Self-Directed Chemistry: original research for Sixth Form
At my school the Block 5 (Year 11) students return for two weeks worth of taster sessions in the summer term. This is eight hours of time in the laboratory. Furthermore, since we have new students joining the Sixth Form in September, we cannot teach them any curriculum content, as this would disadvantage the newcomers. Equally we are told that the lessons should represent the A-level course they are about to embark on. This is a tall order in Chemistry where there is very little new content we can teach them without covering some of the A-level concepts, and two weeks of Chemistry without learning new content does not accurately represent what Chemistry lessons will really be like to the students on the taster courses. So, as usual, chemists turn to practical work...
As this is my first year in post I asked my colleagues what they usually do. Although in previous years there has only been one week of taster courses, they have offered a choice of the following investigations:
Making a solar cell
Determining the vitamin C content of orange juice
However, their feedback suggested that making esters overlapped too much with the course, and students ended up looking up a lot of information rather than doing an investigation, unlike the other two. So I put up a plea on the Twittersphere for some alternative organic investigations suitable for Year 11 students. To his great credit, Bob Worley sent me two ideas for original research in green chemistry to have a look at: using Fenton's reagent to oxidise alcohols and using strong acid ion-exchange resins for making esters.
"We are boring our students on an industrial scale."
Ian Warwick, Founder of London Gifted and Talented
Having discussed the ideas with my department, we decided to try the Fenton's reagent investigation. This involves using hydrogen peroxide as an oxidising agent for the oxidation of ethanol to ethanal and ethanoic acid using an iron(II) catalyst. Students could then analyse their product and, most importantly, carry out further investigative work of their choosing such as comparing the yield with different reflux times, using different concentrations of hydrogen peroxide, comparing the yield with a different oxidising agent, etc.
And this is the part that has got the students really fired up; not only are they using a lot of exciting glasswear with confidence and skill, they have some level of autonomy with regards to the direction of their project. They are able to self-direct their learning according to their own interests. Last week, Ian Warwick, the founder of London Gifted and Talented came into school to speak about differentiation and claimed that not only are we boring our students on an industrial scale by not stretching them enough, we are not giving them enough opportunities to select their own pathway through their education. This project has provided opportunities for both.
"One of my students has already been talking about making a big enough solar cell to power a mobile phone charging station for Parents' Day."
All three of the projects that the students have been working on have an aspect of feeling like original research to the students and being able to select their own direction, but this is certainly the one that has excited them the most. I am planning to re-write the information for the solar cell and vitamin C projects so that students can go off in their own directions much earlier in preparation for next year. One of my students has already been talking about making a big enough solar cell to power a mobile phone charging station for Parents' Day.
Do these projects represent what A-level students will be doing next year? At the moment no. But this is mainly a failure of the courses, not the concept. Partly my failing as a Head of Chemistry to include enough open-ended practical work into the schemes of work in a way that they can really get their teeth into, but also as a failure of the examining bodies to find a way of including genuine investigative work which is truly self-directed into the A-level without bringing back coursework. I do need to spend some time looking at the Core Practicals again to see if any of them have the potential to be taught in this way, but it is a shame that this will be a project that I take up at my school next year, and not a project that is an integral aspect of Chemistry teaching at A-level. Because if it's not self-directed and investigative, then what is research science at all!
Distillation and reflux diagrams from CLEAPSS.