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Not Just Any Idiot Can Teach Chemistry

January 26, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 4

THE COMPLETE IDIOT'S GUIDE TO CHEMISTRY, by Ian Guch, Alpha Books, 2003, 369 pages, $18.95 (ISBN 1-59257-101-8)

I assume that I was asked to review "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Chemistry" not because I am a complete idiot but because I have spent much of my career exploring different ways of introducing chemistry to sometimes reluctant students--none of whom I would dream of characterizing as any kind of idiot.

This book is designed for students in introductory chemistry who are "either having trouble with chemistry, know somebody who's having trouble with chemistry, or are afraid that at some time in the future [they will] have trouble with chemistry." Talk about a self-fulfilling prophecy! This is a self-styled book for "chemophobes" that is apparently "designed to inspire."

I was not inspired. The book, written by high school chemistry teacher Ian Guch of the Connelly School of the Holy Child in Potomac, Md., attempts to make chemistry more accessible to already disillusioned students through "easy-to-follow" explanations of traditional course content, often introduced with humorous anecdotes. I did not find these anecdotes to be particularly successful either as aids to understanding or as humor.

For example, a section on Hund's rule is introduced by a discourse on the author's preference for sitting alone on a bus in case he sits next to someone who starts "picking their nose or sneezing ... or eating a meatball sandwich." In another example, "lazy Uncle Bob," who restores peace to a fractious household so he can watch TV ("The Jerry Springer Show," "Oprah," and "The Days of Our Lives"), is compared to the role of neutrons in stabilizing the nucleus.

These asides become tiresome and are even sometimes puzzling interruptions to the flow of the text. I'm not saying that humor doesn't belong in a chemistry book. I just found its use forced and somewhat condescending in this text. For a clever use of humor in teaching chemistry, I recommend the 1970s production of "The Case of the Sulphuric Acid Plant," a chemistry film produced by ICI and featuring John Cleese at his most Monty Pythonesque--but I guess this type of humor is also an acquired taste.

The "Idiot's" book covers the traditional topics of an introductory text in the typical sequence. It's seemingly designed for a college-prep high school course, although some of the material is usually taught at the college freshman level. The book starts off with "Why Study Chemistry?" Now here was an opportunity to inspire. Instead, students are told that if they know chemistry they can "balance an equation and discuss moles like a pro, as well as understand real-world phenomena such as how the filter works in the everyday fish tank." Readers are given no sense of the breadth, utility, excitement, and wonder of modern chemistry, despite the author's claim to inspire.

The second chapter covers the simple mathematics of chemistry, including that well-known introduction to chemistry--the metric system. There are worked samples throughout this chapter and throughout the book, but not enough problems are given for a student to gain confidence in his or her problem-solving ability. If facility in problem-solving is an aim, then a manual of practice problems would be a more useful purchase.

Presumably in an effort to simplify the chemistry covered, many details that facilitate the learning of a particular concept are eliminated from the text, making it more difficult, not less, for struggling students to comprehend. What's worse, either through oversimplification, carelessness, or confusion, the text is full of errors.

Successfully introducing chemistry to sometimes reluctant students requires an inquiry-based approach that can't always be conveyed in a book.
Successfully introducing chemistry to sometimes reluctant students requires an inquiry-based approach that can't always be conveyed in a book.

In a chapter on the history of the atom, the author claims that Bohr used just one variable, n, to describe his orbitals, when Bohr and others described elliptical orbitals and used all four quantum numbers before Schrödinger formulated his equation. In the chapter on nuclear chemistry, the author states that the binding energy in the products of a fusion reaction is less than in the reactants, with the additional energy being given off as heat. This is only true if by "less" is meant lower energy level; the absolute value of the binding energy of the products is larger than that of the reactants. The atomic number of zirconium is given as 50 in one example of a nuclear fission reaction.

A chapter on thermodynamics and spontaneity inaccurately expresses the criteria for equilibrium and spontaneity in terms of G0, rather than G. Entropies of given species are expressed in terms of S, rather than S. There are numerous other errors of this kind throughout the book, including a tendency to write inaccurate legends to some of the figures. The minimum requirement for a book of this sort is surely technical accuracy.

Chemistry is really not as difficult to comprehend as some students--and more than a few adults, including the book's author--seem to believe. Of course, many students do find chemistry difficult to understand, but it's unrealistic to expect that, if they didn't "get it" in class or by reading their assigned textbook, they will "get it" by reading this particular book.

Chemistry is a contact sport, and so is chemical education. Students need to do chemistry, not just memorize it as received wisdom. This is why inquiry-based learning is so important. Students learn that chemistry, or any science for that matter, is not just a body of knowledge but a way of asking and answering questions about the world in which we live.

An obligatory chapter about the scientific method, in this book and in most traditional texts, is not only misleading but is also a "bait-and-switch tactic," since all the chemistry that follows is predigested for the student. Unfortunately, chemistry is often introduced as a vocabulary exercise and a challenge to short-term memory that never results in long-term comprehension. We give our students mental indigestion by feeding too much too fast.

The first rule of teaching any subject is surely "first get the students' attention." In an introductory chemistry class, when the students are actually listening, when they know the significance of what they are learning, when they are taught chemistry on a "need-to-know" or "just-in-time" basis, then the conditions are in place for self-directed learning to take place. When students work together in cooperative groups, doing and discussing chemistry, then they can greatly facilitate each other's learning, a situation that we hope to facilitate through use of the American Chemical Society's high school text, "Chemistry in the Community" (ChemCom).

The importance of a highly qualified chemistry teacher in this process also cannot be stressed enough. Look at how many of us credit our high school teacher with getting us interested in chemistry in the first place. Regrettably, when a student is really having difficulty learning chemistry, reading another book such as one designed for complete idiots--or even one written by ACS--will not help matters.

Sylvia Ware is director of ACS's Education & International Activities Division, a position she has held since 1987. Among the division's most recognizable contributions are cutting-edge materials for K–12 and undergraduate education.


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