The Case of the Chemistry Orphan

The Project

Because Capuchino High School (named after the Capuchin monastery that once was on the site) was created one grade per year, there was time to develop the courses to be taught well ahead of time. I worked on chemistry for grade 11 and physics for grade 12. The chemistry course turned to be different in many respects than traditional ones, as This Chemistry Course, my introduction to the course, indicates. I gave copies of the Introduction to the students in the two chemistry classes in the 1955-56 school year and went over it with them.

The district listed five chemistry textbooks from which I could have selected one. The trouble was that none of them fit the course I had designed. My solution was to adopt one of them to serve as reference books for the students, the school Librarian purchased a considerable number of books I had requested, and I wrote out the class “text,’ (patiently typed out on mimeograph by my wife). My aim became not only to provide my students with a good course, but also to edit it on the basis of experience over two or three years, ending up with a publishable text. To increase feedback, I offered to provide chemistry teachers in other high schools in the District with copies of my mimeo text.

The course was designed to foster three general learning goals: familiarity with some of the great ideas from chemistry, knowledge of the nature of science, and awareness of the importance of chemistry in materials of our everyday life’s. To be sure, the course had to keep in mind that some of the students would head toward careers in science and that many would use it as a requirement for college admission (particularly to UC, Berkeley, and Stanford). This was the course outline given the students:

·       Unit 1. The Roots of Modern Chemistry. The technical arts and crafts of the ancient world, the thinking of Classical Greece, and the institution of alchemy will be looked at. Special attention will be paid to the question of why it was that alchemy made important contributions to chemistry but could never itself become chemistry.

·       Unit 2. The Chemical Revolution. Modern chemistry emerged from the great struggle over the question of burning. The overthrow of the “wrong” theory and the establishment of the “correct” one will be traced.

·       Unit 3. The Gasses of the Atmosphere. It is easy enough to find a list naming the gases in the air and stating the percentage of each. But you will be asked to consider: How were those invisible substances ever discovered? What made scientist suspicious that they existed at all? Why were some not discovered until recently?

·       Unit 4. The Atomic-Molecular Theory. This forms the very foundation upon which today’s chemistry is built. And yet no one has ever “seen” an atom. Do the “really” exist? What makes the theory so compelling?

·       Unit 5. Classification of the Elements. Some of the various schemes designed to demonstrate relationships between the chemical elements will be examined. Special attention will be devoted to Mendeleev’s system: it was “useful,” but was it “right”?

·       Unit 6. The Development of Chemical Industry. From the field of organic chemistry, the growth of the dye and explosives industry will be reviewed. Effort will be made to see how chemistry as a “pure science” contributes to the growth of chemical industries and how chemistry as technology helps in the progress of chemical science.

The Results

1. The students apparently liked the course since enrollments increased each year, apparently fostered by positive word-of-mouth.

2. The fraction my chemistry students going on to college and being admitted at UC and Stanford matched that of the other high schools in the area.


1. No other teachers in the area would use my course materials in order to provide me with feedback.

2. No publisher would publish my chemistry textbook (all of which, except the Introduction, has long since disappeared).

3. When I left high school teaching, my chemistry course was never used in the school in which I taught. Indeed,  here is the description given in the school website for chemistry in the same school today (2010): “The course is composed of the following topics. Measurement and calculations; Matter and Change; Atomic Theory; Periodic Law; Bonding; Formula and Equation Writing; Stoichiometry; Gas Laws; Solutions; Kinetics, Equilibrium; Acids/Bases; Oxidation-Reduction.”

4. As far as I know, no chemistry course similar to mine has taken hold in the half-century since then.


1. Most chemistry teachers in the District were put off by the amount of history.

2. It is asking too much of teachers to give up a course they are used to teaching to switch to one that is radically different in content—alchemy, industrial chemistry, organic chemistry, etc. and organization.

3. Even though other chemistry teachers might like the content and approach, having to rely on primitive (e.g. mimeographed) texts and limited backup materials was not inviting.

4. Publishers were not interested because there was, after all, no demand for such a course.

What Did I Learn?

It is naïve to believe that a new kind of course, however sterling its teacher-developer thinks it is, will be warmly received by other teachers and by publishers. Moreover, new science courses require more that a new textbook. Support materials selected and created to match the course content and teaching approach must be part of the story, and teachers are rarely in a position to produce them. In a word, developing and widely disseminating new science courses is necessarily a group undertaking involving college and university scientists and science educators, more classroom teachers than one’s self, and the availability of time and money.

As a case in point, at the time that I was developing this chemistry course, I was also doing so in physics. It succeeded where the chemistry course did not. The difference was that because of events described elsewhere (see The origin of Project Physics under Origins in this website), my work became part of a well-funded, six-year effort at Harvard, involving physics teachers from many different schools, physics professors from many different colleges and universities, film makers, education researchers, teacher educators, apparatus developers, and test developers. On top of that, draft material was tested every year in high schools around the country. That’s what it takes, and that’s the story of the other course development projects of the Sputnik reform era.

What Do You Think?