Teaching (and Learning) Chemistry

Of the many things I did to earn my keep, I had the most fun teaching chemistry. I started part time (adjunct) in community college after doing my day job with DEA. (full disclosure: I was, at best, a lousy college student back in the day). For the most part, I taught adults who were trying to better their lot in life by earning credentials for occupations such as nurses or respiratory technicians. These were some of the most motivated folks I ever worked with.

After retiring from DEA, I got a job teaching science at Bishop Denis J. O’Connell High School. I did teach some other sciences such as physics, but for the most part I taught chemistry. Although I had a few education courses, I’m by no means an expert on teaching.

On my first day, I went to lunch in the faculty lounge. I was greeted by colleagues who informed me that chemistry is the toughest course in high school (!). They had to be kidding. I would consider calculus and biology to be much tougher. Both at the college and high school levels, however, students are scared to death of MATH! I spent a good deal of time rehashing elementary algebra. I tried to get it across to th em that it never got more involved than that – just that the numbers were funkier than they were in the math classes,

Calculators have simplified the handling of numbers, but like anything else, there are issues. I can remember spending a lot of class time trying to teach folks using them for the first time. Chemistry also involves working with far-out numbers, such as Avogadro’s constant (6.02 exponent 23). So, one needs to figure out how to put exponents into a calculator (without using the exponent key, the constant looks like this: 60200000000000000 – oops, did I count the zeros right?) In case you’re wondering, this represents the number of atoms, widgets, items, you name it in a mole (not the furry garden critter) of … whatever. It is, to say the least, difficult for students to wrap their minds around a concept like this.

Fortunately, it wasn’t all calculations. Particularly for high school kids, you could do a lot of demonstrations (Mr, Canaff, can we blow stuff up??). The emphasis on problem solving and STEM stuff has crowded out much of the descriptive chemistry we old timers were taught in the pre-calculator (slide rule) age. Lab work, a crucial component of any science, has been de-emphasized in many schools, due in large measure to liability issues (yes, there is a price to pay for the overly litigious society we have evolved). I taught a course for several years (Chemistry for Nurses) in more than one college where there was no lab work at all!

I started teaching at the dawn of the Internet (although several years after Al Gore is said to have invented it….). Although I didn’t do a lot of writing assignments, one of

the things I tried to get across to my high schoolers is that just because an article appears on the WWW doesn’t make it true. I vividly remember one student doing a piece on legal status of marijuana citing something he got off the Net; turns out it was from a site for NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws), hardly an unbiased source!

I could go on, A useful lesson I learned early in the game was to respect my students. One day, well into my first year, when things were winding down, I had a class tell me that whatever they learned or didn’t from me, they were grateful that I had respected them. Seems strange to me that anybody wouldn’t have. Chemistry is hard enough, but can’t be compared to the difficulty of growing up (especially in this day and time).

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