Archived — Frank Borowski

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Frank Borowski's former students benefited from his enthusiasm for science, his pedagogical technique and his unfailing concern for their future. Graduates of his Chemistry 300 Advanced Placement course, which has been offered at Grant Park High School in Winnipeg since 1980, have gone on to win provincial and national science fairs and to attend the Canadian National Olympiad in Chemistry; several have become Canada Scholars. Over the years, his students have won scholarships to prestigious universities, including McGill, Harvard and Yale. Their ranks include professors and teachers of science, medical doctors and dentists, as well as people who promote science in community activities.

In 1981, Frank won the Domtar Award for Excellence in the Teaching of Chemistry, a national award from the Chemical Institute of Canada.

Approach to teaching

"The highest form of learning by students is the application of concepts to problem solving."

The Advanced Placement chemistry program requires a new approach to high school laboratory experiments. Typically, high school students receive a good background in theory but not enough experience working in the laboratory. Changing this situation is a challenge because most high school science budgets aren't really sufficient to meet the needs specified in the Advanced Placement outline.

With the help of universities, we were able to let students create their own experiments and develop the data necessary to demonstrate the theoretical concepts they had learned in the classroom. These problems can be designed to introduce students to the use of instruments that will be central to their further studies and careers in chemistry, including pH meters, infrared spectrophotometers, refractometers, ultraviolet spectrophotometers, basic gas chromatography equipment and atomic absorption spectrophotometers.

Transferable experience

The equipment required for this sort of practical program is very expensive. We approached the universities of Manitoba and Winnipeg to see if we could take advantage of their vast resources of chemical knowledge and laboratory equipment. Their response was very positive, and has led to close cooperation between them and the school.

We found that it was particularly important to "start at the top" in setting up this program. The initial contact was made between my principal and the universities' vice presidents. Once the university administrators agreed that their schools would benefit by helping Advanced Placement students, it was easier to get the cooperation of professors in the faculties involved. It took three months from the time the first contact was made to set the program up.

Our primary goal was to enable students to conduct experiments for which we could not provide the equipment ourselves. I met with the professors to discuss our needs and we worked together to create the experiments. Because professors have greater resources and experience in this area, it is a good idea to let them take the lead.

The Advanced Placement teacher shows the students the necessary theory in the classroom; the lab experience lets them put this theory into practice. The teacher must ensure that students do what is asked of them. If, for example, they are asked to handle equipment in a certain way or to clean up according to a certain standard, it is the teacher who makes sure this actually happens.

The experiments take from one to two hours to complete in the university laboratories. They are supervised by the Advanced Placement teacher and the host professor. Students also attend university lectures and seminars to improve their ability to apply mathematics to solve chemical problems. Below are two examples of the type of experiments we conduct. The first is an exception to the norm in that it does not require the specialized equipment that is available only at a university. These experiments are for advanced students only. Others might find the experience more frustrating than educational.

Sample experiments

  1. Students are asked to conduct an experiment to prove that the volume of a gas kept at constant temperature varies inversely with pressure, as stated by Boyle's Law (PV = k). To do this, they are given mercury columns trapped in a capillary tube closed at one end, a 6-cm ruler and the current atmospheric pressure reading. They are asked to generate the necessary data and to plot it on a graph.
  2. In another experiment, students measure the levels of lead present in soil samples collected from areas such as city streets, gas stations, gardens and industrial areas. The soil samples are treated in the laboratory with 6 mg HN03, and allowed to digest overnight. All samples are diluted 100 times, and then analyzed for lead content using an atomic absorption spectrophotometer. Students produce calibration curves using known concentrations of lead solutions in parts per million. They then determine the amount of lead in their soil samples. After studying the chemical means of detecting lead in the environment, each student presents the results in a seminar. The class then discusses the effect of lead pollutants on the environment.

The real drawback of an Advanced Placement program is that you need considerable resources to conduct it properly. You must also attract enough top students to justify the time and effort. If you succeed, however, the rewards are incredible. You can expose your students to some terrific new techniques and skills, and you meet students who teach you as much as you teach them.