April 25, 2014

Reflections about teaching #3

#3 How do you make chemistry exciting to people that may not find it exciting?

Chemistry can be very boring, a series of disconnected facts stacked up, listed down and ready to be memorized to then be immediately forgotten. I'm certainly not in favor of turning chemistry into that kind of a class, though I'm thinking some of my less successful students might say chemistry is still far too much like that.

The chemistry that matters to most students - to most people, really - is the chemistry that explains their world, that connects to something they already knew or had seen. The student interested in fireworks might have an easier time understanding that the colors are produced by electrons gaining energy to move to higher energy levels then losing that energy as they return to ground state because they've seen the results of those transitions. The student who bakes might understand decomposition reactions better if he or she knows it's a decomposition reaction that powers some baking powders.

The secret to making chemistry exciting - or even understandable - is making the chemistry relateable. An atom, an energy level, an orbital, yttrium, double replacement reactions - none of them exist unless they connect to something in the student's life. Or, if they do exist, they'll exist as abstract ideas that will stick about as well as water to a superhydrophobic surface.

So, don't say 'catalysts speed up chemical reactions'...show a catalyst speeding up a reaction. Explain - or show - a catalytic convertor.

Connect to students...show applications...and blow something the heck up.

That's what makes chemistry exciting.

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