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Volume 88 Issue 37 | p. 72 | Newscripts
Issue Date: September 13, 2010

iPods In The Classroom, The Periodic Table Goes Hollywood

Department: Newscripts
Keywords: iPod, Period table of the elements, silver screen
iPods:
Electrochemistry teaching aids.
Credit: Apple
8837ns_ipodcxd
 
iPods:
Electrochemistry teaching aids.
Credit: Apple

Sibrina N. Collins grew tired of the blank expressions on the faces of the students in her introductory chemistry classes. During the section of the course on electrochemistry, the assistant chemistry professor at the College of Wooster, in Ohio, began one class in a different way: She listed for her students the titles of select songs stored on her iPOD.

Collins named tunes by musical artists such as Chaka Khan, Michael Jackson, and Beyoncé, some of which drew chuckles from her pupils. “How does an iPod work?” she asked when opening a talk about—of all things—oxidation-reduction reactions.

After a moment of silence, Collins explained that an iPod contains a lithium-ion battery, which uses a transition-metal oxide (for example, LiCoO2) as a cathode. From there, students learned about assigning oxidation numbers, balancing redox reactions, and writing half-reactions. Through this unique opening lecture, Collins not only taught elements of chemistry but also earned a bit of “street cred” with her students.

“Students are often intimidated by their professors,” Collins wrote in a recent Journal of Chemical Education paper (DOI: 10.1021/ed100310m). “With this lecture, they came to the realization that I am just an ‘old’ human being because most of my music comes from the 1970s.”

To grab students’ attention during what could otherwise be dull chemistry lectures, Collins says, professors can use the iPod and other popular electronic devices to launch into other aspects of chemistry. For instance, they could use a device’s touch screen to introduce semiconductors or a flash drive’s memory storage to teach transistor behavior.

Elements on film:
Pass the popcorn with sodium and chloride.
Credit: Shutterstock
8837ns_moviecxd
 
Elements on film:
Pass the popcorn with sodium and chloride.
Credit: Shutterstock

Another chemistry professor—this one at Auburn University, Montgomery—recently turned to THE SILVER SCREEN to connect with his students.

Nicholas C. Thomas searched Hollywood movie titles for mentions of elements from the periodic table and, as Collins did, published his findings in the Journal of Chemical Education (DOI: 10.1021/ed1002543). “I was trying to provide chemistry instructors with some simple and perhaps unusual examples to link chemistry and society, which they could pick and choose from and use in lectures,” Thomas tells Newscripts.

The professor discovered 32 elements named in hundreds of film titles. Many movies provide only a superficial glimpse at the element, Thomas says. For example, gold is used hundreds of times, but it is almost always in reference to the metal and its monetary value.

Other films provide examples of lesser-known uses for elements. The 2008 film “My Zinc Bed” deals with a character who is killed and later interred. Thomas notes that coffins are often lined with zinc, an antimicrobial metal that delays the decay of tissues. Another film from 2008, “The Chromium Hook,” chronicles a hook-handed escapee from a mental institution who terrorizes a small town. The title derives from the element that is plated onto iron or steel objects to prevent corrosion.

Thomas also stumbled across the 2009 French film “Sodium Babies” during his research. “It had to do with vampires,” Thomas notes, “so if I had to take a guess, the title would not be inappropriate for a story about salty plasma addicts.”

Even without movie titles, Hollywood itself can provide a chemistry lesson. In the early days of motion pictures, silver was embedded into the tightly woven fabric or coated matte sheets on which films were projected. The added element created a highly reflective surface for the monochromatic images—hence the name “silver screen.”

 
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