Is chemistry class still important?

Is chemistry education and the application of its concepts still relevant to young people today?

Chemistry class has a bad rap. Many young people hear the word chemistry and think of boring people in white lab coats carrying Bunsen burners and test tubes. According to Michigan State University Extension, it can be challenging for many students because it requires good study habits in order to get decent grades. And while some students may go on to work in chemistry-related fields, most students pursue careers in other areas. All-in-all, chemistry may not be a course the majority of students look forward to taking.

From this notion, some questions have been asked on the relevancy of having all high school students take chemistry. If a student doesn’t like chemistry and doesn’t plan on pursuing a career in chemistry, then should they have the option of opting out and instead pursue course work in another core subject that does interest them? Student-directed learning is implemented in afterschool organizations like 4-H Youth Development and is a successful model that allows youth to be participants in their education rather than solely recipients. Still it is helpful for the foundational building blocks of information to be taught in order for young people to explore their application within various areas, subjects and issues that intrigue them.  

 S.  Raj Govindarajan wrote a commentary on this subject and provided an example of how basic knowledge of chemistry is important in life and to be a competent citizen. He pointed out two main ideas regarding why chemistry education should be provided to young people:

  1. Chemistry is everywhere. pH, such as acids and bases is a basic concept of chemistry that we encounter daily. Understanding what affects the acid level of our drinking water, the great lakes and even the water in our fish tanks can have a substantial impact on our environment and human health. Make a poor choice on what type of soil or sand you put into the water of your fish tank, and your fish could all die. This is kind of a hard way to learn a lesson already taught through basic chemistry education.
  2. Our society and our world depend on us.  4-H Youth Development is preparing the children and youth for the future. 4-H is equipping the young people today to be tomorrow’s leaders and decision makers. As policies are crafted and procedures developed to help improve human medicine, the environment and a host of other issues an understanding of basic chemistry can help all of us ensure that the steps we take are sound and responsible.  

While the notion that students should be given the option to opt out of core course work like chemistry isn’t a topic gaining steam among educators, it is interesting to consider how we teach young people core concepts and allow them to explore and apply those concepts to life. If our goal is to develop young people that are active leaders in their communities, then basic competencies in core subject matter along with the understanding of how to apply concepts to life seems to be helpful in developing a well-rounded citizen. Regardless of where or how this subject is taught, there is a place for chemistry education and the need for educators and caring adults like 4-H volunteers to teach both concepts and the application of concepts to life.

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