The birth of Chem Ed conferences – The genie in a bottle

(Written 25 years ago, this reprint — from the September & October 1987 issue of Chem 13 News, page 5 — captures a moment in time as the author describes the genesis of the ChemEd conference. At the time of writing this, John Park was retired. He was a member of the first ChemEd organizing committee and had attended all of the ChemEd conferences.)

In the latter years of the sixties, the late Len Sibley was Assistant Head of Science at St. Catharines Collegiate, and I was Head at Lakeport High School, also in St. Catharines.

And it came to pass that the St. Catharines Board of Education, in its infinite wisdom, decreed that there would be an Open House of the St. Catharines system, that it would be at the Collegiate, and that all secondary schools would prepare displays or demonstrations and set them up at the Collegiate. All of this would be done for the greater glory of the Board, the edification of the taxpayers, and the confusion of the teachers.

Sibley came to me one evening and told me that the Consultant (or Super-Head), had given him $5.00 for expenses and told him to get the chemistry teachers organized. Sib asked me, in all seriousness, what one could do with $5.00. My answer was that he should use it to buy a bottle of rye whiskey; and that, as he was a bachelor, he should get all the chemistry teachers together at his apartment, that we would drink the whiskey and discuss the problem.

We drank the whiskey, we discussed the problem, and we laid on the show for the Board. That was the minor accomplishment. The greater development was that for the first time the chemistry teachers of St. Catharines got to know each other.

 July 28 - August 1, 2013. uWaterloo | Canada.We continued to meet on an irregular basis to discuss teaching problems, and to criticize each others’ ideas and methods — and no punches were pulled. By tacit agreement Sib headed up this group. We usually met at his apartment, but, as I was getting long in the tooth with no children to disturb, we also met occasionally at my house. After a while we asked university professors of chemistry to meet with us to discuss mutual problems, and then later on we started to visit universities to meet with faculty members for discussion.

All of these discussions were highly beneficial for the teaching of chemistry in St. Catharines and later, after the formation of regional boards, in Lincoln County.

Then Sib dropped the clanger. He said that we were going to organize a Chemical Education conference (ChemEd) for secondary school teachers, that it would be at the University of Waterloo, that it would be an extension of our local group, and that I would be his Number Two. I told him he was completely starkers. I also told him that I would work for him, but I could not be his Number Two. [Reg Friesen became that Number Two, and played a major role organizing the first five ChemEd conferences.] Sib dragooned a number of people into an organizing committee, and we got at it. With Sib as leader, slave-driver and spark-plug, we pulled it off, and it was known as ChemEd 73.

We made it clear that this was neither a Lincoln County nor a Waterloo affair, but that we wanted others to pick up the idea, and have it at various universities, both in Canada and the United States. Other groups did pick up the idea and ChemEd has been held every two years since, culminating in ChemEd 87 at Queen’s. It is the responsibility of others to take the idea and carry it on.

This is how the ChemEd conferences had their conception — from a bottle of rye whiskey, to a handful of Lincoln County teachers, to over 600 teachers plus family members in Kingston in 1987.

Some Genie, some Bottle!

[Still going strong after 40 years, ChemEd 2013 returns to the University of Waterloo.]