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Hatred of Chemistry

            I scored a two out of eight on a Chemistry homework assignment. Of course, I am upset with myself, but I am angrier at how Chemistry is taught. Did I do so poorly because the assignment was hard? No, for me as a Chemistry Education major it was easy; too easy. I was required to fill out the names for organic compounds, so I considered what I needed to do: the length and location of the carbon chains as well as the location of double or triple bonds. It should have been straightforward. The problem: I thought I had picked the longest carbon chain to name the compound after, but a Lewis diagram, an image used to represent a Chemical structure, is not like understanding the writing a teacher has written in the margins of your first draft; parts written vertically are not side notes to be treated separately, but are often part of one long carbon chain that can wiggle around like a centipede if the illustrator of the diagram chooses to do so. The actual material is not what annoys me; the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) has done a pretty good job of creating logical standards for the naming of compounds despite the use of non-chemical Latin, Greek, and German[1] depending on the history of the compound. What annoys me is that the teacher seems to have tricked us intentionally. He gave us diagrams that unnecessarily zigged and zagged and then provided incorrect chemical formula’s with the smallest detail wrong with them.  I fell right into the trap. It may only be a homework assignment, but he could have at least given a heads up to everyone to be careful. It was unfair to let a wrong answer in the beginning lead to multiple mistakes in the rest of the assignment. If he had put only one or two of those kinds of problems on the homework instead of as many as he did, I would realize my mistake and hopefully not repeat the same mistake again. Instead, my grade must suffer an F. This kind of frustration with the testing and teaching of Chemistry exemplifies why most students hate Chemistry.

            Many Chemistry students complain of having to memorize the periodic table. This experience leaves an indelible negative impression of Chemistry on those involved. My dad describes how he hated memorizing the table when he was a kid. He liked Physics but was pushed away from Chemistry by periodic table memorization and overall poor quality teaching. I tell my dad that I am hoping to correct this as a Chemistry teacher. A huge shortage of qualified Chemistry teachers exists right now, which leads students to get a poor education in the field and end up hating the subject forever. The worst part of this nightmare image students of memorizing table is that it is almost completely unnecessary. Chemists with doctorates regularly look up information that they cannot remember off the top of their heads. My Chemistry teacher in high school who holds a master’s degree in Chemistry told me how stupid it was that he was forced to memorize the entire table (Given, he did make us memorize selected elements.). We both agreed that the best way to remember data is to practice working with it. It should be to no one’s surprise then that most students dislike Chemistry after being forced to memorize the periodic table. As Chemistry education has moved away from complete memorization of the periodic table, this method of teaching represents older generation’s frustration with Chemistry. My roommate told me that he had to memorize only the first 20 elements of the periodic table. The periodic table, however, is not the only memory pitfall that deters students from Chemistry.

            As in the case of my homework, the naming of compounds can pose a problem to even the chemically inclined, and thus contribute to people’s dislike of Chemistry. First, students must remember chemical names derived outside of the chemical formula. For example, the name for ammonia is likely derived from a salt and a gum resin prepared near the Shrine of Ammon in Libya.[2] Second, students must remember a strict and complex set of rules that governs naming of organic compounds, the purpose of which is to produce only one recognized scientific name. Despite this common names still exist such as Formaldehyde. Finally, students must be able to differentiate between ionic, covalent, and organic molecules to know how to name it and must remember the different standards for each. While naming substances is no doubt important in Chemistry, it distracts from the conceptual basis of Chemistry. Naming substances may discourage today’s high school students, but there are parts of Chemistry that unfairly discourage college students today.

            Naming compounds would not make a true Chemist reconsider his major, but memorizing processes might. Many Chemists must suffer through the horror of “O-Chem” before moving on to a more likable course. This course makes students memorize, for example, the Krebs cycle or processes involving glucose, lactose, and galactose. This just creates more dislike for Chemistry at the College level.

            It is encouraging that there has been a move away from memorizing the periodic table, but a lot needs to be done to keep Chemistry relevant to students. I can still remember what I learned in high school Chemistry from learning, really understanding the concepts, rather than memorizing. I can only hope that future Chemistry students will be able to focus on understand Chemistry on a deep level rather than simply memorizing it.


©2008 Jorge Eduardo Fernandez