Friday, January 17, 2020
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Does your high school offer chemistry? Probably not.

There’s a report in Education Week from the end of last month that shows that 68.7 percent of “secondary schools” in Illinois don’t offer any chemistry class.

Forget, for the moment, that the data aren’t reported for Maryland—although the color of the state on the map seems to indicate that a high percentage of “secondary” schools don’t offer chemistry. Forget about how a “secondary” school is defined in this sloppy “study” as any school that has a seventh-grade class. And forget, finally, that the data aren’t made available in the article (I suppose I could check with the US Education Department).

Even given all those flaws in the research design, this “study” doesn’t even consider what chemistry is.

So, let’s look at that briefly. The Next Generation Science Standards, adopted by official action of the state boards of education in both Maryland and Illinois, doesn’t even have a section called “chemistry.” The subject, rather, is integrated into Earth and space science, life science, and physical science. Stephen Sawchuk, the article’s author, seems unaware not only of the content of science but of the official action of the state boards he’s writing about.

Furthermore, the denominator in the magazine’s calculations seems to include middle schools, where chemistry is almost always integrated into a general science class and not specifically called “chemistry.” Students still study the principles of chemistry.

But putting all that aside—because this is a very big problem—schools in the US very often don’t have good (or enough) chemistry teachers on staff to teach anything but, possibly, one section of Advanced Placement chemistry. The same could be said for physics at many high schools.

Not a problem at Linganore High School in Frederick, Maryland, though. One team in an honors chemistry there determined that it would take 4.4 grams of calcium chloride (CaCl2) and 5.52 grams of potassium carbonate (K2CO3) to make 4 grams of chalk. It’s all about stoichiometry, of course, but after it all works out, the lab group got to “enjoy the fruits of their labor” by drawing shapes and writing sentences on the table with the chalk they had made.

It’s unfortunate that the unreported data in this magazine’s study seems to have been compromised by the research design and a few definitions. That’s a shame, really, since the absence of good instruction in physics and chemistry at many high schools across the country has the potential to lead to a lack of interest on the part of students in conducting investigations in important matters.

A roommate of mine during college, who now works as a physical chemist at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, once told me that biology and medicine have all the really great questions, but physics and chemistry have all the answers.

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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