Chem Coach Carnival

This is National Chemistry Week, and in celebration chemists are being asked to join the Chem Coach Carnival, a series of blogs across the web about the varied and strange career paths we follow in chemistry.

This is a departure from what I intended this blog to be, but oh well. As Kurt Vonnegut used to say, it’s better than a sharp stick in the eye.

Current job: Associate Professor and Department Chair of Chemistry, Oklahoma City University.  We are a small liberal-arts university with a total enrollment of about 2300.

Standard work day: Teach between 2 and 6 hours per day (lectures and labs).  Most classes have around 20-25 students.  The rest of the time is spent preparing the next class, prepping or tearing down teaching labs, tutoring students, various and random administrative duties.  Occasionally I do a little research in chemical education, including mentoring undergraduates.

Education: B.A. in Chemistry (Rice), Ph.D. in Chemistry (U. C. Berkeley).  After grad school I taught for six-year at a charter high school that I helped found in my hometown of Oklahoma City, Harding Charter Prep.  I now refer to this as my “educational post-doc”.  I would never have been offered my current position without those six years of teaching experience, and the experience has been invaluable.

How chemistry informs my work: I spend most hours of most days trying to explain, or think of better ways to explain, chemistry to young people.  Teaching chemistry forces you (if you’re a good teacher) to immerse yourself in the ideas, concepts, models and thinking of chemistry.  For a few weeks a year I live and breathe reactions, both symbolically and at the atomic level.  Later I think almost non-stop about hydrogen bonding.  The more difficult the concept is, the harder you have to think about what the subject really means, then find a way to bring the students to the subject.

Anecdote: I once was a reader for the AP Chemistry exam, and had to sit for 8 days reading mostly incorrect essays about hydrogen bonding.  About 90% of the best high school students in the nation believed that hydrogen bonding way an intra-molecular force (“Ethanol has a bond between O and H.  That’s a really special, strong bond, called a hydrogen bond”).  At meals many of my fellow graders would say, in a very high-and-mighty tone, “Well, what I tell my students is…”.  Then I finally realized it doesn’t matter what you say. It matter what the students learn.  That principle has guided my teaching ever since.

Best graffiti ever found on my chalkboard: “Dr. Prilliman: 1% man, 99% science!”

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Faraday and the Simple Candle: An inspiration

In 1848, Michael Faraday delivered the Christmas Lectures at the Royal Society concerning “The Chemical History of a Candle”, later collected into a book of the same title (pdf, e-reader).  In these lectures Faraday explains chemistry by discussing just one simple, everyday object, a candle.  Explaining his choice of focus, Faraday says:

“There is not a law under which any part of this universe is governed which does not come into play, and is touched upon in these phenomena.  There is no better, there is no more open door by which you can enter into the study of natural philosophy, than by considering the physical phenomena of a candle.” (Lecture 1: Paragraph 1)

Faraday the man is interesting in his own right.  In an era when scientists were still wealthy gentleman he was a self-taught son of a blacksmith.  However though the clever design of experiments and clear insight into the concepts at work, Faraday produced ground-breaking work in chemistry and physics, particularly in the field of electricity and electrochemistry.  As such, Faraday is an on-going inspiration to me in my life as a chemist and a chemical educator.

In this blog I propose to follow in the Faraday’s tradition.  My intention is to write about the amazing chemistry that underlies our daily lives.  Chemistry is not something that takes place within a lab, it is an invisible but constant presence, both natural and man-made, and my goal is to elucidate that presence through these posts.  My hope is that this will be accessible to those who are just beginning their chemical training but still be interesting to those who already and proudly call themselves chemists.