Chemistry: It’s not fun

Recently, I was listening to a talk at a conference. The speaker told us how he had his students do something-or-other because it was fun. He specifically mentioned that he wasn’t too concerned with what students learned, as long as they had “fun”.

I wasn’t pleased.

For one thing, the 110 hours we have for grade 11 or 12 chemistry is rarely that. Once snow days, long-running assemblies, sporting events, and whatever else crops up are factored in, we’re behind the eight ball, time-wise. I’m not Scrooge, but I don’t do class Christmas parties or take it easy on the last day. There simply isn’t time.

What there is time for is getting the work done. And the best way to do that is to tell students that learning chemistry is serious business: it isn’t easy; it takes a lot of time and effort. The fun comes later; when a student realizes that he or she really understands the topic at hand, and can see how that topic relates to prior learning — in chemistry or in another course.

If we send a message that high school chemistry is all about having fun and not about hard work, we insult students’ intelligence; we send them — and their parents — a false message.

Before you think that I’m all about seriousness and hard-assed-ness, let me explain. Like many of you, I open grade 11 chemistry with a beefed-up Remsen Demonstration. The reaction of a copper penny reacting with concentrated nitric acid is a spectacle. But to leave it at that, or to walk away from the teachable moment, turns chemistry into entertainment. There is so much interesting chemistry associated with this demonstration that by focusing only on the cool-looking colour changes, we sell kids short. So what if they don’t know much chemistry on the first day? Get the ball rolling — talk about the chemical reactions, represent them with chemical equations, discuss the states of matter, talk about the hazards of concentrated nitric acid and of its power as an oxidizing agent . . . you get the idea.

Properly done, we do students a huge favour by telling them like it is: chemistry is not a walk in the park, but if you understand where you’re going, the trip can be rewarding.


  1. M. Hauben and G.W. Rayner-Canham, "The Remsen Demonstration: 'Nitric Acid Acts upon Copper'," Journal of College Science Teaching, 25(5), 368-371 (1996), freely available online — just Goggle “Remsen, Hauben and Rayner-Canham”.