My bet is that most of the people reading this are chemistry educators. I’d also be prepared to wager a fair amount that those of us who find ourselves in that role probably did so because we were interested in the subject matter itself. Not because we wanted to grapple with the paperwork, or the politically correct administration headaches — and we certainly didn’t sign up for the joy of writing references, grading papers, and meeting with difficult parents. Rather, many of us became chemistry educators because we had a deep-seated interest in chemistry that we wanted to share with others.

Unfortunately, teaching is like so many other professions, where mundane day-to-day tasks sap one’s energy, and have a habit of swallowing up the core of what really matters. If you are a relatively experienced educator like me (I’m in my 26th year of full-time teaching), you may often feel far removed from the academia and study of the subject that initially sparked your interest. Speaking for myself, that’s a shame, because at my core it’s chemistry that I’m about — not the pseudoscience of education. Chemistry drives me and makes me a better teacher.

I’ve been extraordinarily lucky in my career, since my writing has allowed me to constantly rekindle my interest in chemistry, away from the white noise of edubabble. Writing has been a crucial factor in keeping me in the profession, and it remains the outlet that helps me maintain my sanity. A couple of years ago, that writing work led me to become a member of the National Association of Science Writers, and it was via that organization that I learned about the Chemical Heritage Foundation (CHF), and one of the fellowships that they offered to academics.

For those of you who don’t know, the CHF is an institution that can be found in the heart of Philadelphia’s Old City, amongst some of the most important American historical organizations and buildings. CHF is a unique cross between a museum, a library, and a center for scholars, and it houses an extraordinary collection of chemical history. More importantly, CHF exists in order to foster a dialogue between scientists, academics, and the public. In late 2014 I applied to CHF, was awarded their Société de Chimie Industrielle Fellowship. In the summer of 2015, I moved to Philadelphia for three months to live and work as (essentially) a full-time academic.

Both humbled and inspired

I’m one who is neither easily impressed nor intimidated, but when I arrived at CHF I immediately felt both emotions. I knew that I had landed somewhere special, and there were many reasons for me feeling that way. During my time at CHF, there were approximately 25 scholars listed as Current Fellows. Of those, 23 were academics (i.e., professors affiliated with major universities from around the world), one was a highly respected author and journalist, and finally there was me. Yes, me: a humble chemistry educator with no academic credentials beyond my own post-graduate work close to 30 years ago!

It was a classic case of “one of these things is not like the other,” and at first it was a touch intimidating. Being around esteemed academics — serious, real academics — from around the world, tends to do that to a person from outside the field, and for a moment I felt a little misplaced. However, within a day or two of my arrival it was obvious to me that the staff at CHF took my humble research seriously (a hugely important thing), and that they were going to do whatever they could to make my time in Philadelphia as meaningful and as productive as possible.

The fellowship that I was awarded was for researching a children’s book on the history of the discovery of the elements. My work over the three-month period at CHF took me on a journey through both mainstream and obscure chemical journals (for example, my inquiry into the rare earths elements took me to "less than standard" Swedish chemical publications). It also put me in direct contact with a number of authors and academics around the world, re-acquainted me with some books that I knew previously, and exposed me to a host of other published works that I had never heard of.

One memorable example was a book entitled The Elements Beyond Uranium, authored by among others, Glenn Seaborg (when one is researching the discovery of the elements, his name comes up quite a bit!) A copy of that book, which arrived in my carrel a few days after I started my research, encapsulated the beauty of being at CHF. Upon opening the otherwise unremarkable-looking copy, I saw that the man himself had signed it! That was the kind of connection that I found time and time again at CHF, that fuelled my research on a daily basis, and that continues to inspire me to further that work now.

Looking for opportunities

Not everyone is going to be as privileged as I was, and receive a fellowship to study at CHF. So how might a teacher use the resources at CHF in a slightly less formal manner? Could you take your classes on a field trip to CHF? Sure, there is always something interesting on exhibit in Philadelphia, but obviously that is likely to be a luxury reserved for local teachers. What I suggest chemistry teachers do is to take a personal visit. Drink in the heritage that figuratively exudes from the walls of the building and the reading room, and use it to re-connect with the subject matter that is hopefully at the center of your work.

Every teacher needs a little boost from time to time, especially when one has been in the job for a long time. Teaching is hard, and it saps one’s energy. It also has the habit of drawing teachers away from the subject matter that might have been the whole reason that they joined the profession in the first place. For chemists, CHF represents an amazing resource that has the potential to rekindle some of that joy. It’s a stunning gem and a resource of which far too many high school teachers are unaware. In fact, many teachers whom I’ve met have no idea that CHF even exists, let alone understand the amazing resource that it is.

My fellowship at CHF served me in at least two important ways. Firstly it allowed me to have a personal rejuvenation that brought me back to a love of the subject. That itself was an important moment in my career and something that I will remain ever grateful for. Secondly, it allowed me to reconnect with the purpose of my teaching, i.e., demonstrating a love of the subject in the hope that others may find it of interest. I have never been a teacher who considered himself as a ‘recruiter’ for chemistry, but at the same time, every teacher has a responsibility to paint a picture of a body of knowledge that their charges might find appealing. My fellowship at CHF allowed me to re-embrace that particular challenge once more.

Find your inspiration

Of course there is a much bigger point to be made here. Putting my personal, amazing, and specific experience at CHF aside, I think it is vitally important for teachers of chemistry to reconnect with chemistry as often as they can, in whatever manner they can. In my opinion, that connection doesn’t come in the classroom, with its host of unconnected to chemistry chores. Instead, it requires a more selfish, less giving attitude than teachers usually exhibit in their day-to-day work. It’s important, perhaps even crucial, to a teacher’s effectiveness in their job, to seek self-indulgent, personal, “chemical” renewal from time to time, and I’m not talking about the type that comes via happy hour!

So, get out there, leave the classroom behind for a little while, and reconnect to the reason that you likely got into the job in the first place: chemistry. It will make you a better educator and likely re-invigorate your professional life.

Image Captions & Credit

Top image: Chemical Heritage Foundation, Philadelphia, PA. (Credit: Adrian Dingle)
Bottom image: From CHF's collection, Mendeleev's "Principles of Chemistry." Original volumes published 1869-1871. (Credit: Adrian Dingle)