made) are potentially toxic, but that “the dose makes the poison” e.g. even water and oxygen, which we consider essential for life, will kill us if consumed in large amounts. Finally, we need to emphasise the vast array of chemicals that we use every day to make our lives better e.g. cancer drugs, nanomaterials, high temperature superconductors, antibiotics, biodegradable and conducting polymers.

Do you use visiting teacher experts in your classes? What are your thoughts on this practice?

Finding appropriate, quality role models who are available at the local level is difficult. So instead I rely on short video clips of inspiring scientists. 

Brian Cox for physics, Carl Sagan for astronomy, Lord Robert Winston for biology, are, (or were) all brilliant, inspiring communicators but unfortunately there aren’t many comparable equivalents for chemistry. The other difficulty that teachers face is finding appropriate industries to visit where student can actually experience some recognisable chemistry occurring, as opposed to just seeing a mass of pipes and tanks. Vineyards with basic analytical facilities are good but often restricted in how many students they can cope with.


If you could ask for three things from the fairy godmother of science education, what would they be?

We need to recognise there is no single teaching approach that will ever meet the needs of all of our varied and diverse students. So the key to successful learning in the future has to be personalised learning. And by that I mean a classroom that incorporates the full gamut of learning methodologies from teacher-directed, through to student-centred, as and when appropriate. We should not be throwing out existing methodologies until new alternatives have been proven to be fundamentally better. For some concepts ICT may well be better than simply talking, reading or watching– but for other outcomes a formal lesson may be more appropriate. Some students might benefit from a flipped classroom experience before a lesson, others may be better off using their own time to follow up a more formal classroom lesson. Flexibility and a variety of learning strategies and resources are the key but ICT at least does offer us the potential capability of delivering this sort of learning approach. It does not mean, however, that teacher-centred or directed learning does not also have an important role to play in the future.

Review the continuing need for a Level 1 NCEA qualification and question whether Year 11 should focus more on core learning outcomes that match our curriculum objectives. We are the only country in the world that I am aware of, that has a formal assessment system involving external assessment for each of the final three years of schooling. Three successive years of continuous internal and assessment requirements takes up a considerable proportion of precious learning and teaching time. The senior school year is now largely driven by the needs of our assessment model and we need to put the emphasis back into the learning process.

Re-introduce expert curriculum panels at the national level to develop quality learning and assessment resources. When I first started teaching, any new curriculum was introduced with a set of quality learning materials that a panel of teaching experts had prepared using their combined pedagogical content knowledge and experience. These were always adapted by different schools to meet their specific needs, but ensured that all schools started with a common base of pedagogical expertise. Today, every school has to develop their own resources and while the specific contexts used in each school will vary, most of the underpinning concepts do not.  Similarly with assessment, every school prepares their own assessment tasks which are often very similar from school to school, but the quality is quite variable depending on their experience, ability and available time. This seems an inefficient use of valuable teacher time, when such resources are already in short supply.

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