Where Chemical Education is Heading: Interview with Peter Mahaffy

Where Chemical Education is Heading: Interview with Peter Mahaffy

Author: Vera Köster

Peter Mahaffy is internationally recognized for his deep commitment to helping students, scientists, and the general public see the intricate webs that connect chemistry to so many other aspects of life. Professor of Chemistry at King’s University College in Edmonton, Canada, Mahaffy has served as Chair of the International Union of Pure & Applied Chemistry’s (IUPAC) Committee on Chemistry Education (CCE), and also co-directs with Brian Martin the King’s Centre for Visualization in Science, which provides digital learning resources accessed by 22,000 learners each month from 100 countries.

He talks to Dr. Vera Köster, ChemViews magazine, about the need to change the way of teaching and learning chemistry, about how to support teaching internationally, where he sees chemistry education in 50 years, and why he loves his job so much.


What are the main challenges in chemical education today?

Before I start with your question, I should comment that I much prefer the term “chemistry education” to “chemical education.” Chemical education is education about chemicals, their structures, properties, and reactions. Chemistry education is a bigger term that includes everything that we have described as “chemical education”, but also emphasizes that chemistry is always a human activity. People are involved in the practice of carrying out and investigating chemical reactions.

I like to think of chemistry education as a seamless exercise in bringing together our understanding of chemical reactivity with human activity. Chemistry education should highlight the ways in which all people benefit from the chemical reactions we have come to depend on in modern life.

And we need to be reminded in this profession that the teachers and learners who study chemistry are also people. To be effective chemistry educators, we need to understand the learning needs and different learning styles of our students to equip them to contribute to using the tools of chemistry to improve the human condition and that of our environment, and to help each one of them understand the crucial role that chemistry plays in our lives.


Thank you for explaining this indeed interesting difference. So, what are the main challenges in chemistry education today?

Three are at the top of my list:

1. We have an imperative to make the teaching and learning of chemistry relevant to equipping the next generation of scientists for global challenges, such as those identified in the International Year of Chemistry 2011 (IYC2011) UN resolution and the UN Millennium Development Goals. Our students should see that their learning of chemistry will give them powerful tools to understand better the links between human activity and our planetary boundaries, to address challenges such as global climate change, the need for alternative energy, accessible medicine for diseases in different parts of our world, potable water, and secure food supplies.

2. To provide education in and through chemistry that promotes active and engaged learning by our students – moving beyond the one-way transmission models that we have used for many decades in teaching chemistry.

3. We need to serve all human beings, not just future scientists, with education about the nature of chemistry and its importance to all aspects of our lives. Most of our efforts in chemistry education have been directed toward the education of future scientists. This is crucial, but we also need to attend to the needs of the public for understanding the fundamental science that is relevant to almost every topic of decision making in our world.

This lays a huge burden on teachers who also have to cope with the growing amount of chemical knowledge. How do you respond to this?

To start, the status of the profession of teaching needs to be enhanced globally, so that resources are put into teacher training and teacher development, and so that the profession of equipping the next generation is seen as an inspiring and attractive choice. In some countries this is already the case – in many others it is not.

Teachers then need support at multiple levels to help them keep up with new developments in chemistry, but also to teach chemistry based on how we know students learn best and how they learn chemistry best. It is crucial that this is addressed not only at local and regional levels, but also at national and international levels.

One example of an initiative that seeks to do this at the national level is the International Union of Pure & Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) Committee on Chemistry Education’s Flying Chemist Program (FCP). The program is initiated by a country that seeks to improve chemistry education nationally and that has started a process of bringing together the key stakeholders with full support at the level of ministries of education or advanced education. An invitation can then be extended to an IUPAC FCP team to come in and share best practices from other countries and also serve as sounding boards for the ideas within a country. The FCP program targets economically disadvantaged countries.


How does the growth of chemical knowledge affect students?

Students care about learning that is relevant to their lives, and also learning that helps them see that they can solve important problems. As a profession, we haven’t done well enough at ensuring that students have resources that show chemistry as an exciting, modern activity, done by human beings just like them – and that chemistry is relevant to solving important problems.

Many of our textbooks and teaching approaches are stuck in the past and haven’t changed much in the past 30–50 years. So much of the growth of chemical knowledge in cutting edge areas that cross disciplines is therefore lost to our students. But as we change this and help them uncover these stories of chemistry, we see how motivating they find this knowledge.


How important are multimedia or other visualization techniques?

Making sense of our world requires the capacity to visualize – to develop mental models that take us out of our own scale – to ‘see’ molecules colliding in chemical reactions and to picture invisible forces at work in the physical world. One of the fundamental features of learning chemistry is that we need to have robust molecular level images of chemical substances and reactions, and to be able to connect those molecular level images to what we observe (the macroscopic), and what we represent (the symbolic).

We now have new and powerful computer tools to help students do this. No longer do we need to be limited to static, 2-dimensional molecular level images. We can use teaching packages that introduce molecular dynamics and watch the light bulbs go on in students eyes when they ‘see’ and understand for the first time why ice cubes float, or what an aquated ion in solution really ‘looks’ like.

By doing so, this is a step towards being able to visualize solutions to larger problems. Nowhere is it more imperative that we develop the ability to visualize well than when we picture how the tools of chemistry can be used to tackle the bewildering complexity of climate science, make energy choices to power our planet in the 21st Century, or bring potable water, modern medicine, and secure food supplies to the world.

I have the great privilege of working with a talented team of undergraduates and faculty at the King’s Centre for Visualization in Science, Edmonton, Canada, where we work to help scientists, educators, students, and the public visualize both the molecular world and also visualize solutions to global challenges. One outstanding example of this kind of visualization is the set of resources that were completed very recently at explainingclimatechange.com that help young learners understand the fundamental science underlying our climate and make strong connections to the chemistry concepts that are needed to understand climate change. This resource was produced at our visualization research center as a joint project with IUPAC and UNESCO, and with the partnership of the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) in the UK, the American Chemical Society (ACS), and the Federation of African Societies of Chemistry.


What do users learn at explainingclimatechage.com?

In this new resource, learners are not told what to think about climate change, but instead are invited to interrogate the data over the past million years about temperature and concentrations of greenhouse gases. They can use digital learning objects to begin to see and understand how increased carbon dioxide concentrations in our atmosphere can lead to a drop in ocean pH and reduction in carbonate concentrations needed for marine organisms to form their exoskeletons. And we feel it’s very important to leave viewers with a sense of empowerment for what can be done. The final lesson breaks down the problem of increasing levels of carbon in our atmosphere over the next 50 years into a ‘stabilization triangle’ and in “Powering the Future”, learners can explore the effect that various strategies related to energy, land use, etc., can play in stabilizing atmospheric carbon.


Is laboratory work in teaching changing?

Yes – significant developments are in the widespread introduction of microscale techniques, the development of low cost laboratory equipment to give chemistry students in economically disadvantaged countries some experience of hands-on chemistry, and the move away from ‘cookbook’ chemistry to more open-ended and investigative approaches.


How do you think education will look in 50 years’ time?

In my chapter entitled “The Human Element: chemistry education’s contributions to our global future” in The Chemical Element, I note how little the teaching of chemistry has changed over the past 50 years. We will have utterly failed in meeting the needs of our students and our planet if someone is able to write the same thing 50 years from now!

I hope we continue to build strongly on trends that (a) see chemistry as a human activity, (b) place the deep knowledge of concepts of chemistry in contexts that matter to our students and the health of our planet, and (c) that continue to exploit visualization tools to help students see and understand.


What got you interested in education?

I have always been curious about the world and love to communicate that curiosity and wonder to others. I have been inspired by many teachers and mentors, including my 95-year-old mother, who still tutors students with learning needs.


How do you keep yourself up-to-date?

I am committed to teaching, especially at the introductory level, that starts with rich contexts – real life challenges or situations to which chemistry can make an important contribution. Almost everything I read gives me ideas for new ways to contextualize learning – and almost every example requires that I move into new territory to learn new things. But important learning also comes from professional conferences, from colleagues, and perhaps most of all, from my students every day.


What is most motivating or fascinating about your job?

It is both fascinating and motivating to wear several hats at the same time:

– I am exceptionally fortunate to be able to work in the context of a wonderfully supportive community of learning at the King’s University College in Edmonton, Canada. Faculty and students care about learning, care about each other, and work across disciplines to tackle important problems. In the context of this small university, teaching and research are not competing opposites – but we are fortunate to be able to hire full time undergraduate student collaborators to work with us on research for four months every summer and to continue learning on these projects through academic term research projects.

This undergraduate team at the King’s Centre for Visualization in Science, for example, created in collaboration with the two co-directors and our partners, most of the resources you see at explainingclimatechange.com. In carrying out this research and development of interactive learning objects, students learn to research student misconceptions, understand complex science, and imaginatively communicate what they have learned to a global audience over the web.

– I have also had the equally good fortune to work with two Australian co-authors on an introductory chemistry textbook, with a title that captures the underlying philosophy: Chemistry: Human Activity, Chemical Reactivity.

– And finally, I have learned so much from the global community of chemistry educators during my service as chair of IUPAC’s Committee on Chemistry Education and through many wonderful interactions around the world during the International Year of Chemistry.

Could there be a more satisfying and rewarding profession?


Indeed not. I am very happy that you shared your ideas and excitement about teaching. Thank you for the interview.

Peter MahaffyPeter Mahaffy received his Ph.D. in physical organic chemistry from Indiana University, USA. He recently completed six years of service as Chair of the International Union of Pure & Applied Chemistry’s (IUPAC) Committee on Chemistry Education (CCE) and membership of IUPAC’s Bureau. In that capacity, he helped to facilitate the process to obtain UN designation of 2011 as an International Year of Chemistry and served on the IYC2011 Management Committee.

Mahaffy is currently Professor of Chemistry at the King’s University College in Edmonton, Canada, where he co-directs the King’s Centre for Visualization in Science with Brian Martin. He also serves on the International Council of Science (ICSU) Committee on Freedom and Responsibility in the Conduct of Science, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) working group on education and outreach, is vice-chair of Campus Alberta Quality Council, and the American Chemical Society (ACS) presidential working group to help professional chemists communicate climate science to the public.

Mahaffy has over 30 refereed publications in science and science education, and has recently co-authored a chemistry textbook for first-year university students, Chemistry: Human Activity, Chemical Reactivity. He has presented over 50 plenary, keynote or invited lectures to scientists, educators, and the public on six continents in the past five years.


Selected Publication


Selected Awards

  • Fellowship of the Chemical Institute of Canada (CIC), 1999
  • CIC National Award for Chemistry Education, 2003
  • 3M National Teaching Fellowship, 2008
  • ACS James Flack Norris Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Teaching of Chemistry, 2011
  • ACS-CEI Award for Incorporating Sustainability into Chemistry Education, 2012
  • IUPAC CCE Award for Distinguished Contributions to Chemistry Education, 2012
  • Dow Canada WesTEC Distinguished Guest Speaker, 2012


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