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Proposed new Victorian chemistry course: will students be short-changed?

Immediately after the draft Victorian Certificate of Education (VCE) Chemistry Study Design was released for review, The Age featured an article headed ‘Periodic chart off the table in chemistry shift’ (14 July 2021, pp. 1–3). Never before have I seen such an outcry against a new proposed chemistry course. In the aftermath of that article, a number of practising and retired chemists and educators contacted me to express their shock and concern.

In fact, the newspaper’s claim that the periodic table is to be removed from VCE Chemistry is not quite true. Some mention of it does remain in the Year 11 course, though some of the little there is only in an optional extension topic.

The official justification for the decision to reduce the study of the periodic table to just that and to transfer the rest to Year 10 Science, was that many teachers are saying that the current course is ‘over-packed’.

It is most concerning that VCE Chemistry is allocated almost 20% less formal classroom time than interstate courses and the International Baccalaureate, which several Victorian schools offer in place of VCE. This time deficit certainly needs to be addressed, but taking away a rigorous study of the periodic table, the very cornerstone of chemistry, is not the way to do it!

The periodic table is central to building a real understanding and appreciation of chemistry. It is unique. No other science has a single organised table that tells us so much, can be used as a predictive tool, and is a shining example of how scientific knowledge is built over centuries of painstaking experimentation and collaboration. This is why it is a key feature of the International Baccalaureate course.

The bulk of the study of the periodic table should not be relegated to Year 10 Science because:

  • it underpins much of the understanding, patterns and relationships within so many areas of senior Chemistry, such as the relative reactivities and other properties of the elements and their compounds, chemical formulas, structure and bonding, bond polarities and molecular shape. Without it, meaningful connections will be lost and their study will become superficial
  • it enables students to ‘develop insights into how knowledge in chemistry has changed and continues to change’, a stated aim of the Study Design. There are so many wonderful stories behind the periodic table, including the discoveries and understandings that have arisen out of it
  • in some Victorian schools, Year 10 Science is an elective subject. This is not the case in the other states. Students who do not choose Science in Year 10 but then decide to study Chemistry in Year 11 in Victoria or interstate will be at a considerable disadvantage.
  • most Year 10 Science teachers have an insufficient or no background in chemistry (yet another issue that needs to be addressed). Their lack of training makes them ill equipped to competently teach the periodic table. This would most likely to lead to confusion and misconceptions, and could lead to students becoming disengaged
  •  some Year 10 Science teachers, even those with suitable qualifications, are likely to avoid teaching the periodic table altogether, on the grounds it is ‘not really needed’ in VCE Chemistry.

However, even though many aspects of it are excellent, this is not my only concern about this proposed Study Design.

The new overarching theme of all four units is the contemporary issue of making chemical manufacturing and energy production more sustainable by moving towards a circular economy and adopting a green chemistry approach. Although this is an important issue, and a means of fostering ethical values, my concerns with this are:

  • this ‘overkill’ is very likely to disengage students before the end of their first year
  • the over-emphasis is misguided, because students need a greater in-depth understanding of chemistry and access to a large amount of data before they can critically analyse processes used in chemical manufacturing and waste management. In fact, experts in this field have pointed out that a circular economy approach is not always the most sustainable
  • most VCE Chemistry teachers will have little background in this area
  • excessive focus on this one issue implies that it is the only important chemical issue facing humanity. Air pollution, water pollution, global warming and ocean acidification are also vitally important chemical issues.

The time spent on this theme denies students opportunities to gain a more balanced overview of chemical principles and processes. Not only the periodic table, but also many other important areas of chemistry have been given inadequate consideration.

For example, volumetric analysis has been deferred to almost the end of Unit 4. In the current Study Design, it is introduced in the middle of Unit 2. If adopted, this proposal may make Victorian Chemistry teachers reluctant to enter their students in the RACI Titration Competition. Pre-COVID, the RACI Victorian Branch usually had more than 400 teams – that is, more than 1200 students, mostly from Year 11 – enthusiastically competing in its annual state titration competition. Over the years, this fun competition has helped motivate and excite thousands of students about chemistry.

That aside, this decision makes no sense. Acid–base titrations, still performed in many commercial and industrial settings, are a perfect vehicle for building science investigation skills, such as taking accurate measurements and identifying errors, uncertainties and outliers, as well as building and consolidating student understanding of acid–base reactions, pH and stoichiometric calculations. Since acids and bases and gravimetric analysis are introduced in Unit 2, why not use this opportunity to introduce acid–base titrations?

Instead, the proposed Study Design places thermochemical equations and calorimetry in Unit 2. These have been traditionally studied in Unit 3 or Unit 4 together with the study of fuels. This works well because older students can manage the greater demands of these topics. The decision to put this in the middle of just introducing concepts such as concentration and stoichiometry does not allow students to ‘crawl before they walk’, a fundamental pedagogical principle. I suspect it will frighten many students off, especially when so many of them are without strong mathematical backgrounds.

Finally, a lack of balance is also seen in other topic areas. There is excessive emphasis on plastics and fuels, insufficient quantitative work in Units 3 and 4, insufficient biochemistry and too few relevant practical investigations that can safely be used to build scientific skills and understanding. There are so many other fascinating areas that would enrich the course and lend themselves to worthwhile practical work, such as transition metals, corrosion, polysilicates and nanoparticles, and analytical techniques such as chromatography, GC and HPLC.

In summary, the new proposed VCE Chemistry Study Design will short-change students in a number of ways. It needs considerably more work if it is to foster a true appreciation and mastery of chemistry and enable students to compete successfully in the international STEM community.

Jenny Sharwood OAM, MACE, FAIE, FRACI CChem is a chemistry education consultant and writer. She is a member of the RACI Victorian Branch Committee, Secretary of the RACI Victorian Chemical Education Committee and a member of the Victorian Branch Titration Competition Working Group. She was made an RACI Distinguished Fellow in 2020 and 2019 Chemistry Educator of the Year by the Chemistry Education Association.

The new overarching theme of all four units is the contemporary issue of making chemical manufacturing and energy production more sustainable by moving towards a circular economy and adopting a green chemistry approach.

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