Why study chemistry?

I was inspired to start a regular feature in my chemistry class called "Why study chemistry?" after hearing Sam Kean, Brian Rohrig and Joe Schwarcz, featured presenters at the ChemEd 2013 conference in Waterloo. As teachers, we would like to believe that our students remember everything that we teach them but, in reality, they will retain only a very small amount. Sam Kean, however, mentioned in his talk that students tend to remember mainly — and maybe only — the interesting anecdotes about the given topics. I have thus started to incorporate numerous stories from Kean's book, The Disappearing Spoon,1 into my various slide presentations. Many siblings and parents have repeated these fascinating and quirky stories from my classroom back to me — proof enough that Sam Kean's theory of learning through stories is indeed true!

The chemistry curriculum can, by its largely theoretical nature, seem to some students to be irrelevant to their everyday lives. Sure, good students will learn the information without question and work through various calculations, take notes, perform labs, etc., but it has been my experience that students sometimes can — and often do — lose track of the bigger picture. They question: "What does this have to do with the real world?" This is another reason to include "Why study chemistry?" I design PowerPoint slides with no more than 10 words per slide, include music and contain short, inspiring and relevant videos. I have drawn from Brian Rohrig's lecture on Wild Chemistry (PowerPoint slides online)2 which allows me to apply chemistry content — especially energy, kinetics, and electrochemistry — to the study of animals. For example, I describe the relative ear size of two types of elephants to study both surface area and collision theory. In the study of pressure, I now mention the wondrous blob fish.

Dr. Joe Schwarcz motivated me to read everything I could on William Perkin and the discovery of mauve. I now discuss Perkin's discovery, ending with the fascinating story about how all Perkin Medal nominees receive a tie/scarf dyed in the original mauveine that Perkin himself had synthesized. I continued throughout the year to add to my repertoire, including many topics based on Schwarcz's book, The Right Chemistry.3
I always make time to read Joe Schwarcz's professional commentaries, his twitter feed, and his blogs.

Motivated by these conference lecturers, the seismic shift in my approach has made me a chemistry teacher who not only teaches the theory but — perhaps more importantly — the application of chemistry principles to the real world.

Notes and references

  1. Sam Kean, The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements, Back Bay Books, 2011.
  2. Brian Rohrig’s Wild Chemistry Power Point presentation, ChemEd 2013 website under handouts www.uwaterloo.ca/chemed2013.
  3. Joe Schwarcz, The Right Chemistry, Doubleday Canada, 2012.