Chemistry is such a wide-ranging subject to study and has made a huge impact on the quality of our lives: where would we be without medicines, plastics, dyes, alloys, fertilisers etc.? In some cases chemicals are made after studying natural products, isolating the active material and maybe making slight alterations to the molecules. In some cases they were discovered because an experiment did not go to plan and this is the most interesting aspect of chemistry. How often do we think we know what will happen and, if it does not, discard the results when we should be asking what these results mean? An open mind is essential.
One of the keys to chemistry is the understanding of the Periodic Table. When pupils make the connection between the atomic structure, reactivity and the element’s position in the table it is the ‘eureka’ moment; all the pieces of information slot into place.
We use chemicals all the time and some raise ethical issues such as large-scale mining, overuse of fertilisers and our use of crude oil. The use of plastic bags has led to problems with disposal and one solution has been to develop new polymers which biodegrade and also new forms of packaging; chemistry is constantly producing new substances. Nanoparticles are a relatively new and exciting branch of chemistry with uses ranging from non-smelly socks to smart bombs for the delivery of cancer drugs.
Having made a product, how do you separate it from all the other chemicals and determine how pure it is? In the lower school girls carry out several separation techniques on mixtures of solids or liquids. In the upper sixth the girls make aspirin through a complex set of reactions, they purify it and assess its purity. This gives an appreciation of the amount of research done and the complexities of the manufacturing process before medicines reach the shops.
Girls may also work for a bronze Crest award in L5 and a silver in M5-U5. There are various competitions students can enter such as The Salter Festival of Chemistry for lower school, Top of the Bench for the middle school, the Cambridge Chemistry Challenge for the lower sixth and the Chemistry Olympiad for the upper sixth. The sixth-form competitions are open to all students and the questions are quite demanding.
Why chemistry excites me (by our head of department)
From L4 lighting Bunsen burners for the first time to the U6 making a range of colours using transition metals, chemistry has a ‘wow’ factor for me. I love teaching chemistry because there are certain experiments which you know the girls will thoroughly enjoy. In the Thermit reaction we make molten iron and it is spectacular. When the smoke has all gone we can then work out what has happened, why it has happened, how much energy was released and how this reaction can be used to weld railway lines. One fairly simple experiment can lead to a whole range of topics.
Have you ever thought how liquid-tabs work? The sachet needs to hold the washing liquid in but then dissolve when the washing starts - a simple enough concept but just what is the chemistry involved? I love teaching this subject so much because it requires such a range of skills and is fun to teach; there is always something new to investigate. Chemistry is never dull!