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Hooked On Chemistry

by Robin M. Giroux
February 24, 2014 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 92, Issue 8

As kids, my brother Bill and I received a chemistry set as a joint gift. Bill applied his already characteristic methodical approach and carefully conducted experiments. He’s closing in on 40 years as a chemist doing new product development in several areas. Me? I reveled in the textures, scents, and colors of the compounds in the kit and randomly combined them, with some regrettable results. And for the past 35 years, I’ve drawn upon my undergraduate chemistry degree in communicating science.

Bill and I were unaware that the U.S. was pushing science and math as the way to catch up with—and to surpass—the Soviets, who were winning the race to space with Sputnik. We just knew that the chemistry set was fun, that one of our older brothers was studying chemistry, that dinner table conversation often included technical talk, and, as we got a bit older, that having slide rule races officiated by our dad was awesome. And we were fortunate to have a high school chemistry teacher who fed our interest in chemistry.

A veritable bevy of practicing and retired chemists had their interest in chemistry, in science, piqued by a childhood chemistry set. Each year when C&EN publishes vignettes of the ACS national award winners, a handful of awardees attest to that. But they are chemists of, shall we say, a certain age.

What, I wondered, lured unsuspecting kids into chemistry/science/math after the chemistry set lost its panache, then its teeth.

I asked my C&EN colleagues. And Rachel Pepling, C&EN Online editor, blogged and tweeted the question to the extra-C&EN world. Fifteen folks replied, and the range of their responses is heartening and humbling.

Natural science drew three of my colleagues. Collecting tadpoles and crawdads and looking at “stuff, including creek water under a microscope that I had” is what C&EN science reporter Celia Arnaud said hooked her.

Amping up the cause-effect factor, three folks pointed to the joys of experimentation as their entrée. “I used to mix all the soaps and shampoos in the bathroom. At one point I rendered it unusable for hours,” tweeted @cenmag follower Nick Randell.

Going totally lofty, two responders said they were inspired by the recognition of chemistry’s impact on their daily life and its ability to solve world problems. Malthusian population dynamics, the need for fertilizer, and Plexiglas chicken coop roofs figured prominently.

Role models made a lasting impression on seven folks, who cited a speaker to a ninth-grade class, high school teachers, and/or college professors as instrumental in their chemistry futures. Two of them singled out the periodic table as being pivotal. “I loved the idea that if you knew how to read the table, you could understand many of the properties of the elements,” wrote Corinna Wu, an editor for C&EN’s Journal News & Community Group.

Most of the responders attributed more than one source to their interest in chemistry. Several cited family members who had science or math careers. One recalled the dismay she felt when she realized that her peers were intentionally avoiding science and math; she signed up for chemistry to prove a point and found she liked it.

My small pool of respondents yields no conclusive entry point, gives no solid direction for anyone interested in devising the “chemistry set” that will intrigue today’s youngsters enough to take up chemistry, or any science, really, as a career. Fortunately, I’m not the only one interested in that goal.

The Gordon & Betty Moore Foundation, in collaboration with the Society for Science & the Public, launched a competition last October seeking creative ideas for sparking children’s interest in science and engineering. They challenged participants to reimagine the chemistry set. C&EN’s Lauren Wolf, like many others, is waiting patiently for the winners to be announced in the coming weeks. Watch for her article on the results.

I’m eager to learn what the winners have devised. I have great-nieces and -nephews and grandkids who might benefit from the chemistry set of the future, any one of whom could be the scientist who unleashes the ability to efficiently convert sunlight into energy or the teacher who unlocks another generation of students’ inner scientist.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.


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