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Making Chemistry Fun

March 23, 2013

There once was a time when chemistry was interesting, then it became boring, then it turned interesting again. This pretty much follows my experience with the subject which can be mapped accurately to something like this:

1. Received first chemistry set (interesting).
2. Took chemistry in high school (boring).
3. Reading about chemistry independently (interesting).

I have read about the experiences others have had with chemistry in high school and I am extremely envious. Sure, they learned about the typical academic formulations, like chemical equations and how to determine the molar volume of a solution, but they also did experiments that were interesting and showed off the true nature of the periodic elements. I think the most interesting experiment I did in high school was how to determine the acidity of a solution. Was it an acid or a base? Hmm. Well, that’s all very interesting the first time you do it, but it’s not interesting enough to talk about acids vs. bases for a week, then show a demonstration of how to measure acidity, then participate in a lab about measuring acidity. There’s just not enough beef there to sustain my curiosity, and the whole subject of acids and bases could have been wrapped up in a couple of days at the most.

Meanwhile my counterparts in other schools around the globe got to connect with chemistry on an entirely different level. They got to participate in experiments which were incredibly interesting and practical. Learning about the foundations of chemistry is more than simply learning the periodic table and studying chemical equations, it’s about connecting everyday chemistry with the elements that make up our world. It’s about seeing chlorine gas and how it reacts with pretty much everything, and learning about the beauty and misunderstood dangers of mercury, or learning how tin foil is made. There are so many interesting facets of chemistry and I needed to wait years before learning about them. Because of this void, I think there are four books every high school chemistry teacher should read before attempting to teach a class on it:

1. The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments

This book is out of print and fetches a pretty mean price tag on Amazon or eBay, but you can get the PDF version for free from the author, and the book has gone out of copyright since the author did not renew it, so you can get a print version if you like.

2. Theo Gray’s Mad Science: 51 Experiments You Can Do At Home–But Probably Shouldn’t
3. The Elements: A Visual Exploration of Every Known Atom in the Universe
4. The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements

Learning chemistry in high school should be about the information presented in these books and others of their ilk. It should be about capturing the minds of your students so that when the formality of theory is presented, they have an engaged and enlightened perspective from which to pursue it.

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