An ugly job, but it’s a living

I want to thank my chemistry professors


My youngest son asked for help preparing for the semester final exam in chemistry. It’s an honors class, so the information is somewhat advanced, and more than a little beyond what my liberal arts education prepared me for. My week has been spent deciphering babble of this sort:

The more electronegative species gains a full negative charge while the other gains a full positive charge. The bond is purely coulombic, and as our theme of opposite charges predicts, the plus-minus is low energy and the attraction holds the two toms together.

When I first read that, my eyes crossed and I wondered why it wasn’t written in English.

I have discovered that chemists, while incredibly smart at all things chemical, are ignorant of how to explain such things to the chemically challenged. I’ve overcome the obstacles by reading two books, reading websites, and watching/listening to several informative podcasts. Not only do I actually understand this stuff, but I can teach it. After a fashion.

The boy’s textbook was simply horrible, and given the tax dollars expended it is criminal. It covers a scads of material, but it does a rotten job of explaining many concepts. This seems to be a recurring theme in academia. The oldest son is a freshman in college and he waits a week or more after a class has started to see which required books he needs to buy, because, as is the case with the high school kid, many instructors find it much more effective to teach from lectures and handout materials from other sources.

So, the textbook was little help, and I was able to counter some of its weaknesses with a copy of Chemistry for Dummies. Yeah, I know – how appropriate. But still, there were some concepts that weren’t explained very well and I was finding myself in the weeds too often. I started searching the internet and found thousands of websites, many of them for schools and colleges.

What I was looking for was something comprehensive, that didn’t assume I already knew a lot about chemistry but explained the material in depth from A to Z.

What I found were sites that were either too elementary – A, B and C were explained and it stopped there – or too complicated – X, Y and Z were detailed and it was expected that the reader knew everything that came before “X”. It was taking, on average, 8 – 10 websites and both books to understand a single concept.

I began to harbor a deep hatred for a number of college and high school chemistry instructors. At one point I realized that you didn’t need to know chemistry to blow things up, and I fantasized about being the next Unabomber. Chemistry profs and teachers across the country would run in fear at the sight of their friendly postman.

But foolish fantasies, while briefly enjoyable, were not solving my problem.

At one point I placed my hopes in the audio podcasts from some community college chemistry classes. After all, what were once known as Junior Colleges are for all the people who weren’t quite ready for real college – right?

I teach a community college and I can say unequivocally that I teach at a more basic level, even though our credits transfer to “big name” colleges and universities. I know someone that almost lost her job because students bitched and moaned that she “taught like it was Yale.” She had to dumb down and break down her courses to meet the needs of her less skilled students.

That’s a quote from Rate Your Students, a site for professors to bitch about rate the simpletons darlings that are their students. There is a debate there at the moment on the quality of community college students and professors.

If I didn’t instruct community college students on a more basic level than university students, my community college students would drop out at an even more alarming rate than they already do (I sometimes lose half a class over the course of a semester–this is standard in our neck of the woods). I do have some intelligent students who would do better with more focused and higher level instruction. I am grateful for them every day, and I try to push them to excel in their work–many of them have thanked me for doing that.

Unfortunately, all of the profs who are dumbing their lectures down are evidently too busy to make a podcast or a website that doesn’t suck suffer from being babble that only chemistry geeks understand.

Nearly at the point of losing all hope, I ran across some podcasts for chemistry class lectures at UC Berkley, which has a phenomenal reputation for its college of chemistry. At least four elements on the periodic table were first isolated by Berkley researchers. I downloaded a few on to a flash drive and popped it into my truck’s stereo so I could listen while I was driving. Honestly, I have to say that I had little hope, and I was sure that it would be wasted time because I believed that the material would start out over my head and get more complex. In fact, what I found was that I started to understand the material. The only thing missing was being able to see the visual aids being used in the class.

I was so close.

Then I found MIT’s Open Course Ware website.

MIT was an early adopter of providing an open university of sorts on the internet. The same lectures (as video/audio podcasts), lecture notes, test materials, and related links, as on campus students receive, are all available for a variety of courses. The only thing missing in most cases are the textbooks. You can check it out by clicking here to go to the MIT Open Course Ware site.

Ultimately I watched all of the lectures for about half of a semester of two different chemistry classes (actually, one was a engineering materials class for solid state chemistry)

Professors Sylvia Ceyer and Donald Sadoway’s lectures were phenomenal and my comprehension of chemistry skyrocketed. If you consider MIT’s reputation, the caliber of the students and instructors, and the complexity of the course, it’s amazing that I understood anything. Not that I understood everything, there was always a point at which it became very complicated and my eyes glazed over – “So, the attractive energy is simply Q1 times Q2 over 4 times Pi Epsilon zero R…” – but, up to that point I was in the groove. And besides, I didn’t really need to know how to measure the energy, I just wanted to understand the basic behavior of electron energy in chemical bonding. Unlike the 9th grade textbook, my Chemistry for Dummies book, or a dozen tutorials on different websites, at MIT I found the material I needed to know and understood it.

Youngest son has been complaining about not being able to understand his chemistry teacher. So have a number of other students, and the drop rate in the class has been pretty high. I’ve talked to the man several times and he does speak with an accent, and since English is not his first language he does occasionally use some awkward wording. It’s not that big of an impediment, but I think that when it’s coupled with some difficult material presented at a rapid pace that communication problems do account for some of the kids’ lack of understanding. Or, you could choose to believe what my son believes is the problem – “He’s not that good of a teacher, Dad. All of the kids in class agree that nobody understands half of what he is teaching.”

After my recent experience with chemistry teachers I can sympathize with the little darlings.

But when I was having difficulty translating a point, I resorted to sharing part of an MIT video with him. It was short, just a two minute segments of an hour lecture, but he got the point I was trying to make – and he had a sudden epiphany on another point I didn’t know he was having problems with.

That’s how you calculate those! I tried to get Mr. (Teacher) to explain that to me three times, he talked about it for thirty minutes in class, and I still didn’t understand it.

Junior is taking physics next semester, a subject that I enjoy and know a few things about, and I am looking forward to helping him. But if I stumble, I know where to go to fill in the blank spaces in my knowledge.


3 responses

  1. Bonnie, took chemistry last semester and she’s taking physics this semester, it’s all way over my head.

    19 January, 2008 at 13:08

  2. Judith A Robinson

    I’ve bookmarked the MIT address for my 10 y.o. granddaughter (and me). Right now we’re doing 4th grade math-additive and commutative properties, identities, etc-I’d gotten through algebra, geometry,trig, without ever having heard about those aspects of math, and so needed help in order to help her. I know chemistry will be upon her (us?) before we know it. Thanks for pointing me toward help. By the way, I got here after following links to the two wonderful letters (well, one’s a blog) written by soldiers separated in time by >150 years but bound together by their thoughts on love of country and family. Thank you.

    22 October, 2008 at 4:37

  3. As a former chemistry researcher I couldn’t agree more.
    Chemistry is about finding out stuff – natural detection.

    As a more recent researcher into ‘creative detection’ you may be interested in
    and particularly the experiment into creative detection in ‘The case of the reluctant twitterer’ .

    Best wishes

    18 August, 2009 at 12:22

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