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September 2016 | Classroom Commentary
The Value of Chemistry in a STEM Focused World
By Martha Milam
The topic of STEM education has been rapidly heating up. Only a few years ago, students routinely asked me “What is STEM?” These days, I receive emails from parents and students desperately asking me how to get involved in STEM programs.
Many teachers don’t consider STEM to be a real issue, and tire of hearing the buzzword. Others participate fully in the current phenomenon and are STEM leaders in their schools. But whether we embrace STEM or not, chemistry teachers inevitably find themselves in the center of the STEM conversation.
The definition of “STEM education” is ambiguous and can be construed in various ways. A narrow definition confines itself to academic study in courses of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Chemistry teachers can understandably claim that STEM is not a new concept, but rather is precisely what we have been doing all along by simply teaching the curriculum.
A broader definition of STEM education suggests that teachers should design lessons that incorporate project- or problem-based learning, student use of technology or math, or the engineering design cycle. From this perspective, the goal is to prepare students for a 21st century workforce, in which employees may need to have a much broader range of knowledge and skills. For example, a single employee might need to be able to crunch numbers, speak fluently in technology, or repair a broken piece of equipment in order to get their job done. By exposing students to a similar range of STEM experiences, we are preparing them for such workplace challenges.
According to this broad definition, a STEM lesson can be provided in any classroom, including social studies, creative arts, or language. In fact, there’s now a related effort to promote “STEAM” education, with the additional "A" referring to the Arts as part of a core curriculum — often to the dismay of the traditional science or math teacher. The maker movement and genius hour can be loosely classified as being STEM-based concepts.
The central role of chemistry in STEM education
No matter how STEM is defined, chemistry is at the core of any STEM curriculum. Because chemistry is known as the “central science,” inherent to all branches of science, it must be an essential component to any STEM curriculum. Consider a student who is involved in extracurricular STEM activities and who has taken biology, physics, environmental science, and calculus. If the student has not taken chemistry, can we say that they are fully STEM-prepared? Arguably, the answer is no.
Chemistry is the study of matter, the stuff that everything is made of. If we don’t know how “stuff” works, then do we really know much about science? Again, many of us would answer no.
In chemistry, we teach the elements, how atoms and molecules are comprised, and how these species arrange and rearrange themselves. We also teach two of the most fundamental scientific concepts: mass and energy.
Preparing a 21st century workforce
The National Science Board (NSB), the policymaking body behind the National Science Foundation (NSF), published a report in 2015 titled, Revisiting the STEM Workforce. In summarizing the report’s findings, NSB Vice Chairman Kelvin Droegemeier states, “Perhaps we ought to shift from asking ‘how many STEM workers do we need’ to ‘what knowledge and skills do all of our workers need to be successful now and in the future’…millions of workers who aren’t typically understood to be ‘STEM workers’ need these capabilities to be successful, and businesses need individuals with these skills to be globally competitive.”(1) (Note: Kelvin Droegemeier is a meteorologist…I love the aptness of his first name).
While there may not be a shortage of college graduates with traditional STEM degrees, the shortage of “STEM-capable” employees may be the biggest issue we need to address.
Shan Cooper, Vice President and General Manager of Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Company, has observed that a “survey of more than 120 CEOs of major U.S. corporations revealed deep concerns over lagging U.S. science and math skills. Nearly 98 percent of CEOs say that the skills gap is a problem for their companies; approximately 60 percent of job openings require basic STEM literacy and 42 percent require advanced STEM knowledge.”(2)
At this point, teachers may be thinking, what can we do to help create a STEM-capable workforce? The clear answer is that we need to continue our current mission: We need to teach students how to do CHEMISTRY problems!
What we teach, and why
Chemistry problems are complex and require several steps, so we teach students how to analyze.
When I was new to the classroom and demonstrating dimensional analysis, my students used to ask me, “When will I ever need to use this?” They don’t ask me that anymore, thank goodness. I started emphasizing the fact that they are learning to analyze problems in order to reach a solution. While we know (or hope) that our students will grow up and find a job, we don’t know what skills they will need. Being able to identify the “known,” the “unknown,” and figuring out how to get from one to the other are skills they will inevitably need to be successful.
In chemistry, we teach our students multi-step problems — and teaching how to calculate molarity given mass and volume is a great example. To do this, they must understand how to read molecular formulas. Then they convert grams to moles and calculate molar mass using the periodic table. Finally, they manipulate the numbers to find an answer with units of moles per liter. Other complex problems include finding empirical formulas from percent composition or calculating the volume of a gas collected over water given its pressure, amount, temperature, and the vapor pressure of water.
In AP chemistry, we ask students to calculate percent ionization given the Ka of a weak acid. They analyze combustion data, using the law of conservation of mass, to determine the formula of a hydrocarbon. These problems are not for the faint of heart or weary student, and if they want to pass our class, they must attack these problems from beginning to end.
Chemistry problems are hard, so we teach perseverance.
The complex problems we present to students make chemistry a rigorous discipline — one that requires perseverance and practice to become proficient.
I don’t know about your students, but not all of my kids like hard work. So, I have to explain to my students in terms they will understand. I tell them that life is not all about music, Netflix, food, and sports. There are times they have to work hard and do things they don’t want to do (i.e., work chemistry problems). When I present them with a problem, many of my students want to give up before they finish. Sometimes, they don’t even want to start working. I tell them that employers aren’t looking for people who can play video games for an extended period of time, but rather for people who can strategize to find solutions and diligently work through a problem…even when it takes a long time.
They might roll their eyes when I explain this, but they are honestly proud of themselves when they finally work through a problem to find the right answer.
Essentially, we are teaching two important lessons. First, we teach students how to analyze challenging problems. Secondly, we teach them to persevere and see a problem through to its completion. Some educators may call this rigor, but simply stated, it’s called hard work.
Chemistry problems require practical process skills, so we teach them skills that work in the real world.
Not long ago, I shocked my students with something I told them. I stopped by my husband’s office one day, and he had a Q=mcDT problem worked out on a whiteboard. What?! they asked. Why would anyone actually need to do that? Knowing my students would have trouble picturing this, I took a snapshot of the board. My husband needed to know which metal would provide the right amount of temperature change needed to manufacture a product. The equations we teach are REAL, and they become tools that people use in the world to make things happen.
Here’s another example. My colleague Candice Mohabir used dimensional analysis to determine the amount of taxes she owed on her property. The bank had miscalculated it, so she worked it out on paper and took it to the bank. The bank clerk was so fascinated by her solution that she suggested Candice explain to the bank supervisor how to calculate such things. Obviously, the bank clerk did not absorb or remember the process she should have learned in chemistry class. More importantly, Candice was rightfully refunded the money that she had overpaid!
Students who don’t pursue STEM degrees may never encounter straightforward chemistry problems in the “real world,” but all students should be able to perform and solve problems in the real world. There will be times when the copy machine needs to be fixed, or an unlabeled material needs to be identified. The skills gap mentioned above is very troubling to many CEOs and other business leaders contemplating their future workforce. Fortunately, the analytical process learned in chemistry can help close the gap.
Chemists require analytical equipment and tools, so we teach students to learn new technology and engineer solutions.
My mother was a chemist for the Coca-Cola Company for 25 years. Although her degree was in chemistry, she successfully navigated the advent of computers, learning to use them not only for basic communication, but also to operate (and troubleshoot) robots used to analyze beverage samples. As you can imagine, between 1975 and 2000, much technological progress was made, and she and other chemists confidently piloted through those advances.
Chemistry teachers have numerous ways of incorporating technology and engineering into the curriculum. Students can perform inquiry labs in which they may develop their own procedures, decide how to set up an apparatus, or contrive a method to collect data. At East Coweta High School, we have added an engineering project to our class, in which students design, make, and test a water filter.
In a chemistry classroom, students use technology tools and equipment, which may include Vernier or Pasco probeware, Excel or Google Sheets, spectrophotometers, pH meters, centrifuges, burets, balances, and plenty of other equipment.
Could we do a better job of incorporating the technology and engineering of STEM into our chemistry classes? Perhaps, but that is not essential to a quality chemistry course. In fact, that topic is beyond the scope of this article and warrants its own conversation.
I tell my students that a college graduate with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry is often more likely to find a job than someone with a degree in biology or physics, because they graduate with specific technical skills that are useful in a research, forensic, analytical, or medical laboratory.
Keep teaching chemistry to build a STEM-strong American workforce
In order to provide STEM-rich activities, schools offer such extracurricular activities as Science Olympiad, Math Team, Science Bowl, robotics teams, technology clubs, and STEM internships. These are all great opportunities for students, exposing them to branches of science and engineering they may not otherwise learn in high school.
With so many opportunities available, if we were pressed to name the number one tool in creating STEM-prepared graduates, then that tool would be the CHEMISTRY CLASSROOM. Taking a course in chemistry contributes so much to a student’s STEM skill set that it becomes the most valuable player in any STEM program.
To explain my point, I will make the analogy between STEM education and the 2016 NBA finals. Throughout the most recent season, a young flashy Steph Curry attracted enormous attention and praise — and performed so well that he took his team to the final series. It was the legendary LeBron James, however, who brought the Cleveland Cavaliers back from a 3-1 deficit. Only the steadfastness, loyalty, and depth of experience of “King” James could lead a famous-for-losing team to win the championship in such dire straits.
Just like Steph Curry is a fantastic basketball player, the new STEM initiatives at our schools are also fantastic. There is no reason why we wouldn’t recruit Steph, or these new initiatives, to the team. They help us put points on the board and attract kids to the game. The real workhorse in our STEM program, however, is our chemistry class. And that is why LeBron James, and in our case chemistry, wins the MVP award for bringing home the championship title.
Because the chemistry classroom is the root of all STEM programs, we must place a priority on making our chemistry classes strong and rigorous. Chemistry teachers are among the most dedicated educators we have in our schools. We are teaching college-preparatory material, and take pride in our subject matter. We are motivating students to reach their potential through the challenges associated with chemistry work. It is our great corps of chemistry teachers that provides the ultimate key to developing a STEM-strong America.
- “Revisiting the STEM Workforce.” National Science Foundation, 21 April 2015. Web. Accessed on 17 June 2016. https://www.nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=134...
- Cooper, Shan. “Skyrocketing STEM Education.” Hub, Georgia’s Technology Connection. July/August 2015, Volume 3, Issue 4: 18,19,30. Print.
Photo Credit: Depositphotos.com/nongpimmy (Top), M. Milam (Bottom)