Life, Love, and Chemistry : What I Learned in 2014

When she asked; “So your biggest decision every day was how much hay to feed your horses?” I was speechless, a rare condition, but I didn’t have party talk or even an elevator speech prepared to describe last year. I gulped my wine and thought about my journey from the sub-atomic particles that make us and the electrical forces that hold us, to the miraculous pattern of the Periodic Table, to the intricate infinity of complex compounds. I could feel the wine working, one of hundreds of chemical reactions alive in the room, and my alcohol-fueled reminiscence started.

What made life remarkable in 2014 was what happened after I fell in love with Chemistry. I found something that I loved even more : Teaching. I taught all levels and all subjects, for days and for weeks. I saw careless brilliance in high school and mystifying skittishness in the middle grades. I was my best with the boundless curiosity of elementary school. I was honored and amused when a creative 5th grader summoned the courage to present a joke about my name:

Knock Knock! —- Who’s There?

Mrs. Mac!  —— Mrs. Mac Who?


The routine of the year was daily on-line study and test, but only after early morning hay-toss, grain-scoop, and water-carry.  I relished the victories of chapters completed and the autonomy of self-directed learning. I marveled at the growth rate of puppies, kittens, and colts. My most-read authors were Madeline Hunter and Parker Palmer. My favorite binge-watching was Sal Kahn. My new friends were horse trainers, veterinarians and farmers.

By far the best discovery of 2014 was the sweetness of daily life with my best friend. We built fences, planted fields, trained horses, cooked, read, and wrote together. I fell in love all over again watching him teach Spanish to one of my classes. He read them poetry by Borges, showed videos of Che’, and told stories of Tango dancers on the metro, all in Spanish. Months later, those students still greet me with a wink and “Buenos Dias”, as if we formed some sort of club that day.

By now, my glass was empty and the table topic had shifted. As we started eating I realized that 2015 will not find me at a screen or a desk very often. I may be in the front of a classroom, the back of a barn, or the middle of a lab. But wherever I am,  I’ll have with me the lessons and blessings of a quiet country year.



The Reader You Test, The Teacher You Get

I thoroughly enjoyed preparing for the exam this week because it felt like reminiscing. It was an easy walk down memory lane because the fundamentals of chemistry have not changed since my high school tour in the 70’s. Catching up with everything else, however, may be a Rip Van Winkle experience.

Testing has certainly changed. I was instructed to bring two forms of photo identification and be prepared to submit to a palm vein scan. Hopefully no needles will be involved. No personal items, including watches, are allowed in the exam room. When I asked about pencil and paper, I was told that for “security reasons, a white board and a dry-erase marker” will be provided. The test will be 255 minutes long with 125 questions.

My attitude has changed. The closer I came to the exam, the more excited I became. I circled around each chapter to get different perspectives. I was online with the likes of Kahn Academy and in person at the Public Library.  I realized that this is the first time in my life that I have had the luxury of focusing on one subject for long stretches of uninterrupted time and I wanted to make the most of it. Former classmates will vouch for the extent of this change, if they believe it.

I imagine that teaching has also changed. I wonder what smart phones, teacher evaluations, content flipping, new standards, online text books, and BYOD have done to the classroom that I remember. I wonder about the teachers that I remember: how would they feel about today’s expectations? Parker Palmer describes teaching as a communal, moral, internal journey. Charlotte Danielson models that teachers are masters of four domains, 22 components, and 76 elements. TeachPlus proposes that teachers are leaders and shapers of public policy. State Departments expect that teachers provide continuous improvement as measured by student test scores.

Which leads to the biggest question of all: How have the students changed?

I hope to learn the answers to some of these questions at Interface 2014 this week, or at least meet teachers who have the same questions. Meanwhile, as Vitale wrote and Walsh sang:

“I can remember all the good times

Put ’em in a book of memories

Hopin’ that our book will never end

Hopin’ that our book will never end.”

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Parker Palmer

Charlotte Danielson


Interface 2014

The Perfection of Gas and the Greatness of Organic Compounds

Just like Olympic judges, chemists have established a set of attributes that describe perfection so that we measure everything else relative to an impossible standard. The Ideal Gas is purely hypothetical; consisting of identical particles of zero volume with no intermolecular forces. This approach struck me as arrogant until I understood that Gas Laws that followed:

1. Graham’s Law: rate of movement is proportional to mass

2. Dalton’s Law: total pressure is the sum of individual pressures

3. Boyle’s Law: volume varies with pressure (at constant temperature)

4. Charles’s Law: volume varies with temperature (at constant pressure).

The early chemists weren’t just Photoshopping. By imagining perfection, they found a way  to describe reality.

The reality of my upcoming exam pushed me to finish the final chapter which was Organic Chemistry, the study of compounds that contain carbon. These compounds are deemed ‘organic’ because carbon was originally obtained from the remains of living things, like coal. The carbon atom of today is the backbone of thousands of compounds that keep us warm, healthy, clothed, and together. Travel and romance would be nothing without carbon.

What makes carbon great is its four outer electrons that are able to form single, double, and even triple bonds. And bond it does, creating almost endless chains of molecules that are used to make fuel, medicine, textiles, and adhesives. The same atom is responsible for the diamonds in my wedding band and the gasoline in my car.

Maybe perfection and greatness are closer than I imagined.

Next up: The Last Lap

Changes in Attitude, Latitude, and Phases

The weather this week really helped increase my study time. If I hadn’t had a dog to walk (or West Wing on Netflix) I probably would have finished the entire Chemistry section.

Energy can be put to many uses and this lesson was about using it to change phases of matter. We can calculate the energy (q) , or heat, required to change the temperature of any material with a simple equation:

q = (m) x (Cp) x (Change in Temperature).

Cp is a constant value related to the material, specific heat, and m is the amount of material, or mass. In other words, temperature changes linearly with heat, which is obvious and beyond boring.

What gets interesting is the action during phase changes. As the energy changes, there is no corresponding change in temperature. Boiling water will stay at 100 degrees Celsius and a slushy ice mix will stay at 0 degrees no matter how much heat is added. The temperature does not change because all of the energy is being used to pull apart the intermolecular bonds which, like bad habits, are tough to break.

The energy needed to muster through a phase change is ‘heat of vaporization’, ‘heat of fusion’, or sheer will power. It is substantially higher that what’s needed to change temperature. Only after all the ice is melted or all the boiling water is evaporated will the temperature once again rise in a linear but boring fashion.

There are two simple equations:

q = (m) x (heat of fusion) when moving from a solid to a liquid and

q = (m) x (heat of  vaporization) when moving from a liquid to a gas,

and I am struck by two simple truths:

1. It takes a lot less energy to change outwardly than inwardly.

2. Transformation starts at the smallest level and for a while there are no signs.

Next Up: The Perfection of Gas and the Greatness of Organic Compounds

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Energy, Balance, and Astrology

When was the last time that you were so enthralled that hours passed like minutes?

The Principal and Science Chair of Rockhurst High School allowed me to to observe an afternoon of chemistry classes this week. Michael Sullivan taught the same subject to three different classes (AP, Honors, and General) with such a variety of techniques that I lost count. It was equal parts push, wait, argue, understand, noise, silence, chaos and clarity. The pace was blinding. The energy was off the scale. The jokes, mostly from the students, did not stop. Correct answers were celebrated with desk pounding and wrong answers were acknowledged with forehead smacks. The young men came in small groups discussing local sports, NHS events, and Schrodinger’s cat. They left arguing the best titration techniques and the quickest way to determine if a reaction is endothermic or exothermic.

I was also captured this week by the concept and mechanics of Oxidation Reduction reactions. It is not an overstatement to say that every aspect of our lives is governed by the behavior of electrons. In many reactions, electrons stay with the atom that brought them, but in Redox reactions they jump ship, sometimes in droves. This flow creates electricity and this knowledge led to the invention of batteries and the field of Electrochemistry.

Unfortunately, the mechanics of balancing Redox reactions did not flow as easily as the concept, but my Libra nature would not rest until I mastered the 10-12 steps. I used Kahn Academy, two additional Chemistry textbooks, and even Chemistry Essentials for Dummies. At the end of the week, I could take apart molecules, describe the flow of electrons, add water or hydroxide as needed, and then finally put them all back together again.

Let the desk-pounding commence.

The Beginning of the End

I learned a few things about pressure last week. It started when I looked at my syllabus and realized that there are only two chapters between me and the final exam. Suddenly, visions of my first day as a bumbling novice loomed large with lots of sweaty details. Then my usually latent test anxiety kicked in. I agree with philosopher Peter Koestenbaum that anxiety “is not something to get over” and that understanding it is “the beginning of an authentic life”, but between the writer’s block and the sleeplessness I was not having fun.

Fortunately, we chemists know how to use pressure to our advantage. We compress gases every day so that you can fill up tires and basketballs, transport truckloads of hydrogen, and dispense just enough helium to make funny voices.  The Ideal Gas Law, PV=nRT, gives us a way to understand how pressure (P) varies with the volume of the container (V), the amount of gas molecules (n), and temperature (T). R is a constant that holds it all together. Solving for P= (nRT) / V we see that as volume goes up, pressure goes down. As the amount of gas or the temperature increases, the pressure also increases. This is probably the most intuitively obvious formula that exists.

Since there is no formula for self-inflicted pressure, I decided to change my isolating equation of study+quiz+blog+repeat by adding a reality constant. First step: I scheduled my final exam for February 27th. It felt good to take control of my fate, or at least my schedule. My home coach always encourages me to get classroom time during my training, so I contacted Appleton City Public Schools and Rockhurst High School for some classroom observation and substitute teaching. Finally, I talked to a retired teacher. Her repeated assurances that there is no amount of work that will adequately prepare me for the first year were not reassuring. However, I did appreciate her recommendation to attend Interface 2014, which is a three day conference sponsored by Missouri University and the Missouri Department of Education for high school Math and Science teachers.

Will I find other people that feel the same way I do about Chemistry? Will I find my “Community of Truth”, so beautifully drawn by Parker Palmer, in The Courage to Teach?  Stay tuned.

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Are You a Tortoise or a Hare?

Are you quick to react? Once you start, is it over and done or do you go on and on? Those of you with even minimal social skills (a fair question given your choice of reading) know that our reactions depend on two factors: energy and the situation.

Molecules need Activation Energy to start a reaction and if their bonds are weak they need very little. However, if the bonds are strong and the Activation Energy is too high, increasing the temperature or adding a catalyst will get things going. Catalysts provide an alternate chemical route that requires less energy, like those facilitators that get everyone else in the room talking, without becoming consumed in the reaction.

Once a chemical reaction starts, molecules mill around for a while in what is called the Transition State and they may even form some intermediate compounds. Molecules need to bump into each other to react, so increasing the temperature, concentration, and surface area all increase the likelihood of of contact and reaction. This is described by the Theory of Kinetics and Open Office Design. Fortunately, unlike workplace interactions, chemical reaction rates can be described mathematically.

Six factors affect the overall reaction rate: temperature, concentration, collision angle of molecules, frequency of collision, and the nature of the reactants. This set of variables makes for a complicated situation which was elegantly described by Svante Arrhenius in 1889.

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K is the rate constant, A is the prefactor which describes the orientation of the molecular collisions, T is the absolute temperature at which the reaction is taking place, Ea is the activation energy, and R is the Universal gas constant. One simple expression accounts for every factor that governs every reaction.

Do your loved ones or workmates complain about your pace? Explain that it’s simply the product of your variables and invite them to experiment. Who knows what discoveries await.

Next Week: The Beginning of the End