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Ode to Joy

As part of the U.S. kickoff for the International Year of Chemistry last week, CHF hosted a panel, Global Challenges/Chemistry Solutions, which focused on the big issues: energy, health, water, and so on. I want to focus on a small part of the so on. At the end of the discussion, a perennial question cropped up: How to get kids interested in science. With screeds written on the negative effects produced by an emphasis on test passing and the rote learning it requires; on the quality and education of teachers; on classroom size; and on a zillion other things, one answer from a panelist stood out.

An audience member asked Joshua S. Boger how to inspire the next generation of problem solvers. For Boger, the answer is simple. “You’ve got to start with joy. Rigor will happen when people are experiencing joy.” 

By this I understand Boger to mean that emotion comes first: fall in love with science, and that love will provide the resolve to stick with the rigors of theory and experiment. Unfortunately, this approach smacks up against a pop culture view of scientists as objective calculators or brilliant savants for whom emotion is only a distraction. This focus on objectivity took off in the second half of the 19th century, but even then there was an acknowledgment of what might be called the pre-scientific—of the benefits brought by science enthusiasts like the Romantic writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. 

Earlier in the discussion a couple of the panelists had complained that critically important and practical subjects such as environmental chemistry are at the fringes of their discipline, when they should be at the center. They, after all, will affect people’s quality of life at least as much as the more mainstream subjects.

Perhaps its time to move joy into the mainstream as well. It’s bound to affect students’ lives for the better. And that can only be a good thing for the future of chemistry.

Posted In: Education | History

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