Op-Ed: Why I Study Chemistry And Your Kids Should Too

As a graduate student, I spend a lot of time teaching chemistry to students who will never become chemists. For these kids, chemistry is a class that they have to pass just to do something else, anything else. This demotivates a lot of teachers and it’s a lot of the reason that good chemistry teachers can be hard to find. But for me, I think every student should study chemistry at some point in their education and here is why.

Learning chemistry for the first time exposed me to a whole new world of thinking. In some ways, chemistry is like any other science: you memorize facts to predict reactions, you wrangle equations until an answer reveals itself. But what really made chemistry different was two things: the models and the mole. My first chemistry modeling kit was a revelation. I remember looking at a model of glucose—a simple sugar composed of six carbons, six oxygens, and twelve hydrogens—and thinking “wow, is that really what it looks like?”. Then I got to think of a mole of it.

A mole is a unit of measurement much like a dozen, except that a dozen eggs means twelve and a mole of glucose means 6.22×1023 molecules. It’s an astoundingly large number. That’s why chemists abbreviate it. But what that means in terms of molecules is that when we say something like glucose and oxygen gas react to form water and carbon dioxide—the reaction that lets us get energy from our food—a chemist isn’t talking on the scale of a single molecule, but more on the scale of a mole of molecules. A chemist looks at that glucose model and doesn’t see a static structure, but a dynamic, moving entity that has to interact with another molecule with just the right energy and just the right orientation for the reaction to occur.

Learning chemistry gave me a sense of awe than any reaction actually happens at all, much less a reaction so fundamental to how we live. That’s part of the reason I am a chemist today.

But that’s as much chemistry as I learned in high school. The real secret about high school chemistry is that you aren’t actually learning much real chemistry. In fact, my high school chemistry teacher Mr. Hickman told me that “chemistry is the science of lies.” Now that I have a bachelor’s in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, a Masters in Chemistry and Biochemistry, and a few more years before I earn a PhD, I can say that I mostly agree with him. In truth, most of what I remember learning in high school chemistry has proven to be either dramatically oversimplified or outright wrong. But now that I teacher the subject, I have a responsibility to make the material accessible and useful to my students. So why should kids learn chemistry at all? The answer is problem solving.

Millennials like myself often lament the fact that our educational system doesn’t prepare us to live in the “real world”. Schools never teach us how to do our taxes, manage our money, or apply for jobs among other important life skills. (Instead, I know that mitochondria are the powerhouse of the cell.) I don’t feel like any of my degrees thus far have particularly prepared me to be an adult.

But in a lot of ways chemistry did. The gist of what you learn in high school chemistry is how to solve complex problems. You learn to take a hodgepodge of information and make something meaningful. You do that by combining basic mathematical reasoning and an understanding of broader chemical concepts to guide yourself from the unknown into a place of knowing. And that, in my experience, is exactly what it’s been like trying to be an adult.

Every day of my life I am faced with a seemingly insurmountable problem. But as a chemist, I have learned to solve each of these problems one step at a time, starting with what I know and moving on from there.  It’s incredibly empowering knowing that I have the skills and reasoning to overcome these challenges. At the end of the day, I want my chemistry students to feel the same. I don’t know what any of them will go on to do with their careers, but I do know that someday, they are going to enter the world of adulting. I just hope learning chemistry can help them the way it helped me.

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