The Central Science

Article excerpt

It happens to me all the time. I meet someone new and mention that I am a chemistry teacher, and they say, "Oh, I hated chemistry." I just do not get it. Sure, chemistry involves mathematics and abstract concepts--such as atomic structure, molecular orbitals, and reaction dynamics--that can be difficult for some students. But of all subjects, chemistry should arguably be the most enjoyable; it is filled with things that bubble, change color, burst into flame, and otherwise provide visual and intellectual intrigue. As the paradigmatic laboratory science, it may also be the discipline best suited for student inquiry, offering countless opportunities for students to design their own experiments. Why is chemistry such an important and engaging science? Let me count the ways.

Chemistry is interesting. Students physically manipulate cool equipment--Bunsen burners, burets, and beakers, to name a few. In the lab, students see changes happen right in front of their eyes: A piece of magnesium ribbon bursts into flame, beautiful silver crystals appear on a piece of copper wire, an iodine-clock reaction solution suddenly changes color. Chemistry is the ultimate hands-on, minds-on course.

Chemistry is innovative and new. Chemistry, the science of change, also itself changes. Chemistry students learn about cutting-edge science and technology, such as nanomaterials, transmission electron microscopy (used in the imaging of individual atoms), and the analysis of planetary and extrasolar chemical data in the search for extraterrestrial life.

Chemistry is everywhere. Understanding the chemistry behind everyday phenomena is engaging and important. What common chemicals should never be mixed? How does carbon dioxide contribute to global warming? Why did that souffle recipe go wrong? How do light sticks work? Should fluoride be added to my town's water supply? How is blood alcohol concentration measured? Why does ice float?

Chemistry is the "central science." Chemistry is the domain of important foundational concepts in the life sciences--and thus a bridge between the life and physical sciences. It is also a prerequisite for understanding applied sciences such as medicine and engineering.

Chemistry has a rich history. Beginning with the ancient alchemists and continuing to modern times, chemistry is filled with fascinating human stories, tales that have--collectively and at times individually--dramatically changed the course of world history. To celebrate both its history and its future, the United Nations General Assembly has declared 2011 as the International Year of Chemistry, in part to honor the 100th anniversary of Marie Curie's Nobel Prize in Chemistry. …