Advanced Courses in Chemistry:
Essential for the Future of Chemistry in Germany
In schools in North Rhine-Westphalia, one of the 16 German federal states, you may choose advanced courses in two subjects. If you choose the advanced course, you have five lessons per week—for example, in chemistry—and you have to take about four exams per year. Usually you have four years of chemistry before you start on the advanced track when you are 16 or 17 years old.
The experience of many years shows that these courses are very important to inspire students to start a career in the chemical industry or research. In my last advanced course I had 12 students. Eleven of them are now studying or working in chemistry or the field of life sciences (medicine, pharmacy, or biochemistry). If you have only basic courses, this rate is much lower.
In the last fifteen years in North Rhine-Westphalia there have been two important decisions in politics affecting chemistry. Around 2000, a requirement was introduced that every pupil had to decide whether he or she would prefer to study two natural sciences or two foreign languages. This decision strengthened chemistry as a subject. Biology is the most popular natural science among pupils. Physics is often chosen by pupils who like mathematics or technical aspects. But often they choose chemistry as their second subject.
In our federal state there was a second reform of secondary schools in 2010. From this year on it was forbidden to choose two natural sciences such as chemistry and biology as advanced courses together. The consequences of this decision have far-reaching implications for the future.
Back in 2010, we could say, “All right. Biology is your favorite, but if you choose chemistry as your second advanced course, they both fit together in a good way.” Today, we have to persuade pupils that chemistry is the most interesting subject. However, for an advanced course you usually need about twenty pupils. At our school, we are cooperating with a second gymnasium nearby in creating these advanced courses. And our headmaster allows these courses although we have less pupils. We have a total of between 200 and 250 pupils in each year, and about 10 or 12 of them choose the advanced course in chemistry. A gymnasium that has no cooperating partner might no longer have a chance to offer this course. The number of advanced courses in chemistry is actually decreasing, and therefore chemistry might even be a dying subject.
Spark Students’ Interest in Chemistry Early On
However, there are two possibilities. One is to simply say, “Oh, well. That’s the way it is! We will only offer basic courses at a lower level and there will be fewer chemists in the future.”
Here at the Marianne-Weber-Gymnasium, the chemistry teachers have decided to choose a different way. We have made concerted efforts to strengthen our chemistry department at school.
1.) First of all, we have begun to inform the pupils about the advanced courses earlier in their schooling and more regularly. We try to point out the importance of chemistry for society, the environment, and every one of us.
2.) We begin as early as the fifth grade with a project course, even though chemistry usually begins in seventh grade. The young pupils learn to investigate fingerprints, to use a microscope, or to write a message in a cypher with lemon juice. By this, they get an idea of what chemistry is like.
3.) We emphasize that learning to work in a laboratory is a very important part of the advanced chemistry courses. The experience of working in a laboratory is very important for many subjects at university.
4.) In the eighth grade we begin with an elective course in biochemistry, and in eleventh grade we have a new project course in food chemistry.
5.) We regularly inform our classes about chemical competitions like the International Chemistry Olympics (IChO), the International Junior Science Olympics (IJSO), or the DECHEMAX competition. Our daily experience suggests to us that it is very important to talk directly to pupils. You have a much better response if you tell a girl or boy directly, “There might be an interesting competition for you. Just try it!” This motivates and encourages many more students than just hanging up a poster with some contact information and a few lines saying that anyone who is interested should ask for more information.
6.) We organize study trips to the University of Applied Sciences OWL in Lemgo and to the University of Bielefeld. Here pupils learn about mass spectroscopy and organic synthesis, for example. The company Jowat AG in Detmold teaches us how glue is made in industrial synthesis. Sometimes we manage to visit the Bayer Student Laboratory at BayKomm in Leverkusen. We take interested pupils in their last three years of schooling there with us.
All in all, my opinion is that advanced courses in chemistry are very important for helping young academics to find their calling and strengthening industry. It is simply essential for the future of human beings on this planet to solve our most pressing environmental issues such as clean water and energy. The political situation at the moment is not good, but with a lot of effort in education there are possibilities to keep the advanced courses alive and to qualify young people for the future in an excellent way.
Olaf Göke ([email protected]) has been a chemistry and mathematics teacher at the Marianne-Weber-Gymnasium (secondary school) in Lemgo, Germany, since 2005. Beginning in 2010 he has also coordinated courses at the high-school level.