“Chemicalese” for all
Professor Silvija Markic | © privat
Making all school students fluent in “Chemicalese” – regardless of their native language, culture, and family background – that is the goal of Professor Silvija Markic. “Chemicalese” is a term coined by the chemistry educationalist for the idiom people need to master if they are to successfully learn chemistry.
Born in Croatia, Markic came to Germany when she was 15 and got to know the school system from the perspective of a student with an immigrant background. At the University of Dortmund, she studied mathematics and chemistry for teaching at an academic high school and did her teacher training at a high school in Bremen. In 2008, she completed a doctorate in chemistry education at the University of Bremen. She became Professor of Science Learning at Ludwigsburg University of Education in 2017. And in April 2022, she took up the Chair of Chemistry Education at LMU.
Her main research focus is on diversity and inclusion in chemistry class, with a particular emphasis on linguistic and cultural diversity. “It’s important to me that learners come to terms with the scientific idiom of chemistry, which I like to call ‘Chemicalese.’” This is more difficult than learning a foreign language like English, she observes: “After all, it’s pretty straightforward to know that a “Stift” is called “pencil” in English. But appreciating that a complex process is called oxidation requires a different kind of teaching,” says Markic. “It’s a bit like a baby and its first words.” To understand what chemistry is all about, the students need to have a good command of German first. “And yet some of them speak something akin to ‘Facebook German,’ using abbreviations and expressions that are little more than emojis in verbal form.”
Gender Gap in Chemistry Education
A doctoral thesis she recently supervised investigated to what extent the gender gap between girls and boys in science subjects is culturally determined. “The research showed that in Germany, the classic gender gap exists as regards how children see themselves, with boys thinking they’re better at chemistry and girls thinking they’re worse.” In the Turkish group the team surveyed, however, it was exactly the other way around. “In subsequent interviews, we discovered that that the Turkish boys thought it was straight-out uncool to be good at chemistry.” Drawing on the theories of Pierre Bourdieu, the researchers also tried to ascertain the “chemistry capital” of the young people – the various resources of a child, that is, from their personality to their family background. “One student said that chemistry went against his family’s religion. Another said his family scoffed at him when he talked about atoms or ions.”
Markic is currently working on two EU projects. One is the Erasmus+ project Educating Science Teachers for All (ESTA), whereby the EU partners offer universities in non-EU countries courses on cultural and linguistic diversity. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, for example, there are three official languages, three religions, and two writing systems. “This creates conflicts, and we ask ourselves the question: How can children who cannot stand each other in the schoolyard work together in chemistry class?” One way was through coffee, “which is a major part of life there.” Many chemical processes can be elucidated by analyzing what happens when we roast and brew coffee beans.
A second EU project in which Markic is participating is DiSSI, which stands for Diversity in Science towards Social Inclusion. “Some initiatives promote the inclusion of girls, others that of ethnic minorities, others that of gifted students.” By contrast, the five partners in the project – Ludwigsburg University of Education, the University of Limerick in Ireland, the University of Strathclyde in Scotland, the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia, and Saints Cyril and Methodius University in Skopje, Macedonia – offer extracurricular programs (e.g. laboratories for schoolchildren) that are designed to include all groups without exception.
Many schoolchildren have a false image of a chemist in their minds. They picture a kind of nerd, with wild unkempt hair and an explosion in the background. No teenager is going to identify with that!
PROFESSOR SILVIJA MARKIC
Chemistry plays a role in many professions
Using an inquiry-based learning approach, the young people do not merely copy out chemical equations but actually solve chemical problems in small groups as autonomously as possible. “The laboratory for school students is not meant to be just a fun activity, but a meaningful complement to lessons – exploring acids and bases, for example, when this topic is being covered in class.” Meanwhile, university students observe the classes and ask the schoolchildren before and after the lesson about their attitude to chemistry.
Improving young people’s understanding of chemistry in heterogeneous classes, however, is just half the work. “Many schoolchildren have a false image of a chemist in their minds. They picture a kind of nerd, with wild unkempt hair and an explosion in the background. No teenager is going to identify with that!” Many young people had the misapprehension, moreover, that only specialists need chemistry. “Whereas in fact chemistry plays a role in many other professions – such as hairdressers, beauticians, goldsmiths, and last but not least in the food industry.”
Alongside her other main research interest, the digitalization of teaching, Markic wants to additionally focus her attention on her own students in future. “After all, they are themselves a very diverse group: Some of them had an honors course in chemistry under their belts, while others had muddled through. Some of them are doing chemistry degrees, while others are studying to become teachers or pharmacists.” In her own lectures, therefore, she needs “a differentiated approach for different groups.”
For Silvija Markic, LMU is a “big university, but one where the pathways that are relevant for my work are short and contacts are quickly made.” She has already struck up collaborations inside and outside the university in the areas of science in public and outreach, including with the Deutsches Museum in Munich. “When the weekend comes around,” says Markic, “I need to be close to the water. Then you will find me in some café on the shores of one of the glorious lakes around Munich, reading a fascinating academic paper on educational theory.”