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Public Understanding of the Periodic Table

Center for Contemporary History and Policy

Last week a colleague posted about periodic tables being engrained within pop-culture. Many people have seen periodic tables residing on the walls of science classrooms in high schools and colleges, and scientific textbooks have them on the inside cover for quick reference. After completing the necessary coursework most students do not retain the knowledge about the complex way in which the periodic table is organized and fewer still understand the complex history behind the periodic table. Instead, a “periodic table” becomes a method to display:

Is it important that people recognize the periodic table and the chemical information held within it? A public understanding of science (including chemistry) does not necessarily include the periodic table, as that makes news very infrequently. However, one certainly should be exposed to the periodic table, as the fundamentals of chemistry cannot be acquired without it.

Introductory chemistry classes at the high school and college levels include a large amount of background information to cover the material needed for the subsequent course. However, these introductory courses must also include how chemistry is actually a real-world concern; too this is neglected in favor of the seemingly abstract. The textbook and course for Chemistry in Context—edited by Catherine H. Middlecamp, an oral-history interviewee for the Women in Chemistry Oral History Project—provide the real-world connections between the course material and such familiar topics as global warming, alternative fuel sources, and genetically modified foods.

Unfortunately, such context-driven courses are often seen—even within departments—as less scientific than the traditional introductory course. There must be a way to bring the real world to introductory chemistry without decreasing the scientific content of the course necessary for subsequent courses. Making introductory chemistry relevant to students keeps them interested in chemistry and science, and fosters a general interest. It would be wonderful if the general public all knew and recognized the periodic table of elements. But science and the public would be better served by an exposure to the fundamentals of science and their importance in the world around us.

Posted In: History | Policy

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