So why the lack of chemists?

I keep reading in various science magazines the decreasing number of students entering science — especially chemistry and physics in North America. Since 1968 it seems that Canada has had a steady decline in interest in chemistry — basically since the new science curriculum was introduced to correspond with CHEM Study1 in the United States. These changes were in response to the USSR launching a satellite (Sputnik 1) before the USA. The panic about being left behind in science allowed universities to override the status quo and meddle in the classroom.

Essentially in 19682 first-year university content was moved into the high school chemistry curriculum in Ontario. There was no check to see if the subject area was age appropriate for the students. In my experience, most students find the ideas of the quantum atom, equilibrium and redox too abstract and as a result the students get the idea that chemistry is not for them.

Prior to 1968 the curriculum included a lot of descriptive chemistry, qualitative analysis and industrial processes. At that time, the focus was for students to learn, speak and understand:

  • the language of chemistry,
  • the mathematics of chemistry,
  • the hands-on observational nature of chemistry and
  • the art of how to handle and use chemicals and equipment.

In my opinion, this is still what high school students need to be focused on and to leave the abstract for their more mature minds later at university. Until the needed changes are made to the curriculum, the problem of declining enrolment in chemistry will continue.

Some might say that there have been many changes to the chemistry content since 1968, given that the curriculum has been retooled in Ontario approximately every eight years. But these changes have been superficial with the units being shuffled and dealt out into different years or subject areas.

It is interesting that one of the big complaints of university chemistry professors since 1968 was that students entering university no longer had knowledge of descriptive chemistry. One professor lamented that students believed silver chloride was a green gas. High school teachers cannot teach both the old and new curriculum. Something had to be lost. In the end it was interest in the subject.

[Editor’s note: Andy retired after 40 years of teaching chemistry and was one of the last to graduate high school before the introduction of the new curriculum. He learned that silver chloride was a white solid that darkened in sunlight and was critical to old-fashioned photography.]

  1. In the 1960s CHEM study was introduced as a high school chemistry program and aimed to prepare students for university.
  2. It is no coincidence that Chem 13 News began in 1968.