The Divide Between Science and Education (Part 1 of 2)

Jingle bells, jingle bells… Yep, Christmas is approaching. In sunny (well, mainly rainy these days) Singapore, I am dreaming of a white Christmas. The dream will probably not come true but it is always good to have dreams! Hold on to those dreams!

Well, enough of jibberish. Hello my dear readers! I hope you living the last month of the year well. As this is the first time I am writing (not translating), I suppose I should introduce myself. Some of you might have read one or two articles that I had translated from the Japanese version of Chem-Station. I did my undergraduate and Master’s in Japan and just returned to my hometown, Singapore, in April this year. This would be my first Christmas in 7 years that is a warm one! Currently, I am on my way to becoming a high school Chemistry teacher.

Why did I choose this path instead of continuing with research in a university? Or perhaps some work in some chemical company? Well, there are many reasons and I shall not elaborate but the greatest reason is because I am passionate about education. I want my future students to be as excited as I am about Chemistry. I want them to understand the huge role that Chemistry plays in their lives. I want to nurture minds, minds that might be far better than mine, minds that belong to chemists far more capable than me. In addition, I also want to be the centre of everyone’s attention. Every teacher, to a certain extent, is attention-seeking. I am no exception.

Anyway, whenever I am asked that question, I cannot help but feel that they think Chemistry research is more important than Chemistry education (at the high school level). I do not deny that Chemistry research is important because only by pushing the boundaries of Chemistry through research, can we reap the benefits of Chemistry in our daily lives. New medication? Chemistry! New non-stick material for pots and pans? Chemistry! New glue that promises to close up wounds in 30 seconds or less? Chemistry! Well, ok. You get the drift. Chemistry research is very important.

As someone who has had a taste of research (and boy do I LOVE research), I can understand why many people feel that education should be left to the people who do not do so well in research. It is, in some ways, a waste of talent if a brilliant chemist were to teach high school students atomic orbital theory. I totally understand.

HOWEVER, a brilliant chemist must also have had some kind of formal education at the pre-tertiary level. Think about this: Do you think you would have had the interest and/or ability to do what you had done in university if it were not for your pre-tertiary education?

The pre-tertiary level ultimately feeds the tertiary level and do we not want the best of the best for our universities and research institutes? Why then is so little attention paid to nurturing our young? Why do we channel most, if not all, of our best talents to research and not back into education so that a positive feedback loop is formed?

I feel that the main reason education is neglected in many places around the world is that education takes a long time to bear fruit. The investment you made in that kid over there, it may take 20 or 30 years before he/she becomes successful, if at all. So why not invest in research, which may give you monetary benefits in a short(er) period of time?

Do note that I am stating the above in general terms. I was not, in any way, referring to Singapore. In fact, Singapore is one country that takes education very seriously. We invest so much in it because we know that education is key to our survival; we have no natural resources to rely on. What I had written above stemmed from my interactions with people from all walks of life and people of different nationalities.

Anyway, before I started formal training to become a high school teacher, I had thought that as long as you knew the content, you could teach. How wrong I was! Teaching is not an art but a science and it is something that can be learnt. An effective teacher needs to know how to break down the content and present it such that young minds can digest them. It is by no means easy.

I was surprised at how much research on teaching and on the teaching of Science there is out there. Methods are developed by some educators and shared with other educators on peer-reviewed journals, much like how it is like in the Chemistry world of JACS, Angew Chem, Chem Sci and so on. While Science and Education may appear to be on extreme ends of the spectrum, “Science Education” bridges these two. Roughly speaking, science education is the study of how science is taught and learnt.

Last month, I was lucky to have participated in an event called the International Science Education Conference and I was exposed to the myriad of research that is being done for the teaching/learning of science. It was eye-opening and I shall elaborate on that in Part 2 of my post.

For now, I leave you with this to ponder over this festive season: Must science (chemistry) research and education be a zero-sum game? There must be a way to bridge this divide between Science and Education!

Merry Christmas, everyone…