At the inauguration of the Indian Children's Science Congress the other day, speakers bemoaned the popular perception among students of chemistry being a “boring subject' and attributed this to the way it was being taught in schools and colleges. The perception and the diagnosis are both correct and have been so for decades.
More than half a century ago, the subject was found boring by school students because unlike physics — mathematics having always been dismissed as being beyond the reach of ordinary mortals — it was full of stand-alone facts with not much scope for logical reasoning or connectivity. Worse was the equal importance given to trivial information alongside valuable knowledge.
Not that a powerful memory was not required in pursuing other subjects but chemistry differed from them in that memory mattered most in mastering it. Worst of all hurdles was that teachers in schools laid as much emphasis on the non-essential as on the essential in evaluating answer scripts.
College chemistry brought with it its own set of problems. Structural formulae of natural products like steroids were not only mind boggling — well, they have to be so and cannot change — but often the very similarity among different members of a group made it difficult to remember which was which. Worse lay in store like the care needed not to slip up any step in the labyrinth of a lengthy organic synthesis. If in writing down the Freidel-Crafts Synthesis one forgot to mention that the catalyst (aluminium chloride) had to be anhydrous, then one lost marks heavily.
It was quite common for students to write down complex formulae and syntheses on a sheet of paper, hang it on a wall and take a hard look at them before going to bed hoping sleep would etch them in their memory. Alas, like an intake of caffeine or theobromine, the exercise resulted only in disturbed sleep and little accretion of knowledge. Still, students (like this writer) fought on gamely.
Things seem to have changed somewhat with the introduction of the CBSE and ICSC curricula and syllabi and revised teaching material. Non-essentials that cluttered up pages in older textbooks have been replaced with basic and fundamental knowledge, giving an insight into the subject. Still, rote memory rules. This has much to do with the way the examination papers are set. There is little inclusion of problems calling for the application of principles. What we see is more information seeking either through descriptive answers or picking the right choice from among given alternatives, the first encouraging rote memory and the second promoting serendipity.
Since chemistry is a subject that relies heavily on knowledge gained through experimentation, the role of ‘practicals' has to be emphasised in any curriculum. Chemistry practicals are not dull like theory but are interesting, and teach the young scholar attention to detail, strict following of procedure, alertness and, above all, patience. At the end of an experiment, it is always a thrill to watch beautifully shaped crystals formed at the bottom of the crystallising dish or an elusive component of a mixture of chemicals isolated and identified successfully.
Finally, relating chemistry to what we see and experience around us in everyday life highlights its extreme relevance to human well-being. Good teachers have always done that. In this context, one may add that visits by scientists connected with major developments in any branch of science to schools and colleges and allowing the students to interact with them kindle a liking for the subject, chemistry being no exception.
A handshake and chat with a Ramakrishnan Venkataraman has the magic of making chemistry appealing to young minds in much the same way visits and addresses by the likes of Linus Pauling (who won the Nobel twice, for Chemistry and for Peace) or Lord Todd (a huge and handsome man nicknamed Todd Almighty; he bagged the Nobel for his work on nucleotides, nucleosides and nucleotide coenzymes) or Isler (credited with the commercial synthesis of Vitamin A) did to the students of chemistry in Delhi University way back in the 1950s. The boring subject is worth pursuing.
(The writer's email id is: nrkrishnan20@hotmail. com)