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Emphasizing 'Real World' Applications of Chemistry, Curriculum Aims To Enliven a Once-Daunting

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Cockeysville, Md.--Ranged around onyx-topped tables in a typical laboratory classroom, students stare intently at beakers perched over Bunsen burners, stirring occasionally to prevent scorching the mixture inside.

Meanwhile, Gene Rosso, a chemistry teacher and the science department chairman here at Dulaney High School, circles the room, offering advice and answering questions, as the boiling blue liquid in each beaker gradually blackens, a sign that a chemical reaction has occurred.

As the lab draws to a close, a student calls out excitedly across the room. "Hey, Mr. Rosso," he exclaims, "that was pretty cool."

Such exuberance is unexpected in this setting, according to Mr. Rosso, a 30-year veteran chemistry teacher. Although bright and predominantly college-bound, he says, many of the students at this school in the affluent suburbs of Baltimore have tended to shy away from chemistry.

"This would be a group of kids who would be struggling in a traditional, theory-based, general chemistry class," he explains in an aside.

The enthusiasm, Mr. Rosso asserts, can be attributed to a two-year-old chemistry curriculum, developed by the American Chemical Society, that, proponents argue, stresses "real world" applications of science while toning down the mathematical emphasis of traditional approaches.

Developed with funds from the acs and the National Science Foundation, ChemCom, or Chemistry in the Community, was designed by a committee of precollegiate and postsecondary educators to help stem a national aversion among high-school students to the study of advanced sciences, according to Sylvia A. Ware, the society's director of education.

Nationally, although the vast majority of students take biology, only 17 percent of 11th graders in general programs--and 6 percent in vocational and technical programs--had taken both biology and chemistry, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Even among those in academic programs, naep found, only half took the two subjects.

By stressing ways to "help [students] view the world with greater understanding," as the 518-page ChemCom textbook puts it, the curriculum tries to make the subject more attractive, particularly to the majority of students who may not take higher-level science coursework.

And schools' response to the program suggests that it is having that effect.

Since it was first introduced commercially in 1988, according to the acs, more than 100,000 copies of the ChemCom text have been sold, and the curriculum--which sells for approximately $2,500--is now used by 1,449 school districts.

The program has been especially popular in Colorado and Washington State, where many of its developers are based. About 60 of the 250 high schools in Washington use ChemCom, according to Keith Berry, a professor of chemistry at the University of Puget Sound, who helped encourage teachers in that state to field-test the curriculum.

Schools that use the program have also seen it increase in popularity among students. Mr. Rosso, for example, who is teaching 30 students in his first year of ChemCom, expects to double, and perhaps triple, the number of students who enroll next year.

While the "real world" focus of the curriculum is its major source of appeal, proponents say, other features make it equally attractive.

For example, notes Michael Pavelich, a professor of chemistry at the Colorado School of Mines, the program also focuses on group activities and cooperation, concepts commonly embraced by educational reformers.

As envisioned by its designers, ChemCom is usually taught in parallel with, rather than as a replacement for, existing chemistry curricula.

The curriculum is divided into eight sequential units--Supplying Our Water Needs; Conserving Chemical Resources; Petroleum: To Build or to Burn?; Understanding Food; Nuclear Chemistry in Our World; Chemistry, Air, and Climate; Chemistry and Health; and the Chemical Industry: Promise and Challenge.

The text includes traditional laboratory exercises as well as time-honored mathematical formulas.

But the pace of the course is different3--and some students argue, less rigorous than--traditional chemistry.

"It's a curriculum in which the chemistry is presented when students need to know it," Mr. Berry says.

The concept of balancing equations, one of the basics of traditional courses, for example, first appears in the chapter on conserving the earth's resources.

But if it is taught properly, supporters say, ChemCom does not weaken exposure to mathematics and theory.

"This is not 'dumbed down' chemistry," Ms. Ware says.

The hallmark of the program, most observers agree, is its emphasis on the ways the knowledge of chemistry, or lack of it, affects students' daily lives.

The initial section of the textbook, for example, presents a situation in which the residents of a fictitious small town discover that some substance in the local drinking-water supply is responsible for a massive fish kill that threatens the town's economy.

Students then are led through an examination of water-quality issues, as well as the chemistry of water, and learn to filter contaminated water through a variety of media to remove impurities.

The culmination of the section is a "town meeting," in which students debate the various causes and effects of--as well as the relative merits of solutions to--the water-quality problem.

"It was really like you lived in a small town," recalls Gregory Ponzoli, a junior in Mr. Rosso's class. "Everybody was getting real excited about it."

As a testament to the project's success, Mr. Rosso has displayed photographs of the town meeting, which was held early in the fall semester, alongside the ubiquitous Periodic Chart of the Elements on his classroom wall.

Despite the growing enthusiasm for the program, however, acceptance is far from universal, even among those who have taught the course.

Many teachers who are pleased with the results of the traditional approach, and who see no value in reducing the amount of direct instruction in theory, object to the curriculum, proponents say.

"I think most of the resistance comes at the teacher level," Mr. Berry says.

Some teachers also object to the frequent homework assignments that are a hallmark of the ChemCom approach, Mr. Pavelich adds.

"From the teacher's point of view, there's an awful lot of grading,'' he says.

The inclusion of such activities as the simulated town meeting, which requires that students not only develop some expertise in chemistry, but also employ some skills that generally might be considered more appropriate in a speech or debate class, also spurs resistance among more-traditional teachers, according to some.

Mr. Rosso says that ChemCom initially "got a bad reputation in our county, because it was taught wrong."

Chemistry teachers, accustomed to the mathematics-based general chemistry program, he points out, attempted to shape the new curriculum to meet the old model.

"It's important to understand the philosophy behind the program," he says. "But, if you stay with the program, it'll all get done."

To most science educators, ChemCom is most appropriate for students who do not plan to take higher-level science or engineering coursework.

In Baltimore County, for example, where the course is offered as an alternative to honors, "gifted and talented," and regular chemistry, the course catalogue stresses that ChemCom "is especially suited to the student who is not preparing for a career in science or engineering."

Yet the prerequisites for ChemCom are identical to those listed for the school system's traditional basic chemistry course. Student are required to have completed a first-year algebra course and should be concurrently enrolled in a second year of algebra.

To Mr. Pavelich of the Colorado School of Mines, ChemCom is an adequate preparation for high-school physics and provides an excellent grounding in the subject for non-science majors.

But Mr. Berry of the University of Puget Sound suggests that students who have taken the course can keep up in his college-level chemistry courses.

"ChemCom students end up with slightly different skills," he says. "But it's not that that stuff is lacking in ChemCom."

He adds that while ChemCom students "may feel a little stressed" during the early weeks of college chemistry, which typically emphasizes mathematics, they generally catch up with their peers because ChemCom has built up their self-confidence.

The group-oriented, interpretative approach also has its advantages, he notes.

"They can negotiate with other students easier, and they form study groups," Mr. Pavelich agrees. "ChemCom has students looking at graphs and tables of data and trying to get information, rather than solving a particular problem for a particular solution."

To students, though, ChemCom's greatest virtue is in bringing new relevancy to a subject that often is complex and daunting.

Brad Pressler, a junior in Mr. Rosso's chemistry class, had been enrolled in a traditional chemistry program at a Midwestern high-school.

"That was like math class," he says, carefully pouring a black liquid from one container to another. "This is more like chemistry."

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