Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Educational #Chemophobia

Usually, I use my blog as a stump to protest the branding of my chosen field as "toxic," or somehow poisonously malevolent. It's not often that I have to fight against someone who misunderstands the value of chemical education in everyday life. But, c'est la vie.

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.
Those arguments sound pretty far-fetched. Also, most students don't really commit to a career in Junior High, and many change their minds by college, anyway. So why not a broad education?

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."

20 comments:

  1. Well said. I think a broad education in the sciences is key for any future profession. It's simple. Your world is made up of "chemicals", right? Then you need to study elementary chemistry in high school.

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  2. Actually, there are 88 naturally occurring elements (43, 61, 85, & 87 are radioactive with no long lived isotopes). Or if you want to look at another way, there are 94, since 43, 61, 85, 87, 93, & 94 are produced in small amounts due to decay events and neutron capture, but then decay.

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  3. I couldn't agree with this post more. Being required to take chemistry is not only an essential part of liberal education, it is critical to the influence of future decisions in any child's life. Without a scientific education (this includes basic chemistry) you cannot understand basic human body functions, basic "gadget" functions or even what is going on in your own kitchen. And the sad thing is that people who haven't been exposed to chemistry don't even realize all the things they don't know about.

    This may have inspired my own blog post.

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  4. You inspired me.... I extrapolated on my comment above in my own blog.... Thanks for inspiring me!
    http://stoichiometricequiv.blogspot.com/2012/10/youre-really-going-to-make-my-son-spend.html

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  5. Just tell them a Wizard did it.

    ...
    ...
    ...Honestly though...kids need to know science basics. Else we get more people who think the Earth is a flat disc and that "fire" is an element.

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  6. Actually people do this with math as well: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/29/opinion/sunday/is-algebra-necessary.html?pagewanted=all

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    1. I read that article and it scared me so much. What is it with people being afraid of other people struggling? Subject X is hard, so let's get rid of it!

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    2. 1) Idiocracy: great flick, or greatest flick?
      2) Kids should be spending time studying Happy Talk so that they can compete with 3 billion Chinese and Indian students busting their asses learning difficult, challenging subjects. This is a recipe for success.

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  7. stupid republican this father...

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    1. unfair slam. Some of us that care about education sometimes vote Republican. We are thoughtful independents.

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  8. I taught HS chemistry for 2 years after retiring from a career in biotech (PhD, immunology). One of my favorite exchanges was with a student who, while I was explaining how to calculate the number of moles in 5g of sodium azide, asked "Are we ever gonna use this?" I said, "NO....unless in the unlikely event that you major in chemistry or engineering...or you might like to figure out the volume of nitrogen produced when an air bag inflates." But i went on to say that what I was teaching them was critical thinking, exercising your mind to solve problems, in order to prepare you to solve problems when you might encounter them, and to recognize when someone is trying to deceive you.

    And if I had been particularly cynical that day, I could've gone on to say, "No, you don't need to know this, but the people who will be your bosses, and who will be telling you what to do every day, and who will be laughing at you behind your back...THEY will be learning this stuff."

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  9. Great Post. Scientific literacy and the tools one develops in learning chemistry, biology, or physics cab also help us better shape science policy in this country.

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  10. Make that 94 elements, 88 of which occur in significant amounts.
    Tc - occurs in trace amounts as a result of fission (spontaneous of U-238 or stray neutron-induced of U-235). May have been detected spectroscopically in nature before being artificially produced (unclear).
    Pm - first produced artificially (isolated from fission products); occurs in trace amounts from fission and from the recently discovered alpha decay of Eu-151 (ridiculously long half-life).
    At - first produced artificially; produced in trace amounts in natural radioactive decay chains.
    Fr - first discovered as the product of the (rare) alpha decay branch of naturally-occuring Ac-227. Calling this an artificial element is totally incorrect.
    Np - first produced artificially; occurs in trace amounts as the result of neutrons interacting with U.
    Pu - first produced artificially; Pu-238 is produced in trace amounts by the rare double beta decay of U-238 (PRL 67 3211), Pu-239 occurs in trace amounts (about 10 atoms/1,000,000,000,000 atoms of U) in U ores from neutron capture by U-238 (JACS 70 1571), & there was a fairly well-known report of Pu-244 being detected in nature (N 234 132) but apparently a more recent and more sensitive search was negative.
    To get back to the main topic, I don't think anyone should be forced to study anything but everyone should be encouraged to learn as much as they want about any subject they want.
    To rant a bit, it's really annoying how many people seem to feel the purpose of education is to get a career. The purpose of education is to become literate (literally, scientifically, etc.), which has almost unlimited uses. Understanding things is tremendously valuable, and just plain satisfying, regardless of whether or not someone has a career. As the saying goes, knowledge = power.

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    1. Don't shy away from your rant, that's what blogs are for! ; )

      I love the amount of data you've used to justify your number. I also agree completely with your feelings RE: education.

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    2. I've been interested in transuranium elements since I was a kid. (I never dreamed I'd have americium in my house. How times have changed...)

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  11. Oops, I forgot to mention that 118 elements have been made; 113, 115, & 117-118 haven't been officially accepted but there is little doubt they were made by a Livermore-Dubna collaboration. Researchers at RIKEN in Japan just obtained conclusive evidence (after close to 3 years of bombardment as I recall) for (a different isotope of) 113 (raising a serious question about who should get credit for this element).

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    1. I feel like that topic's familiar, somehow...
      http://justlikecooking.blogspot.com/2012/09/welcome-akirium.html

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