Chemistry Teachers Decry Ebbing State of Basic Sciences

An organization representing the country's chemistry teachers are warning that the dwindling number of students choosing to study the subject is endangering its continued study in Israeli high schools. The Association of Chemistry and Science Teachers sounded the alarm in a letter last month to Zvi Zameret, the head of the Education Ministry's pedagogical division.

The letter also takes the ministry to task for what it says is promotion of the study of innovative, specialized science fields such as robotics, biotechnology and medical biology at the expense of basic science classes. These fields require a prior knowledge of basic science, the letter asserts.

In the past three years, about a thousand fewer students have chosen to take the matriculation exam at the least challenging level for chemistry.

The ministry has not responded to the association's letter, which was sent following a request by Zameret himself for a summary of some of the difficulties in the teaching of chemistry. Concern was expressed more generally several months ago by the president of the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology, that science education in Israel is on the verge of collapse.

Speaking to Haaretz, Prof. Peretz Lavie said there has been a clear decline among students beginning their studies at the Technion in their knowledge of science, particularly in basic disciplines such as math, physics and chemistry.

Education Ministry sources, however, rejected Lavie's criticism, saying in part that he was not sufficiently familiar with what was being done in the country's high schools.

Lavie's concerns, however, have now been buttressed by an organization representing the teachers themselves. Similar concern has also been expressed by the Technion's Nitza Barnea, who until recently oversaw chemistry study for the ministry.

Although the ministry declined to provide data on the number of students taking the chemistry matriculation exam at various levels of difficulty, according to internal ministry documents, last year 8,938 students sat for the 3-unit chemistry matriculation, the easiest, compared to 9,911 three years ago.

There was only a marginal decline in the number of students who took the highest level 5-unit chemistry matriculation exam those years: 6,697 last year and 6,767 three years ago, but Barnea noted the relative stability of the data was the result of the increased number of Arab students who have taken the test that offset the decline in interest among Jewish students.

Arab students represented fully 47 percent of the country's students who took the chemistry matriculation test last school year.

In their letter, the chemistry teachers denounced what they said was the low level of general knowledge and analytical and comprehension skills of students entering high school.

"Principals prefer to eliminate chemistry, which requires a special budget for equipment and technicians," the letter stated.

Technion Prof. Ehud Keinan called the emphasis on the new specialized technology education "populist programs that create an illusion that they are science education. The students there don't know what a molecule is but they get the feeling that they are learning something important."