Chemistry research improves teaching
Research underpinning climate change science is also transforming the quality and impact of chemistry teaching in the UK and overseas.
Led by Professors Dudley Shallcross and Richard Pancost from Bristol’s School of Chemistry and the Cabot Institute, and Director of Outreach Tim Harrison, the award-winning Bristol ChemLabS™ project represents one of world’s most ambitious efforts to engage schoolteachers and pupils in the subject.
Bridging the maths and science skills gap
Regularly identified as one of the major threats facing British employers, the skills gap in maths and science subjects and its negative effect on the UK economy is a perennial theme. Successive governments have stressed the need to attract more schoolchildren to STEM subjects at a young age.
Atmospheric chemistry and geochemistry research at the University of Bristol is playing a key role. Bristol’s studies of urban air quality, greenhouse gases and climate change feed directly into special events, curriculum teaching and teacher training at primary and secondary levels, arming teachers with new and more effective ways to engage their students in chemistry.
Follow-up studies show sharply increased uptake of the subject at post-16 level.
Making the connection between chemistry and climate change
Central to Bristol ChemLabS™’ success in engaging school-age children is the direct connection made between chemistry and arguably the greatest societal challenge to be faced over the coming decades: climate change.
Shallcross and Pancost and their teams have spent more than 20 years studying human impacts on the atmosphere past and present, and the effects of gases such as methane and carbon dioxide – work that has formed key elements of successive Intergovernmental Panel and Climate Change (IPCC) reports.
In the classroom, that fundamental research materializes in the form of A Pollutant’s Tale: lecture demonstrations telling the story of key atmospheric gases. Plants, animals and human activity all emit a vast range of gases in the form of hydrocarbons and other volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
Those emissions are important both in terms of climate change and, much more locally, urban pollution.
For example nitrogen dioxide, largely produced by vehicle exhausts and a cause of smog, reacts with sunlight to form ozone. Bristol’s atmospheric chemists have monitored concentrations of nitrogen oxide gases, ozone and carbon dioxide in the city for more than a decade, making crucial links between pollutant levels and the health of the local population.
The Pollutant’s Tale demonstration lectures then delve into another critical plank of climate change science, making the connection between everyday activities and the natural historic record of global atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations locked up in polar ice cores, widely used in climate change studies.
The impact of these combined demonstrations and related work by the outreach team has been profound.
Just one example comes from the Crypt School in Gloucestershire. In the five years that the Bristol ChemLabS™ team has been visiting, interest in chemistry at the school has been transformed and the number of students taking the subject at A-evel soared from just five to 65.
Nor has that impact been limited to the UK: articles describing Bristol ChemLabS™ activity have been translated into nine languages, with international outreach to 15 countries including Australia, China, New Zealand, Singapore, South Africa and the USA.
Engaging teachers as well as pupils
Another major benefit of the approach is the engagement with teachers, especially with non-specialists who teach chemistry.
Using the context of climate change and urban air pollution, teachers at all levels can connect seemingly abstract chemical equations with real-world challenges and environmental concerns.
Since 2005, the Bristol ChemLabS™ team has run a Teachers Masters Course featuring climate change research, established a similar Research Councils UK (RCUK) course for teachers, and regularly updates its Bristol ChemLabS™ teacher network (CHeMneT) – helping train more than 1000 teachers in the process.
Outside the classroom, more than 100 public lectures – including talks at the Cheltenham Science Festival, a series of National Science Weeks in South Africa and similar events in Namibia, Jersey and Malta – has brought this research to the wider and international public.
Attracting attention from the private sector
Bristol ChemLabS™ has also attracted attention from the private sector.
EDF Energy funded a series of Atmospheric and Climate Change Chemistry lectures, while the AstraZeneca Science Teaching Trust (AZSTT, now the Primary Science Teaching Trust, PSTT) has engaged Bristol ChemLabS™ to deliver demonstrations on climate change across the UK and develop loanable kit boxes so that primary schools can carry out a range of loanable kit boxes so that primary schools can carry out a range of investigations.