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Undergraduate Education

Newscripts

Classroom whiteboard and periodic table woes

by Celia Henry Arnaud
April 16, 2022 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 100, Issue 13

 

Gene Smith erasing part of a periodic table drawn on a whiteboard.
Credit: Jill Rahaim
Critical knowledge: Eugene Smith erases a periodic table drawn on a dry-erase board at Florida Atlantic University.

Nonerasable dry-erase boards

Earlier this year, a professor in Florida Atlantic University’s Wilkes Honors College sent a group email complaining that the dry-erase boards in the classrooms weren’t being erased. Even worse, the boards couldn’t be erased.

That email was like “hitting a beehive with a bat,” says Eugene Smith, a Newscripts fan and chemistry professor in the Honors College. Other people starting chiming in, and soon more than 50 emails were in the chain.

People floated various ideas about what was happening. A popular theory was that the cleaning crew must be doing something to make so many boards go bad at once. But Smith was sure that wasn’t the problem. After all, the dry-erase boards in the chemistry department were fine.

Then someone in the email chain said they’d been using the sanitizing wipes the university had included in their COVID-19 kits to clean the boards. That key clue broke the case of the nonerasable dry-erase boards: Smith and his colleague David Myers knew what the problem was.

When people used the wipes—which contain 2-propanol (also known as isopropyl alcohol)—on the boards, the alcohol was damaging the boards. The professors had inadvertently caused the problem themselves.

People who read cleaning labels might be surprised to learn that 2-propanol damages dry-erase boards. After all, some board cleaners contain the alcohol. But in those cases it’s at low concentrations, and it’s mixed with other components, like emulsifiers and stabilizers, that protect the board’s surface.

The surface of a dry-erase board has an oily film that allows it to be erased. “Once that oily surface is gone, the ink can soak into the board and then you can’t erase it,” Smith says. “The good news is that if you use the cleaners that you’re supposed to use for the boards, they have conditioner in them to resurface the board.”

So how did the chemistry department save its dry-erase boards from the fate of FAU’s other boards? “In the chemistry lab, we wipe the boards down once a week, but we use warm water on a damp rag, and it cleans all the material off of it,” Myers tells Newscripts. The board then gets a spritz of a popular board cleaner, which is allowed to dry. By using this cleaning regimen, Myers adds, “we don’t have any problems at all.”

 

Free the periodic table

For chemists there’s nothing more iconic than the periodic table. Each block contains so much information about the element it represents. Out in the real world, chemists can access it online or as a paper copy when they need it. (This Newscriptster even has a mouse pad emblazoned with it.)

Well, chemistry exams at the University of Oxford are not the real world. Students aren’t allowed copies of the periodic table during exams.

Considering how many classrooms and labs have supersized periodic tables on the wall, making students memorize the details seems like a waste of brain space that could be used for other tasks, like understanding how to use the table.

Vicky Germanidou, a second-year undergraduate at Oxford, launched a petition on change.org to allow students to use the periodic table during exams(change.org/p/give-chemists-at-oxford-university-a-periodic-table-in-their-exams). The petition argues that providing a periodic table during exams would shift the focus from memorization to application, which is better suited for demonstrating students’ command of chemistry.

Inorganic chemistry professors at Oxford take the position that students need to understand elements’ place in the periodic table, says Martin Galpin, deputy director of studies in the Department of Chemistry at Oxford. However, he notes, students are not required to memorize atomic numbers or masses.

Students have asked for periodic tables previously, with no luck. “My thinking when I started this petition was that if everyone just thinks nothing will make an impact, then nothing is ever going to change,” Germanidou tells Newscripts. “I hope that they actually do give us a periodic table in exams. But when I first started the petition, my hopes weren’t high.”

As C&EN went to press, 176 individuals had signed the petition, including some lecturers at Oxford. Maybe there’s hope yet.

Please send comments and suggestions to newscripts@acs.org.

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