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Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Chemistry and the Teenage Mind

Today, I had the unique experience of visiting my son's middle school science class.  The teacher, as part of the curriculum, is bringing in guests to teach his class about real-world science.  I was the first.

In preparation for this class, I thought about how I could impress upon the students the importance of chemistry.  Initially, I thought about discussing anecdotes from my childhood that reflected my interest in science.  However, realizing that some of my "experiments" were extremely dangerous and certainly not executed under adult (or parental) supervision, I opted to omit details in this area.  After all, I did not want to give ideas to these young and impressionable (and somewhat unpredictable) teenagers.  After some thought, I decided that a two-part discussion was appropriate.  The first part was to focus on how chemistry impacts everyday life and the second part was to be a brief presentation based on one of the drug discovery projects I worked on.

When I was introduced to the class, I initially took questions from the students.  These generally related to what my area of expertise is and what are the steps involved in the discovery of new medicines.  These questions, as they related directly to my slide presentation, were tabled until the second half of the class.

The second half of class was uneventful.  I described the drug discovery paradigms of past and current years along with exploratory research relating matrix metalloproteinase inhibitors to inhibitors of endothelin converting enzyme.  The students were engaged and sufficiently grossed out when I discussed studying urine and feces for drug-related metabolites.  While this discussion gave them a flavor for the exciting opportunities available to those pursuing careers in the life sciences, the students seemed much more enthusiastic about the chemistry in everyday life challenge presented in the first part of my visit.

Teenagers, by nature, take a great deal for granted.  They are quite reliable in their abilities to not think about where things come from. For example, money comes from parents, toilet paper comes from Costco, gasoline comes from gas stations and food/medicine comes from stores.  So, when I presented the possibility that chemistry was everywhere, the students actually thought about this idea.  As a follow-up, I went around the class asking each student to name something that they felt was not related to chemistry.  Interestingly, at least one fourth of the class felt that chemistry was everywhere. The other students managed to come up with rather creative questions.  Such questions tended to involve biological processes (vision and movement of limbs) rather than materials.  Still, realizing that biology involves numerous biochemical reactions, these questions were relevant.

Towards the end of this discussion, I directed the students to consider materials.  A door, for example, is made of wood.  The wood is held together by glue, laminated with a coating and stained to a desired color.  While the wood may be from a natural source, agriculture plays an important role in obtaining such products.  Thus, the finished door was the direct result of chemical substances including:
  • adhesives (glue)
  • pigments (stain)
  • polymers (laminate)
  • pesticides 
As a direct result of this conversation, the class understood that chemistry does, in fact, impact practically every part of our daily activities including, but not limited to:
  • clothing (polymers, pigments)
  • toothpaste/soap/shampoo
  • food (pesticides, ingredients, preservatives, packaging)
  • water
  • medicine
  • building materials
  • cars
  • roads
Regarding the roads, one student suggested that if a road was made by hand using only gravel found on the adjacent hillside, and the road was only used by people walking barefoot and naked then there would be no chemistry involved.  No chemistry, that is, except for the natural mineral composition of the gravel.

So, chemistry is truly everywhere.

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