Who Needs Chemistry?

Published in:

A National Symposium

November 19–20, 2010

Howard University
Washington, D.C.

Chemistry is exceptionally relevant to a global education. Many of the issues facing today’s student have chemical principles at their root (see Table 1 for a brief list). Unfortunately, in the United States, most students do not opt to take chemistry. Their opinions of chemistry range from a disinterest to an outright disgust; this aversion to chemistry has also begun to manifest itself in certain curricula that should embrace chemistry. This paper will attempt to review the historical causes of chemistry’s poor image with American students and evaluate past and current attempts to reinvigorate the chemistry curriculum.

Table 1. Relevance of Chemistry in Today’s World


  • Pollution
  • Waste Disposal
  • Global Warming

Physiology and Medicine

  • Pharmaceutics
  • Nutrition


  • Alternative Energies
    • Batteries
    • Ethanol
    • Fuel Cells
  • Genetically Enhanced Foods
  • “Green” products – biodegradable plastics and packaging, diminished toxicological materials and processes

Historical Perspective: High School Chemistry

High school chemistry emerged in the late nineteenth century, but had a limited scope. Chemistry was an esoteric science that was non-essential for college; in fact many colleges did not require high school chemistry for entrance and often required students to take basic college chemistry with no expectations of previous chemistry exposure in high school (Sheppard and Robbins, 2005). As such, chemistry was unencumbered as a content-driven course and became either part of a fused physical science curriculum or was utilized towards more practical purposes, such as consumer chemistry, kitchen chemistry (Nelson, 1942).

This view of chemistry, and all physical sciences, was upended in 1957. On October 4th of that year, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik I and beat the United States into space. Aside from the threat of having the satellite of a hostile nation orbiting above citizens’ heads, the U. S. also realized that it was falling behind the Soviets scientifically. If we were to prevail in the Cold War, we would need to regain the scientific advantage, and part of that advantage required a rigorous scientific education.

The National Science Foundation began funding projects for curriculum reform in the late 1950s. Two programs aimed at improving secondary chemistry education: the Chemical Bond Approach (CBA) and Chemical Education Material Study (CHEM Study). These programs provided a two-fold means of improving chemistry education: students would be given a more experiential approach to learning chemistry through hands-on laboratory procedures that required problem solving, and a stronger technical training in chemical principles across the board in preparation for college training. A secondary hope for these programs was to interest those students without a chemistry degree goal, but not at the expense of course content (Merrill & Ridgway, 1969).

Historical Perspective: College General Chemistry

Chemistry first emerged as a discipline in higher education in the late eighteenth century. As the study of chemistry itself was young, the curriculum was mostly descriptive, primarily a survey of the elements, their compounds, and properties. General chemistry was the original first-year course for entering college freshman interested in chemistry or related science fields (Newell, 1976).

By the 1920s, more fundamental discoveries in both chemistry and physics had allowed chemists to form theoretical principles. As such, the chemistry curriculum became more rigorous and analytical. This trend continued through the scientific advances during World War II and the subsequent Cold War decades.

While the new scientific approach would have been thought to supplant the original practices in chemistry, the field is highly steeped in tradition. As such, the material in general chemistry was never revolutionized; it was simply augmented. This practice of adding new principles without evaluating their relationship to old principles or even the size and scope of the older principles continued for the subsequent decades. As Lloyd notes in his review of the history of general chemistry, the typical general chemistry textbook originated as a small 5 x 8 inch book and eventually grew to a 1000+ page, 8 x 10 inch encyclopedic tome that averaged 6 lbs (Lloyd, 1992).

Chemistry also evolved from a purely descriptive science to an almost peculiarly mathematical science over the same time frame. In the 1960s, with the boost in science and mathematical training in high school, the chemistry curriculum was adapted to fit these students. Chemistry became more mathematical, more problem-based, and more based on theoretical principles. This status for general chemistry persists to this day.


The end result of these two combined curriculum trajectories (high school & college chemistry) became obvious in the early 1970s: Chemistry had become a detestable subject. Students became disillusioned by the level of technical training, theoretical principles, and seemingly irrelevant problem solving. Many students became disgusted with chemistry in high school and did not continue in college (Herron, 1979). Those who retained their interest through high school would be dissuaded upon taking the two-semester voluminous general chemistry in college.

And the numbers demonstrate this: There has been a 20% decline in chemistry majors since the 1970s (National Science Foundation). And 40% of those students who begin their college career destined for science divert away from science by the time they graduate. Most of these students are lost within the first year, commonly when they are required to take general chemistry (O’Neal, Wright, Cook, Perorazio, & Purkiss, 2007).

High school enrollment in chemistry has not fared better, due to multiple factors. For much of the twentieth century, high schools only required a single year of science; the typical science sequence that most schools follow was established in 1920: biology was to be taken first, followed by chemistry, and finally physics. Eventually combined physical science courses were introduced as an alternative, only diverting more students away from chemistry. Even after 1983, when a study on the state of high school science led many schools to begin requiring two years of science, chemistry still managed only a 50 – 60% enrollment of the student body, while biology had near 100% enrollment (Merrill & Ridgway, 1969).

Student interest and opinion do not solely drive enrollment. Academic departments require specific coursework to complete a degree. So even though mathematics and composition courses may incur a low rating from students, their content necessity dictates that students must pass them, regardless of their opinions of the courses. One would therefore expect that, at least for science-based majors, those expecting to graduate with such a degree would be forced to take chemistry.

Unfortunately this prevailing poor perception of chemistry by students may have begun to creep into decisions by faculty in science-based departments. Though no published material can be found, this author has anecdotal experience with an undercurrent of change in one academic field–nursing. The trend seen is that nursing programs are beginning to de-emphasize the importance of chemistry to the core curriculum, in some cases almost eliminating the requirement completely. This flies in the face of evidence demonstrating that performance in introductory chemistry courses is an indicator of performance in the nursing program (Wharrad, Chapple, & Price, 2003; Lin, Fung, Hsiao, & Lo, 2003).

Possible explanations for this change include an increased courseload of biology courses such as genetics or a decrease in the value of chemistry principles to the technical profession of nursing. A third possible theory is that the longstanding idea of chemistry as over-technical and irrelevant may have colored the views of nursing faculty who were most likely students after the establishment of the CHEM Study and CBA programs. In short, the poor opinions of chemistry that educators have been ignoring for the past 40 years may be isolating the field in academia.

Reform Attempts

There have been various attempts in the past to try and improve both student interest and retention in chemistry. As early as 1970, when the full effect of the chemistry curriculum became obvious, a project led by Marjorie Gardner at University of Maryland began construction of a series of textbooks known as the Interactive Approaches to Chemistry (IAC). These books were no longer centered on specific theories and the ever-expanding volume of chemistry topics. Instead the books were re-centered around overarching concepts that were intended on drawing student interest. Titles such as Reactions and Reason (for General Chemistry), Form and Function (for Organic Chemistry), and Molecules in Living Systems (for Biochemistry) were created with the explicit purpose of emphasizing the context of the chemistry, and using this to help teach the concepts (Gardner, 1973).

Subsequently, two more texts from the American Chemical Society were written in the 1980s: Chemistry in the Community and Chemistry in Context. The tables of contents of these texts are given in Table 2. Again we can see that concepts were used in the service of content, instead of the traditional approach of teaching concepts first. Chemistry in Contextshows the most evolved of these: current relevant concepts such as Global Warming and Nutrition are the subject of these chapters, with the proper principles of chemistry incorporated within.

Table 2. Tables of Contents for Chemistry in the Community and Chemistry in Context

Chemistry in the Community

  • Unit 1 – Water: Exporing Solutions
  • Unit 2 – Materials: Structure and Uses
  • Unit 3 – Petroleum: Breaking and Making Bonds
  • Unit 4 – Air: Chemistry and the Atmosphere
  • Unit 5 – Industry: Applying Chemical Reactions
  • Unit 6 – Atoms: Nuclear Interactions
  • Unit 7 – Food: Matter and Energy for Life

Chemistry in Context

  • Chapter 0 – Why the Spiderweb?
  • Chapter 1 – The Air We Breathe
  • Chapter 2 – Protecting the Ozone Layer
  • Chapter 3 – The Chemistry of Global Warming
  • Chapter 4 – Energy, Chemistry, and Society
  • Chapter 5 – The Water We Drink
  • Chapter 6 – Neutralizing the Threat of Acid Rain
  • Chapter 7 – The Fires of Nuclear Fission
  • Chapter 8 – Energy from Electron Transfer
  • Chapter 9 – The World of Plastics and Polymers
  • Chapter 10- Manipulating Molecules and Designing Drugs
  • Chapter 11- Nutrition: Food for Thought
  • Chapter 12- Genetic Engineering and the Molecules of Life

More current education innovators have devised other ideas for teaching chemistry. One only needs to browse the recent issues of the Journal of Chemical Education to see the ideas:

  • Basu-Dutt, Slappey, and Bartley at the University of West Georgia created a first-year seminar course for engineering students that discusses the science of space exploration and introduces the students to related fundamental concepts in chemistry, physics, and engineering. (2010)
  • Shane, Bennet, and Hirschl at Shippensburg University have developed a course to educate non-science students on energy policy and alternatives based around chemical principles. (2010)
  • Amaral and Shibley at Penn State Berks use popular non-fiction titles such as The Omnivore’s Dillemma by Michael Pollan and Living Downstream by Sandra Steingraber as means of teaching organic chemistry (2010)
  • Richard S. Treptow at Chicago State University uses the concept of the “carbon footprint” to demonstrate to students how to apply the mathematical method of stoichiometry (2010)

The Unsolvable Problem?

So with the all this innovation in chemistry education in the past 40 years, why does chemistry still seem stuck in the same rut? Why have chemical educators not been able to turn the trend around and create a more vibrant, interesting chemistry that students actually want to enroll in?

Alex. H. Johnstone of the University of Glasgow gives the best explanation. In his aptly named article “You Can’t Get There from Here,” he recounts an animal behavioral experiment that accounts for group interactions:

Animal behavior researchers placed a stepladder in a room with a bunch of bananas on top of it. Five monkeys were introduced into the room and one instantly went up the ladder to get the fruit. The others were “punished” by being hosed with cold water. The monkey who scaled the ladder was beaten up by the others. Trials continued for some time until they all got the message and the bananas were left untouched. One monkey was removed and replaced by a new one, who immediately went for the bananas but was beaten up by the others despite the fact that the cold shower was no longer being applied. Eventually all the monkeys were replaced one by one and were beaten up by their peers if they attempted to get the fruit. The situation stabilized with five monkeys sitting in a room with no attempt to get the bananas. If the researchers had been able to ask the monkeys, “Why does none of you go for the bananas?” a monkey would likely have responded, “I don’t know, but that is how things are done here.”1 (2010).

His theory is that, even in the face of obvious symptoms of decline in chemistry enrollment, chemistry educators have been resistant to change because “that is how things are done here.” The last widely accepted change in high school curriculum was in 1960 with CHEM Study, and college general chemistry has been a snowballing bundle of information with no thought to context or size. The reason that reform has not emerged is not due to a lack of ideas, but is due to a passive intransigence of chemistry educators. As one reformer put it, unless there is a fundamental attitude change in chemistry, the educators should be content to “sit and wait for our own obsolescence.” (Cooper, 2010)


1The experiment he recounts is somewhat apocryphal. The actual experiment seems to involve a learned response by social interaction between rhesus monkeys. The reference is obscure and has been included as Stephenson, G. R. (1967) “Cultural acquisition of a specific learned response among rhesus monkeys.”


Amaral, K.E., Shibley, I.A., Jr. (2010). Using popular nonfiction in organic chemistry: teaching more than content. Journal of Chemical Education, 87 (4): 400 – 404.

American Chemical Society. (2006). Chemistry in the Community (5th ed.) New York: W. H. Freeman.

American Chemical Society. (2008). Chemistry in Context (6th Ed.) New York: McGraw-Hill Educational.

Basu-Dutt, S., Slappey, C., & Bartley, J.K. (2010). Making chemistry relevant to the engineering major. Journal of Chemical Education, 87 (11): 1206 – 1212.

Cooper, M. (2010). The case for reform of the undergraduate general chemistry curriculum. Journal of Chemical Education, 8 (3): 231 – 232.

Gardner, Marjorie. (1973). The interdisciplinary approaches to chemistry (IAC) programs and related research.” Research in Science Education, 3(1): 17 – 21.

Herron, J.D. (1979). How a modified program in IAC increased chemistry enrollments. Journal of Chemical Education, 56(6): 399 – 401.

Johnstone, A. H. (2010). You can’t get there from here. Journal of Chemical Education, 87 (1): 22 – 29.

Lin, R.S.J., Fung, B.K.P., Hsiao, J., Lo H. (2003). Relationship between academic scores and performance on national qualified examination for registered professional nurses (NQEX-RPN). Nurse Education Today, 23(7): 492-497.

Lloyd, B.W. (1992). A review of curricular changes in the general chemistry course during the twentieth century. Journal of Chemical Education, 69(8): 633 – 636.

Merrill, R. J. & Ridgway, D. W. (Eds). (1969). The CHEMStudy story: a successful curriculum improvement project. W. H. Freeman: San Francisco. Retrieved from http://www.archive.org/details/chemstudystory00merr

National Science Foundation, Division of Science Resources Statistics. Science and Engineering Degrees: 1966-2004 (Data Table 38). Retrieved from http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/nsf07307/pdf/tab38.pdf

Nelson, T.A. (1942). The future of chemistry as a specialized science in the high-school curriculum. Journal of Chemical Education, 18(3): 143.

Newell, L.C. (1976). Chemical education in America from the earliest days to 1820. Journal of Chemical Education, 53(7): 402 – 404.

O’Neal, C., Wright, M., Cook, C., Perorazio, T., Purkiss, J. (2007). The impact of teaching assistants on student retention in the sciences: lessons for TA training. Journal of College Science Teaching, 36(5): 24-29.

Shane, J. W., Bennett, S.D., Hirschl-Mike, R. (2010). Using chemistry as a medium for energy education: suggestions for content and pedagogy in a nonmajors course. Journal of Chemical Education, 87(11): 1166 – 1170.

Sheppard, K., Robbins, D.M. (2005) Chemistry, the central science? The history of the high school science sequence. Journal of Chemical Education, 82(4): 561 – 566.

Stephenson, G. R. (1967). Cultural acquisition of a specific learned response among rhesus monkeys. In Starek, D., Schneider, R., and Kuhn, H. J. (Eds.) Progress in Primatology. (pp. 279-288). Stuttgart: Fischer.

Treptow, R.S. (2010). Carbon footprint calculations: an application of chemical principles. Journal of Chemical Education, 87(2): 168 – 171

Wharrad, H.J., Chapple, M., Price N. (2003). Predictors of academic success in a bachelor of nursing course. Nurse Education Today, 23(4): 246-254

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Spring 2011: Engaging Students in the Community and the World