September 2015 | In My Element
Is Chemistry Really That Hard?
By Elliot Richman
A couple of summers ago, my wife and I took a Baltic cruise that featured Saint Petersburg, Russia, as a port of call. Our tour bus delivered us to a souvenir shop. Since we had no need to examine any more Matryoshka Nesting Dolls or Dostoevsky bobble-heads, we remained on the air-conditioned bus, as did our two native Russian tour guides. We began to converse, they in fluent idiomatic English and me in halting, poorly remembered Russian from my distant high school and college days. One word led to another, they told us that they were teachers during the year, and I offered that I also was a teacher, but in the U.S. I admitted that I taught high school chemistry. Their response (uttered in a mixture of awe and horror as more or less a single rushed phrase): “Omigod that was the hardest course I ever took I never understood anything all year how do you do it!”
This past summer we were on a road trip into the American Deep South, and we were standing on a long line to get into a remarkable family-style eatery, Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room. (The food was well worth the wait despite the brutal summer heat of Georgia.) Our tablemates included several former U.S. Marine helicopter pilots and their wives from South Carolina as well as educators from Florida, Georgia, and Texas. When the people in each of these groups asked me what I did for a living and heard my answer, they also exclaimed, in that same mixture of awe and horror: “Omigod that was the hardest course I ever took I never understood anything all year how do you do it!”
This happens to me everywhere I go, whenever I inform people that I’m a high school chemistry teacher. I could relate the same tale over and over again: the circumstantial details change, the denouement remains the same. So okay, I’m willing to stipulate that in many people’s experience chemistry seemed difficult to master. I didn’t actually realize the truth of this until after I began to teach the subject. After all, the smartest members of our species spent centuries, if not millennia, dreaming this stuff up, so the ideas may not come naturally and immediately on first exposure.
I’ve taught chemistry and physics at Ramapo High School in Franklin Lakes, New Jersey, for 13 years. Trained as a synthetic organic chemist, I earned a B.S. and a Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Rochester and was a National Institutes of Health Postdoctoral Fellow in Chemistry at Columbia University. In 2010, I was honored with the Edward J. Merrill Award for Excellence in High School Chemistry Teaching by ACS’s North Jersey Section and the New Jersey Science Teachers Association.
Teaching is not about facts, even in chemistry, where a large body of information is essential to support an elegant intellectual framework. For me, teaching is about enabling students. It is a series of single interactions between the individual teacher and the student regardless of the external learning environment and the class size. Students need to understand, articulate, and integrate concepts into a broader set of supporting facts and related principles. Although I teach physical science, it is through language that I do this, and it is the English sentence that I hold paramount. Words are the tools we think with, and sentences are the templates for structured thought. To link properly articulated thoughts in a logical and sequential manner is the essence of thought and of content understanding. Within the context of physical science, this is the goal of my teaching.
This begs the larger questions of why students should learn chemistry and why society should engage in the pursuit of science as an activity. I share with my students three overarching rationales for science.
- a communication-intensive group activity in which information is shared across populations and generations;
- civilization’s way of understanding, interacting with, and ultimately altering its environment; and
- a means of extending perception into realms not accessible with one’s bare senses.
So having talked the talk, how do I walk the walk? What are the means I use to achieve these understandings — to try to make chemistry less remote, less abstract, possibly less difficult, perhaps more approachable? Here are some examples:
First, I engage students in biographical projects about scientists, spanning from Medieval and Enlightenment times to the present. The project culminates with a report on currently active scientists (some only in their thirties). This brings immediacy to the curriculum that textbooks and content-based materials rarely provide. Second, I emphasize the scientific method in context. I share chemical literature (ACS publications, Science, and Nature) with students so they can develop a sense of how scientific discovery is communicated within the field. Third, I use examples from the real world, such as global warming, the ozone layer, pollution, or corrosion, to illustrate how science offers a meaningful interface and opportunity for changing their world.
Finally, I share with students analysis tools, including telescopy, microscopy, radioastronomy, ultrasonography, and spectroscopy, which allow us to look beyond what we can see and hear with our eyes and ears as we try to understand the natural world around us.
Chemistry is an ongoing tale, an adventure. In my experience, more students relate to the “story” of chemistry and its historical evolution than to its formulaic and equation-based intellectual framework. I create layers of context through which students of disparate abilities and interests can come to appreciate chemical knowledge.
Now that basic chemistry has been figured out, why should it still be so difficult to teach? And what can we do about making it a little easier without dumbing it down? Despite my education and teaching experience, I don’t have the answers. What does this mean for education moving forward? I look forward to exploring this issue with fellow AACT members.
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