A greener chemistry curriculum???

By Colin McGill

Here are some facts:

Ken Muir’s report, Putting Learners at the Centre: Towards a Future Vision for Scottish Education, quotes school pupils as saying

“We don’t do enough about the environment at school.”


“Teach more about climate change.”

At the same time, less and less of our school pupils are choosing to study chemistry at university.

Could a refresh of the chemistry curriculum in Scotland help to address these issues? Are pupils switched off from National Qualifications in chemistry that include how we obtain fossil fuels, how we obtain useful substances from crude oil, how we can use alkenes to make synthetic materials? Would pupils be more interested in chemistry if we replaced content on how we are helping to destroy the planet with content about how chemistry could be used to solve the world’s problems? In the BGE, is there a need for SCN 4-17a “I have explored how different materials can be derived from crude oil and their uses. I can explain the importance of carbon compounds in our lives”? Should we have less about hydrocarbons and plastics in our chemistry curricula?

We could be teaching pupils more about:

Battery technologies

Recycling metals from mobile phones

Climate change chemistry

Higher Chemistry contains content on atom economy, percentage yield, recycling by-products etc, but N5 Chemistry doesn’t really cover chemistry from a sustainability/green context. Would this make the chemistry curriculum more relevant to those who don’t intend to continue studying chemistry? Would this stop the decrease in applications to undergraduate chemistry courses?

At the same time, we could also examine how we could decolonise the chemistry curricula in Scotland. We could be looking at how climate change is impacting on communities all over the globe, using Brazil as a context for renewable fuels (where ethanol is used in petrol).

There are clear issues that would need to be addressed with this:

  1. Is knowledge of alkanes/alkenes essential to further study of organic chemistry? Is is possible to teach pupils about their structure, properties, reactions etc without going into detail about where they come from?
  2. Addition polymerisation is a good intro to understanding polymers (and a lot simpler for pupils to understand than condensation polymerisation).
  3. Are the chemistry teachers in Scotland going to get adequate support if there were to be a change to the content of the NQ curricula?

Changes to the National Qualifications are highly likely, with reviews of assessment on the way, and the recent reviews by the OECD and Ken Muir, so now’s as good a time as any to update the content of our chemistry courses, and show our pupils that chemistry is relevant to their future.

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