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June 2016

Senior chemistry: Victoria’s new study design

An engaging and challenging new study design for VCE Chemistry has arrived.


At no time has it been more important for the future of Australia for us to inspire and empower students to be innovative, creative and critical thinkers, informed participants in solving the major issues of our time, responsible and contributing citizens and highly skilled researchers, scientists and applied scientists, mathematicians, technology experts, academics, engineers, skilled workers, educators and communicators. This is why Australia’s Chief Scientist, Dr Alan Finkel, and his predecessor, Professor Ian Chubb, the Australian Academy of Science, the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering, and many other leading scientists and educators are doing all they can to increase enrolments in STEM subjects across Australia.

This year an exciting new VCE Chemistry study design has been introduced in Victoria. It is the product of ongoing research, analysis and evaluation of chemistry study designs and examinations across the world and across Australia and aims to achieve international best practice.

In Victoria, enrolments in VCE Chemistry continue to increase, with an almost 50 :  50 gender ratio. This revised study design also aims to inspire students to continue to enrol in Chemistry, a key STEM subject, in their senior years, so that they have many options for their future studies and careers. To that end, the study design was developed in conjunction with wide consultations with many experts in the field, including researchers in chemistry and chemistry education, industry leaders, as well as chemistry lecturers and teachers.

Key study design features

A focus on student independent learning, scientific inquiry and communication underpins the structural and assessment changes in the new VCE Chemistry study design.

The key features of the new study design are:

  • its thematic approach, with each of the four semesters based on a different and very relevant theme that is meaningful to students
  • the embedding of science as a human endeavour across the key knowledge and key skills
  • its focus on the development of science investigation skills, thinking skills and science communication skills, including, where possible, student-designed investigations, site tours and field trips
  • opportunities for students to apply and further develop their skills in independent learning, and to direct their own learning through their self-selection of areas of interest for investigation, including generation and analysis of both primary and secondary data
  • its introduction to key quantitative concepts and skills through practical, meaningful contexts, such as its introduction to stoichiometry through the context of gravimetric and volumetric analysis of water, and to gas laws, gas stoichiometry and thermochemistry through the context of the combustion of fuels
  • opportunities to build research skills and critical thinking skills through investigations of a number of major current chemical issues, including, where possible, meeting experts in the field
  • opportunities to investigate modern developments in chemistry, such as nanochemistry, synchrotron applications, designer materials and fuel cells.

Compared with other states and territories, Victoria’s new study design maintains the higher proportion of quantitative application work that is traditionally taught in Victoria. The study design also still includes a range of analytical techniques, including volumetric, gravimetric and instrumental analysis. A new feature is the inclusion of instrumental analysis in the new Unit 2, when students investigate water quality. Students use colorimetry and/or UV–visible spectroscopy and also analyse results from AAS and HPLC analyses.

Through the study of instrumental analysis across Units 2–4, students gain a ‘taste’ of real-world, current chemical endeavour. In fact, many teachers take their students to analytical laboratories so they can observe and even participate in instrumental analyses, which makes this area of work all the more meaningful and relevant for students and enables them to learn about the scientific approach to investigations from practising chemists and to appreciate its importance.

The four themes of the study design, one per unit, are each presented as a challenging ‘big’ question in order to promote scientific inquiry. Each unit is divided into areas of study, which also are presented as key questions (see p. 23).

Anecdotally, Victorian students and teachers report that they really enjoy the challenge of quantitative and analytical chemistry, especially the challenge of deducing an unknown organic structure from MS, IR and NMR analyses, because it is like solving a puzzle.

Building science investigation skills

Units 1 and 2 each consist of three areas of study. In the first two areas of study, students not only build their key knowledge and understanding of that thematic content, but also develop and apply a range of thinking skills and science skills in the process. The third area of study requires students to undertake extended scientific investigations. In Unit 1 this may include practical laboratory investigations as well as research using a range of resources. In Unit 2 students undertake an extended practical laboratory investigation, which may include a field trip to take water samples, and/or a site tour.

Units 3 and 4 each consist of two areas of study in which students build their key knowledge and understanding, as well as undertake laboratory investigations. As they hone their science skills and thinking skills, students gain more experience in analysing and evaluating experimental findings and experimental designs and in suggesting how they can be improved. These skills are applied in an additional area of study that is undertaken at a time of the year selected by the classroom teacher.

In this area of study, students design and perform their own extended laboratory investigations and report on them in the form of a scientific poster. While the experiment may be designed and performed in partnership with another student, each student must independently process their results, draw their own conclusions and analyse and evaluate their findings and suggest how the experimental design can be improved and extended.

This work and other assessment tasks performed by the students over the year will contribute 40% towards a student’s final VCE Chemistry study score. An external examination, held in November, covers the knowledge and skills developed across Units 3 and 4 and will contribute 60% towards a student’s final VCE Chemistry study score.

Investigation of issues related to chemistry

Issues related to chemistry that can be considered in this study design include safety issues that might be involved in the use of nanoparticles, chemical manufacturing and waste management, water pollution, ocean acidification, non-renewable versus renewable energy resources, and the use of natural and artificial sweeteners in food.

Students are expected to investigate particular issues, critically examine the arguments and supporting evidence presented in the media and other resources, draw their own conclusions and communicate their findings.

Supporting and inspiring teachers and students

A program of implementation workshops as well as information sessions held at teacher conferences, which have been run by the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority, as well as support material, has helped teachers prepare for the wide-ranging changes in this new study design. As a result, the new study design has been well received by most teachers.

Chemistry teachers with whom I have spoken have made comments such as ‘I like the thematic approach. It makes chemistry relevant and meaningful and the course more cohesive’ and ‘I am really pleased that food chemistry is there’. Others have said that they thought that the greater emphasis on scientific skills will help students build stronger laboratory skills and understandings, and that they are very relieved that instrumental analysis has been retained. Those who were initially cautious about the idea of reporting an investigation by means of a scientific poster and have attended workshops on this new aspect of the curriculum can now see that it will foster some very worthwhile and widely used skills.

I believe that the new study design will really engage and challenge students and teachers alike. I look forward to hearing their feedback as they experience it for themselves.

But chemistry teachers will need as much support as possible. Here the RACI can make a significant contribution, particularly in the areas of site tours, analytical laboratories, chemistry updates and updated training in science investigation and laboratory skills. The Victorian Chemical Education Group would be most interested to hear from RACI members who may be able to help in this regard.

In the meantime, the Victorian Chemical Education Group, in partnership with the Victorian Branch, are offering VCE chemistry students and teachers a range of opportunities to build their interest in and enthusiasm for chemistry. These include the Titration Stakes, the Hartung Youth Lectures, the exciting new ‘Chemistry is Everywhere – Bubble Mania’ program, the essay and art competitions and the Australian National Chemistry Quiz, which is now entered by students from many other countries as well as from across Australia.

Further information

The new VCE Chemistry study design can be found at:

Units 1 and 2 of this new VCE Chemistry study design (usually studied in Year 11) are being implemented this year. Units 3 and 4 (usually studied in Year 12) will be implemented in 2017.


Jenny Sharwood MRACI CChem is a retired VCE chemistry teacher and was a member of the VCE Chemistry Review Panel. She continues to be a chemistry and education writer, is actively involved in the RACI Australian National Chemistry Quiz and has rejoined the RACI Victorian Chemistry Education Group this year.

VCE Chemistry: the four themes

Unit 1 How can the diversity of materials be explained?

Students investigate the properties of a range of materials from ionic compounds and metals to polymers and nanomaterials, and the reasons for those properties. In the process, they investigate the structure of the atom, the modern periodic table, and the relationship between structure and bonding and properties. They also investigate how materials may be modified to better suit particular purposes and are introduced to mole theory and the relative sizes and masses of particles. This culminates in an in-depth investigation of one particular aspect of materials from a range of options, including the application of the principles of green chemistry to chemical manufacturing, and communication of the findings.

Unit 2 What makes water such a unique chemical?

Students explore the physical and chemical properties of water and explain them in terms of its structure and bonding. They investigate solutions and solubility, pH and reactions in water including acid–base, redox and precipitation reactions. They are introduced to stoichiometry and solution concentration. This leads to a study of various analytical techniques for determining the concentrations of salts, acids and bases and organic contaminants in water, including acid–base titrations, gravimetric analysis and instrumental analysis. With this foundation behind them, students then design and conduct their own investigation of some aspect of water quality.

Unit 3 How can chemical processes be designed to optimise efficiency?

Students explore the combustion of fossil fuels and biofuels, and are introduced to the principles of thermochemistry in this context. They compare these energy resources in terms of factors such as energy efficiency, renewability and impact on the environment. Students also investigate galvanic cells, fuel cells and electrolytic cells and examine and compare their designs and operating principles. They use the electrochemical series to explain and predict the processes occurring in the cells, and apply Faraday’s laws. They investigate the application of rate and equilibrium principles behind the selection of optimum conditions for the manufacture of industrial chemicals, and study and apply the equilibrium law and Le Chatelier’s principle.

Unit 4 How are organic compounds categorised, analysed and used?

Students investigate the carbon atom and the reason for the versatility of the design of carbon compounds. They study the structures, systematic names and reactions of key organic families, and predict the products of and also design reaction pathways that are used to synthesise particular organic compounds. They perform volumetric analyses to determine the concentration of organic compounds, and use data from the instrumental analysis of an unknown organic compound (MS, IR and NMR) to deduce its structure. Students then study various food biomolecules in terms of their structures and the reactions used to build them up and break them down. Calorimetry is used to investigate the energy content of various foods.

Photograph supplied by Louise Macfarlane, Senior Chemistry teacher, Box Hill Senior Secondary College, Melbourne.

The quality of water in waterways is an important chemical issue students will investigate in the new study design.

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