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How to teach an ever-updating chemistry field


Thinking about the purpose of a university education
Norman Greenwood Scientist
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And from that time onwards, I paid particular attention to this aspect of it and it was a thing, in fact, that I think I got well known about and used to be called to lecture at many universities around the country, as to what the purpose of the university education was and what inorganic chemistry, in particular, should be aimed at.

Now one can make a lot of pompous phrases about these things, which I don’t intend to do, but an idea perhaps is encapsulated in the simple phrase is, I said we should think of education through chemistry, not education in chemistry or education about chemistry, but education through chemistry. And the analogy that I used was, if you think of history as a subject, you don’t expect the department of history to discuss the history of all cultures, in all continents, in all time. What you do is, you take Tudor history, or the Elizabethan period, or whatever, and you use that to get the ideas of historical research and knowledge over, and at universities you’re making the translation from being fed information at school and, of course, to some extent, learning how to think. But the point of the university education, in my view, is to make a transition where the undergraduate thinks of the ideas for himself or herself, can plan experiments, learn how to do things, learn what the significance is, work around the subject and also, of course, have a historical perspective on the subject.

So we began to design courses like that. But, clearly there’s a balance, because at the end of the day you were training a professional chemist and there’s no point in going out into industry and not knowing any actual chemistry. So to me, fact is not a dirty four letter word: fact is essential. The facts of chemistry are important, partly because they are pretty permanent - occasionally they alter for technical reasons and as techniques get better - but by and large the facts don’t change. What changes is the theory, in other words, understanding. So if you go too far on the theoretical, you are teaching the student something which will soon be out of date and not necessarily applicable. You then also have to avoid the problems of so-called relevance, and there the phrase that springs to my mind straightaway is that, today’s relevance is tomorrow’s obsolescence. The big thing about the modern world, and it was the same in the ‘60s and ‘70s, is that the people who are graduating now may know what the state of chemistry is now, but in 10 years’ time it will have doubled in its content, there will be lots of new concepts, lots of new ideas, so we have to work on the concepts of dealing with a continually changing and growing body of knowledge which has to be incorporated into the theory.

Norman Greenwood (1925-2012) was born in Australia and graduated from Melbourne University before going to Cambridge. His wide-ranging research in inorganic and structural chemistry made major advances in the chemistry of boron hydrides and other main-group element compounds. He also pioneered the application of Mössbauer spectroscopy to problems in chemistry. He was a prolific writer and inspirational lecturer on chemical and educational themes, and held numerous visiting professorships throughout the world.

Listeners: Brian Johnson

Professor Brian FG Johnson FRS, FRSE, FRS Chem, FAcad Eu, FAS. Professor of Inorganic Chemistry University of Edinburgh 1991-1995, Professor of Inorganic Chemistry University of Cambridge 1995-2005, Master Fitzwilliam College Cambridge 1999-2005. Research interests include studies of transition metal carbonyls, organometallic chemistry, nano- particles and homogeneous catalysis. Professor Johnson is the author of over 1000 research articles and papers.

Tags: 1960s, 1970s

Duration: 3 minutes, 51 seconds

Date story recorded: May 2011

Date story went live: 25 November 2011