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Downloadable resources for November theme:
This Week in the History of Chemistry
Did you know that DuPont begins mass-production of the first commercially available synthetic rubber, Du Prene, on November 3, 1931? Check out other cool discovers have occured in the month of November.
Meet Barbara Belmontand comment upon her thoughts on CELEBRATING CHEMISTRY!!
The Fundamental Skill Set of a Chemist in Training
From time to time, an acquaintance whose child is interested in science will ask me how best to prepare the kid to do well in chemistry class. This is an easy answer, and involves several parts: mathematics, cooking, puzzle-solving, and diary-keeping.
Much of chemistry involves math, the language that binds together matter and energy. For most practical and undergraduate level chemistry, the kind of math I'm talking about is basic algebra, scientific notation, and logarithms. Fortunately, our modern world has devices and software that will do the heavy lifting for computations, so there is plenty of hope for the computationally challenged. But a solid foundation in these basic math skills will help any chemistry student understand how to set up and solve a problem. These skills are useful in everyday life, as well. One example from my weekend kitchen grout repair project comes to mind. Of course, the directions called for dumping an entire 7-pound box of grout powder into one pint of water, but that was way more than I needed. So I looked at the weight ratios of the grout powder and the water, divided both by ten, used a postage scale to measure out the ingredients, and mixed up a smaller more manageable amount of material for the project.
Much of chemistry involves mixing specific proportions of ingredients, applying heat or cold, and coordinating the entire operation to completion by a certain time. Teaching a kid to plan a meal, read and execute recipes, and clean up the mess is the best experience that can be had in preparation for chemistry lab success. I'm not talking about one of these frozen things that you pop in the microwave for 5 minutes and toss the empty container into the recycle bin. I'm talking about making the salad while the potatoes are baking, sautéing up the zucchini julienne while the steak is broiling, and delivering it all out to the table nicely plated to appreciative guests. From General Chemistry lab where basic chemistry laws are experimentally derived, to Organic Chemistry lab where fragrant esters are synthesized, following instructions and getting the experiment finished within the allotted time are just like cooking a meal from scratch.
Much of chemistry requires critical thinking. Because the answer is not always apparent, because the supplies are not always available, and because outcomes can be surprising, the ability to look at the facts and derive strategies or conclusions is very important. A kid who has been exposed to puzzle-solving, riddle-answering, strategy-gaming challenges will be well-equipped for critical thinking in the chemistry lab. The critical thinkers will be curious and skeptical, and will be able to deduce relationships between fact sets. Those who are able to develop this skill will become the mystery-solvers, the project managers, the inventors, and the method developers in their scientific careers.
Much of laboratory chemistry - as well as all other scientific endeavors - involves record keeping. The ability to objectively notice and record data and phenomena related to an experiment is extremely important. From accidental discoveries to patent support to quality assurance to chain of custody, record keeping is the foundation of proof that something happened or something was done. It's so important, high-throughput laboratories barcode-and-scan all samples into a laboratory information system so that there will be a permanent record of the sample associated with the results. It's so important, that careers have been destroyed, patents have been lost, and heads have rolled for lack of sufficient documentation. It's so important, that shoddy recordkeeping is basis for accusation of scientific misconduct. It's so important, that in my workplace I have laboratory notebooks that contain procedures, raw data, and calculations for all 26 years of projects, and have no plans to ever throw them away. A kid who is accustomed to keeping a diary will acclimate to the rigors and requirements of keeping a legible and organized laboratory notebook, and will easily appreciate how this scientific diary can serve as a reference and guide. A kid who is accustomed to writing will be able to communicate information adequately and accurately, a prized skill among science professionals.
These are my practical recommendations for a basic skill set for any kid interested in any science, not just chemistry: math, cooking, puzzle-solving, and diary-keeping. These skills can all be learned at home, and taught by parents with no scientific training. Certainly, it would be a good idea to send your kid to a school that emphasizes math and science. Certainly, it would be a good idea to encourage your kid to participate in hands-on science activities and science fairs. Certainly, it would be a good idea for your kid to have a mentor in the form of a science professional. All these things add advantage to the pathway to success. But those fundamental skills lay the solid foundation to the path to success. Without a foundation, there can be no solid path.
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