Chemical Education in Asia-Pacific


Lawrence H L Chia

Dept of Chemistry National University of Singapore Lower Kent Ridge Road, Singapore 119260

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For the majority in Singapore, and possibly elsewhere where the English language is also used, the term 'Chemical Education' no doubt sounds familiar enough and many may have some idea of what this term conjures. However, like some other terms, it has been used ambiguously and with slightly varying meanings. Chemical Education has, from time to time and in various situations and contexts, been equated to or used synonymously with terms like Chemistry itself, Chemical Sciences, Chemistry or Chemical Studies, Chemistry programmes, Education in Chemistry and even Science Education.

Emerging from Chemistry itself, Chemical Education has developed as a distinct discipline, concerned with the teaching and learning of Chemistry 1-6. In fact, Chemical Education is to be distinguished from Chemistry itself where the explosive growth, development, scope and application of the subject create an even greater and pressing need for Chemical Education.

This is in contrast to the view that because of his expertise, the chemist can effectively impart his knowledge to others. This view is compounded by the concept which some hold that "anyone can teach." Chemical Education seeks to bring to the teaching and learning of Chemistry the very best resources available from education and communication, while at the same time thoroughly looking at Chemistry itself to see how this fascinating subject can best be taught and learnt. In this context it is also relevant to much material which is included in Educational Technology.

Although education has had a strong appeal and attraction in Singapore since its earliest days, yet it was not till the 1960's before Chemical Education made some in-roads in the country. Several Singaporeans, including those from the Ministry of Education have had contact with distinguished Chemical Educationists like Frank Halliwell and Peter Fensham. Mention should also be made that around this time Cheah Chye Keat had, in his own quiet way, helped to set the stage for Chemical Education in Singapore. While lecturing at the Teachers' Training College (TTC), he circulated materials to those interested in Science and Chemical Education. However, it is the Singapore National Institute of Chemistry (SNIC) that helped to give Chemical Education afocal point and boost. In planning for the first SNIC symposium in 1977 with the theme "Progress of Chemistry in Singapore" that was to make a considerable impact on the local scene, the organizers invited several papers that formed quite a substantial section of the conference and represented the first ever academic discussion in Chemical Education.

The author himself owes his interest in Chemical Education to his days in Sydney and East Anglia. However, it was the above symposium that gave him the first opportunity to present his first 2 papers in Chemical Education7,8. Mention should also be made here that one of the first ever written work that could be classified as Chemical Education was none other than the first Singaporean to be Professor of Chemistry and Head of Department in the then University of Singapore.9

Another important landmark for Chemical Education in Singapore was the Asian and Pacific (ASPAC) Chemistry Congress in May 1981. SNIC had put in a lot of thought, planning and hard work to make this a fitting occasion to mark its 10th anniversary and to allow some sense of sharing and participation by Chemistry colleagues in the region. That Congress also gave the opportunity for a Chemical Education section to be convened. The group then comprised representatives from the National University of Singapore (NUS), the Science Teachers Association of Singapore (STAS) and the Institute of Education. This section not only attracted 25 papers but also its share of plenary and invited speakers.10 These included Vice-Chancellor, Dr R L Huang (Hong Kong) and other wellknown Chemical Educationists like Malcolm Fraser (UK), Alexander Kornhauser (Yugoslavia), R C Mehrotra (India), and Dennis Cheeseman (ICASE). These together with Nobel Laureate Linus Pauling and Lord Dainton (then Sir Frederik), were members of the Forum on Chemical Education which proved to be the highlight of this section and indeed, the high point of the Congress.

Involvement in this Congress also led to the author's attendance and participation at the 6th International Conference on Chemical Education (ICCE) where for the first time a Singaporean was present.11 Besides learning and being inspired much, especially by people like Marjorie Gardner, his presence served as a reminder to the International Chemical Education Community of our interests and concerns.

Another important development was the formation of the Chemical Education Working Group by the Federation of Asian Chemical Societies where Singapore was represented. This also gave impetus to the formation of the SNIC Working or Study Group in Chemical Education comprising colleagues from the Curriculum Development Institute of Singapore (CDIS), the Institute of Education, the Singapore Science Centre and some staff from our junior colleges and secondary schools. This group also helped to prepare papers for presentation at international conferences such as those of the ICCE and regional and local ones.12-19

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2.1.1. Introduction

Having discussed Chemical Education as a distinct discipline and in looking at the way Chemistry is presented at various levels in Singapore, it would be also useful to have an overview of the educational system in the republic.20 By heritage, tradition and environment, the people of Singapore realise the value and importance of learning and scholarship. Furthermore, the human resource represents its chief, if not only asset.

To further appreciate the education system in Singapore, Figure1. gives a good summary of the progression made from the first year of formal education in Primary one when the child joins the system at the age of six to the time he reaches the employment stage. In addition, to ensure an intellectually vibrant and motivated young population, Singapore's educational policies are constantly reviewed to cater to every child's abilities and aptitudes, interests and inclinations.

Figure 1.

The average student in Singapore has an early start in Science. He is in a community where the people appreciate the place and contribution of Science and Technology in their individual and communal well-being and progress. The applications and benefits of Science can be seen all around.

The Chemistry curriculum in Singapore essentially follows the concept of a 'spiral' (the author prefers 'helixical.') curriculum, where simple concepts acquired at the primary levels are treated in increasing depths at the higher levels. New topics are also introduced to students as they progress from one level to the next. 21-23

In Singapore, where there is no lack of things scientific, Chemistry is not only taught in school as a part of the formal education, but also via various 'out-of-class' experiences.24 Agencies like the Curriculum Development Institute of Singapore, Science Council, Singapore National Academy of Science, Singapore National Institute of Chemistry (SNIC), Singapore Science Centre and Science Teachers Association of Singapore (STAS), also contribute to Chemical Education in this way.25 Educational and scientific television programmes where the Chemistry content is not insignificant can be regarded as a major contributor to out-of-class Chemistry activity. In addition, quizzes and speech contests organised by the Singapore National Institute of Chemistry give students the opportunity to present Chemical concepts and information in public. Furthermore, the introduction of the Youth Science Fortnight, which includes Science Fair, Science Circus, Science Photo Competition, the Science Olympiad, Science Fiction, Film Festival and Science Forums have the aim of attracting the imaginative and creative youth in our society. Moreover, in an effort to share and pass on to the general public some of the exciting concepts, findings and practice of Science and Technology, the Singapore Science Centre makes use of models, especially working-models to enhance the participational element. Apart from all these, a wide spectrum of other useful and interesting out-of-class Chemistry activities such as talks, industrial visits, Chemistry games, symposia, etc are also initiated and organised by professional and other bodies.

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2.1.2. Chemistry at Primary school level

Chemistry teaching in schools begins at the primary levels as a part of the integrated Science curriculum which begins formally from Primary 3 onwards. Although the term 'Chemistry' is not used until much later, its presence is evident. Between Primary 3 and Primary 6 (age range approximately 8 to 12 years), students are introduced to basic materials such as air, water, metals, wood, paper, plastics and glass. The properties of these materials, e.g. density, magnetic properties and thermal conductivity, are easily related to everyday experience. Pupils are encouraged to inquire, to explore and to discover changes in specific properties of materials, as a result of interactions with other matter or energy or both. Text books are written by local authors which compare favourably with the best abroad.26

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2.1.3. Chemistry at Secondary school level

The opportunities for learning Chemistry increase as pupils continue into secondary school. At the lower secondary level (Secondary 1 and 2, age range approximately 12 to14 years), all children are taught General Science, with Chemistry and Physics taking about 30% each of the syllabus and Biology, the remaining 40%. After these common courses, students may specialise in the upper secondary school years.

At the upper secondary level (Secondary 3 and 4, age range approximately 14 to 16 years), Chemistry is available as an elective subject. It is offered as a single subject and as a combination with one or two other subjects. Many students aspire to qualify for the Pure Science stream, and hence they take Biology, Chemistry and Physics as separate subjects. Others, however, may choose to study Science (Physics/Chemistry or Chemistry/Biology), or Combined Science in which Chemistry is combined with both Physics and Biology.

In the single subject Chemistry elective, the topics cover a wide spectrum of theoretical and established concepts of Chemistry. These comprise a more in-depth study of topics covered in earlier years as well as the introduction of new topics. Over the years, the syllabus in Science (and that of Chemistry) has been shifting toward greater emphasis on understanding and application of concepts, principles and processes on our daily life and industries. This is a shift from the previous syllabus which emphasised factual and abstract concepts, involving a lot of memory work and may often be 'achieved' without understanding.

Upon completion of their fourth / fifth year in secondary school, students prepare for the GCE 'O' level examinations conducted by the University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate International Examinations, United Kingdom.27

Most of the Science students who pass their 'O' level examinations prepare for their GCE 'A' level examinations over the next 2 or 3 years at a Junior College. ( Table 1 & Table 2 give the number of students offering the various Science subjects at 'O' / 'A' levels from the years 1987-1995) Some, however, prefer to go directly to one of the four local Polytechnics.

Table 1. Number of students offering GCE 'O' levels








































Table 2. Number of students offering GCE 'A' levels








































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2.1.4. Chemistry at Junior College/ Pre-university level

At the Junior College or Pre-university level, Chemistry is available at both 'A' and 'AO' levels (where 'AO' means an intermediate between 'A' and 'O' levels), and also as a component of the 'A' level Physical Science subject.

A special feature in the 'A' level Chemistry syllabus is the attractive and varied options available. The 'A' level syllabus has been constructed on a 'core plus options' basis, in which the 'core' represents 80% of the whole course. 'A' level candidates are expected to study two options, each representing 10%. The following eight options are available: Biochemistry, Chemical Engineering, Environmental Chemistry, Food Chemistry, Materials Phase Equilibria, Spectroscopy, Transition Elements. This deliberate variety of options is seen as a virtue of the complete syllabus.

The various options represent challenging opportunities for the students to develop additional areas of expertise. The chosen options illustrate the variety of contexts in which understanding the underlying Chemistry is relevant. It will be noted that some options are specifically directed to applied Chemistry. A few options are more obviously quantitative and mathematical in nature, whereas others have a greater descriptive content. The options are intended to cater for the differing interests of students and for differing expertise and resources within schools. The choice of option may also be influenced by other subjects being studied alongside Chemistry.

In the teaching of Chemistry at this level, teachers are urged to incorporate social, environmental, economic and technological aspects of Chemistry, where relevant, throughout the syllabus. Some examples are included in the syllabus, so that students can be encouraged to apply the principles in these examples to other situations introduced during the course. The teachers are also expected to take appropriate opportunity to incorporate practical work relevant to the content of options chosen.

At this point, it may be helpful to mention that in consonance with the Government's aim to nurture talent and maximise potential of students, the Ministry of Education in Singapore has in recent years introduced special programmes in our schools. Two such programmes that have greatly enhanced the teaching of Chemistry are the Gifted Education Programme and the Science Research Programme.28,29

The Gifted Education Programme commenced in 1984 and is available in selected primary and secondary schools, to nurture the intellectually gifted. Apart from the enrichment, students learn skills for research and carry out independent studies. They are tutored by specialists in the Humanities and Sciences, and receive personalised attention through smaller class sizes.

The Science Research Programme is to give first-year Junior College (JC) students with an aptitude for science, an opportunity to participate in research projects under the guidance of scientists essentially from the NUS and other research establishments. Staff from the JC help as liaison officers. The programme commenced in 1988 and involves a Science Seminar which enables students to explore areas of scientific research with other students. They visit research laboratories and attend talks by eminent scientists. Students work with a research mentor and are guided in experimental techniques and procedures. Their research findings are then presented at an annual Science Research Congress. All these provide added opportunities for further study of Chemistry at appropriate or even more sophisticated levels.

In addition to all these, the Pastoral Care and Career Guidance Programme caters to the all-round development of each pupil. Even in this area, there is relevance with Chemical Education.30-32

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2.1.5. Chemistry at tertiary level

At the tertiary level, students continue their Chemistry studies primarily at the National University of Singapore. Some Chemistry and Chemistry-related studies may also be pursued by those who enrol at the National Technological University, the National Institute of Education, the four local Polytechnics (Singapore Polytechnic, Ngee Ann Polytechnic, Temasek Polytechnic and Nanyang Polytechnic) or the Technical Institutes.33-35

Although the Science degree course at the NUS has evolved from the United Kingdom pattern, Chemistry staff in NUS are always ready to monitor, revise and innovate to ensure an academically respectable and relevant Chemistry course. Most recently, in the 1994/1995 academic session, the Faculty of Science had introduced a new modular course structure to replace the existing Bachelor of Science structure.36 The new system offers greater flexibility by enabling candidates to complete their Bachelor of Science degree at a pace which matches their academic abilities, without the penalty of repeating years of study. Modules offered and requirements by the department of Chemistry are such that a student can specialise in Chemistry alone or aim for double major in Chemistry and another subject e.g. Mathematics and Biochemistry. Under the new system, modules are offered on a semestral basis. The academic year is divided into two semesters plus a short special term, between the end of the second semester and the beginning of a new semester, with examinations being held at the end of each semester.

An Honours degree can be achieved through the Transitional Modular System or the Direct Honours Programme. Under the Transitional Modular System, students who do extremely well in the final year are admitted to the Honours course to read only one subject. Students at the NUS, who choose to study Chemistry during the 3-year Science degree course, may therefore choose to specialise in Chemistry should they be admitted to the Honours course. At this point, it would be useful to mention that students with very good 'A' level results (Grade 'A' in Chemistry and at least two other Science subjects) may apply for admission into a special programme (Accelerated Programme /Advanced Placement Programme) which leads to a general degree in two years and an Honours in Chemistry in three years.

A Direct Honours Degree was also recently introduced, where at the end of the first year, outstanding students are admitted to a special course which extends over a period of two years. During this time, only one subject will be studied, so that at the end of three years at university, an Honours degree is conferred. This Direct Honours course is designed in such a way that the student is involved in a considerable amount of independent reading and thinking.

As part of the Honours course, students have the opportunity to work on a research project. Such a project allows Honours students to experience the excitement, stimuli and satisfaction as well as the problems and frustrations of research. Various research centres which include the Centre for Microwave and Radio Frequency, the Centre for Power Electronics, the Centre for Intelligent Control, the Centre for Computational Mechanics, the Centre for Intelligent Products and Manufacturing System serve to assist these projects in one way or another. In the process of working on these projects, qualities such as independent thinking, creativity and initiative are cultivated. At the end of the project, the students are given the opportunity of making presentations on their research at a seminar. While pursuing the Honours course, students are encouraged to attend various scientific seminars organised by the Faculty of Science, and to participate in industrial visits.

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2.2. Tercher - training System

Professional training for teachers in the area of Chemistry (as well as other courses) in Singapore is conducted by the National Institute of Education (NIE), an institute of the National Technological University (NTU). For university graduates, the institute offers a one-year Postgraduate Diploma in Education. The Bachelor of Science Degree with Diploma in Education is a four-year course. In addition to these pre-service training courses, NIE helps to train in-service teachers through a variety of programmes. These include the Further Professional Diploma in Education programme which trains principals. The Postgraduate Diploma of Teaching in Higher Education aims to promote teaching excellence among staff of polytechnics and universities. We are thus gratified that through such formal programmes as well as the many other activities referred to earlier, including the work of the Educational Research Association, Chemistry teachers are primed to give of their best in the propagating and promotion of Chemistry in this country. Both the teachers and the students are thus kept at the cutting edge of excellence in Chemistry including introducing research wherever possible even in the classroom itself.37-41

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2.3. Graduates Education

Science Graduates are also encouraged to return to do research work as part of their post-graduate studies. Through project work, these post-graduate research students are able to develop creative and technical capabilities. While pursuing their higher degree courses, these post-graduates are encouraged to attend various scientific seminars organised by the NUS as well as to do some part-time teaching in the student laboratory.

Chemistry education at tertiary level is moving towards an era of research. The NUS has placed great emphasis on research so that instead of being predominantly a teaching institution, it is increasingly becoming an institution where rigorous research work is being carried out. Various attractive schemes draw graduates back to the research laboratories.

In addition to all these, there are also special programmes and initiatives by various agencies in Singapore. These include those by specifically set-up groups like the Industrial & Technology Relations Office (ITRO) at the NUS itself as well as from dynamic and dedicated work of the National Science & Technology Board (NSTB).

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Chemical Education thus today finds itself in the very midst of, or indeed the forefront of technological advances where it can not only play a crucial role, but also, be stimulated and enriched by these developments themselves. All these must surely bring deep satisfaction to all those seeking pursuit and advance in knowledge of Chemistry in general and in particular Chemical Education itself.

The author would like to place on record once again his appreciation for the opportunity to write this article as part of the wider work of Chemical Education in Asia. He would like to also record his appreciation to Professor Sim Keng Yeow, who as President of the Singapore National Institute of Chemistry, and Head, Department of Chemistry Department, NUS, has shown much interest and encouragement. He also wishes to record his gratitude to Miss Doris Tay, Miss Valerie Lim, Miss Camilia Tang and Miss Tan Sue Lynn for their assistance as well.

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1. Fraser, M J, and Sleet, R J, Resource Book on Chemical Education in the United Kingdom, London, Heyden, 1975.

2. Fraser, M J, Trends in Chemical Education, Kemia-Kimi 6, 4: 147-150, 1979.

3. Johnstone, A H, Research in Science Education at the University of Glasgow, European Journal of Science Education, 1(2), 1979.

4. New Trends in Chemistry Teaching, Vol V, UNESCO, 1981.

5. Lippincott, W T, and Heikkinen, H, Source Book for Chemistry Teachers, Division of Chemical Education, American Chemical Society, 1981.

6. Chia, Lawrence H L, Towards Excellence in Chemical Education, The Eight International Conference on Chemical Education, Tokyo, 1985.

7. Chia, L H L, Aids and Innovations in Chemical Education, Bulletin of Singapore National Institute of Chemistry, v 6:83, 1978.

8. Ang, K P and Chia, L H L, Chemical Education in The University of Singapore, Bulletin of Singapore National Institute of Chemistry, v 6:75, 1978.

9. Kiang Ai Kim, A Historical Review of the Chemistry Department, University of Singapore, 1966.

10. Proceedings, First Asian and Pacific Chemistry Congress, Singapore, 1981.

11. Proceedings, Sixth International Conference on Chemical Education, Maryland, USA, 1981.

12. Cheah, C K, Chia, Lawrence H L and Lim, Y H, Chemistry Curricula in Singapore at the Secondary and Tertiary Levels, Asian Chemical Conference 1985, Singapore.

13. Cheong K K, Chia, L H L and Koh, C W, Contribution to Chemistry Teaching and Learning by CAL and other Audio-visual Aids, Asian Chemical Conference 1985, Singapore.

14. Chia, Lawrence H L and Tan, Anthony, Chemical Education and Industry : The Singapore Experience in an Industrial Orientation Programme for Science Students, 8th International Conference on Chemical Education, Tokyo, (Japan), August 1985.

15. Cheong, K K, Chia, L H L and Koh, C W, Chemical Education in the Computer Age, 8th International Conference on Chemical Education, Tokyo, (Japan), August 1985.

16. Bong, Siew Yin and Chia, L H L, Chemical Education and the Life Science, 8th International Conference on Chemical Education, Tokyo, (Japan), August 1985.

17. Poh, Agatha and Chia, L H L, The Influence of A Physics Background in the Singapore Students' Performance in Chemistry at the Cambridge 'A' Levels, International Conference on Trends in Physics Education, Tokyo, (Japan), August 24-29, 1986.

18. Chia, L H L and Poh, Agatha H L, School Physics and Chemical Education, Paper presented at the Malaysian Chemical Congress 1986, Kuala Lumpur, (Malaysia), 17-20 November 1986.

19. Communications, Seventh International Conference on Chemical Education, Montpellier, France, 1983.

20. Singapore 1995, Ministry of Information and the Arts, Government of Singapore, 1995.

21. Chia, L H L, Kwen, B H, Trends in Chemical Education, Paper presented at seminar on "Trends in Science Education,' 11 May 1989, Singapore. In Proceedings, Seminar on "Trends in Science Education,' 14-24. Singapore, 1989.

22. Chia, L H L, Kim L L, Chemical Education in Singapore: Scope & Survey. Paper presented at 'The 1989 International Chemical Congress of Pacific Basin Societies,' 17-22 December 1989, Honolulu, Hawaii, United States. In Book of Abstracts, The 1989 International Chemical Congress of Pacific Basin Societies, Part 1, INFO 06, no. 129. Honolulu, Hawaii, United States, December 1989.

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27. University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate International Examinations, Chemistry Syllabuses for 1996, UK.

28. Chia, L H L, Tan, B G, and Tan, C S, Chemical Education and the Gifted Educational Programme in Singapore (Abstract). Paper presented at 10th International Conference on Chemical Education, 20- 25 August 1989, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada.

29. Chia, L H L, Tan, C S, Teaching Chemistry to Gifted 15-16 year old students in Singapore. Paper presented at Twelfth International Conference on Chemical Education, 17-21 December 1992, Bangkok, Thailand.

30. D' Rozario Vilma, Chia, Lawrence, Pastoral Care in British Schools: Applications for Singapore. Paper presented at Second Annual Conference of the Educational Research Association of Singapore, (Singapore), September 1988.

31.Ong, Teck Chin, Chia, L H L, Pastoral Care and Career Guidance Structure and Programme of an Independent School in Singapore - a whole school approach. Paper presented at International Conference on 'Pastoral Care: A Whole School Responsibility,' 9-11 April 1990, Perth, Australia. (Organised by the International Institute for Policy & Administration Studies).

32. Chia, L H L, Chemical Education and Pastoral Care. Paper presented at the Royal Australian Chemical Institute 9th National Convention, 6-11 December 1992, Monash University, Clayton, Victoria, Australia.

33.Chan, S C, Chia, L H L, Tan, B T G, Tan, W H, Review of Science Education at the University Level. Paper presented at the Singapore Science Council's Seminar on 'Science Education in Singapore,' 15 May 1981, Singapore Science Centre Auditorium, Singapore Council of Singapore. In Proceedings, Seminar on Science Education in Singapore, 27-38. Singapore, May 1981.

34. Cheah, C K, Chia, L H L, Lim, Y H, Chemical Curriculae in Singapore at the Secondary and Tertiary Levels (Abstract). Paper presented at Asian Chemical Conference, 8-11 April 1985, Singapore. In Asian Chemical Conference 1985, Abstract E3-04, 84. Singapore, 1985.

35. Lawrence H L Chia and Yeow Kian Peng, The Education and Training of Chemists and Technicians, Journal of the Singapore National Academy of Science, Vol 16, 65-76, 1987.

36. The National University Of Singapore, 1996-7, Science Faculty Handbook.

37. Chia, L H L, Students' Self-Appraisal. Paper presented at 13th International Conference on Chemical Education, 8-12 August 1994, San Juan, Puerto Rico.

38. Chia, L H L, The Teacher and Classroom Research in Singapore. Paper presented at 13th International Conference on Chemical Education, 8-12 August 1994, San Juan, Puerto Rico.

39. Yeap Ban Har, Tell Me A Story - The use of concrete situations to explain abstract concepts in Chemistry. Twelfth International Conference on Chemical Education, 17-21 December 1992, Bangkok, Thailand.

40. Goh, Ngoh-Khang, Chia, Lian-Sai, How to enhance students' interpretations skills in chemical qualitative analysis. Twelfth International Conference on Chemical Education, 17-21 December 1992, Bangkok, Thailand.

41. Lee, Lucille Kam-Wah, Goh, Ngoh Khang, Chia, Lian Sai, Chin, Christine, Chemistry : The Key To The Future, 13th International Conference on Chemical Education (Abstracts), August 8-12, 1994, San Juan, Puerto Rico.

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