In today's Washington Post Answer Sheet, Mr. David Bernstein, a nonprofit executive from Maryland, writes in to protest an apparent state mandate that "forces" his teenage son to take chemistry. I understand that local politics get messy, and I don't presume to know the full story for his particular municipality. But why must chemistry always serve as the punching bag for what's wrong in early education?
One of Mr. Bernstein's major arguments involves future potential careers for his son: since he won't grow up to be a scientist, why take chemistry?
Suppose we argued against other required subjects (as I did earlier on Twitter):
"Why must my son take Geography? Google Maps and Garmin will always be there, right?"
"History? Not when there's Wikipedia!"
"He shouldn't take math. He'll never be an accountant, and everyone has calculators"
|Chemistry boring? Sometimes, but|
it's also really important.
Second, Mr. Bernstein argues against mainstream chemistry education as "all memorization." Well, I'll agree - there's a lot to take in that first go-around. But while elemental numbering, valence electrons, and balancing equations sound rote and boring up front, the trends are the critical information. What makes atoms bigger or smaller? Why are ionic (charged) and covalent (shared) bonds so different? What does acidic or basic really mean? Once mastered, these types of rational thinking - using data to read trends - show up in all sorts of other pursuits, from buying stocks to choosing a healthy diet.
Third, Mr. Bernstein believes that his son will "suffer through" chemistry, and that he will recall little information from the course. Mr. Bernstein argues that the opportunity cost of a "painful" chemistry year will prohibit his son from taking "...subjects where he can grow and put to use one day."
I contend that a background in chemistry prepares you for all sorts of life situations. Doctors measure blood chemistry (pH, LDL / HDL ratios, chemokines, liver enzymes) to diagnose patients. Construction workers and architects rely on material properties (phase-transition temperatures, modulus, compression) to inform their building decisions. Surface area, entropy, and several organic reactions underlie cooking. Chemistry shows you why you can't clean up oil spills with water, and why a pile of salt won't dissolve in WD-40. And wouldn't it be nice to understand what all those ingredients on food labels actually are?
Boring, painful? Maybe. But useless? Definitely not.
One more thing: there are ~90* naturally-occurring elements, and a total of 118 spots (not all filled!) in the Periodic Table. I didn't have to Google it, because I took middle-school chemistry.
*Update - I originally had 92, but a curious reader corrected me - Tc and Pm are radioactive, and thus unstable in nature. So, 90. Then Stu Cantrill wrote in that several more are found in pitchblende, so I raised it to 98. Several tweets and comments have suggested numbers ranging from 84 to 98. Thus, the dreaded tilde. Good to have so many chemists about!
**Update 2 - Here's Ash at Curious Wavefunction, and Derek at Pipeline. Also see Janet over at SciAm's "Doing Good Science."