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Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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October 16, 2012

"Why Are You Forcing My Son to Take Chemistry?"

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Posted by Derek

Here's a blog post at The Washington Post in which a parent asks the musical question: "Why Are You Forcing My Son to Take Chemistry?"

It's short, but it can be summarized as My son will not be a chemist. He will not be a scientist. A year of chemistry class will do nothing for him but make him miserable. He could be taking something else that would be doing him more good. And this father is probably right about his son, who's 15, not becoming any sort of scientist. But his argument breaks down a bit after that.

That's because the same objections could apply to most other things that his son could be taking. He says that his son "could be really good at" public speaking, or music, or creative writing, for example. Or not. Perhaps one of them would make him miserable, or simply do nothing for him, and be an opportunity cost as well. The difference is that the boy (and/or his father) are already pretty sure that chemistry will be a waste, and they haven't had the chance to find that out about the others yet.

But again, I take him at his word when he says that his son will be lousy at chemistry (leaving aside the self-fulfilling prophecy aspect, although that's definitely something to consider). This gets back to questions that I wrote about here, namely: how much science should people know? How much should they get in school? How much will do them some good? I think, in this case, that everyone should know that there are such things as chemical elements, and that they combine to form compounds. They should know about reactions like combustion, and a bit about energy and thermodynamics. Knowing an acid from a base would be nice, but the list just keeps on going from there, and where does one draw the line?

I think, after a basic list of facts and concepts, that what I'd like for kids to get out of a science class is the broader idea of experimentation - that the world runs by physical laws which can be interrogated. Isolating variables, varying conditions, generating new hypotheses: these are habits of mind that actually do come in handy in the real world, whether you remember what an s orbital is or not. I'm not sure how well these concepts get across, though.

Do you need a year of high school chemistry to learn these things? I doubt it. A lot of it will be balancing acid-base equations, learning about the columns and rows of the periodic table, oxidations states, Lewis structures, and so on. And the son probably will have no use for any of that - the father has no memory of any of it himself, and although I'd like people to know some of these things, I wonder if not knowing them has harmed him too much. What might have harmed him, though, is a lack of knowledge of those broader points. Or a general attitude that science is That Stuff Those Other People Understand. You make yourself vulnerable to being taken in if you carry that worldview around with you, because claiming scientific backing is a well-used ploy. You should know enough to at least not be taken in easily.

Update: See Arr Oh's thoughts here.

Comments (65) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Chemical News


1. Tuck on October 16, 2012 11:13 AM writes...

Don't know if you saw this, but it's certainly apropos:

"...That’s why I love this week’s story about the school science report of Professor Sir John Gurdon, who has just been awarded the Nobel Prize for medicine. “Disastrous,” began Mr Gaddum, an Eton biology teacher in 1949, sounding uncannily like Strictly judge Craig “Di-zasssstah” Revel Horwood. “I believe he [Gurdon] has ideas about becoming a scientist. On his present showing this is quite ridiculous; if he can’t learn simple biological facts he would have no chance of doing the work of a specialist.”

"Dear Mr Gaddum, long gone to that great froggy-dissecting lab in the sky, will never know that the boy he ranked 18th out of 18 is now one of the world’s leading scientists. But was the biology master completely wrong? I notice Sir John keeps Mr Gaddum’s words pinned above his computer in Cambridge. Is it possible that blistering criticism was, in the long run, more motivating – and helpful – than the consoling lies doled out to youngsters today?..."

"It's not worth trying" is one of those consoling lies... Whatever happened to "you never know until you try"?

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2. Jumbo on October 16, 2012 11:13 AM writes...

I haven't read the WaPo post, but do want to provide a slight counter-anecdote to its apparent PoV. My son is also 15 and taking chemistry. Initially with some resistance akin to what appears to be laid out in the blog. But I asked him yesterday how his homework is going. He said: "You know, it is really interesting. Stuff about electron orbitals and binding and stuff. I like it." Brought a smile to this scientist's face! Oh, and he was excited about class today because the teacher promises to "blow some stuff up!" Yea Chemistry! I am not suggesting my son will (or should!) become a scientist. But how can you possibly understand what is going on without the proper foundation. No different than the justification for him to read Anna Karenina in English (which he is also enjoying!).

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3. CR on October 16, 2012 11:41 AM writes...

Must be a slow day.

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4. RKN on October 16, 2012 11:54 AM writes...

My high school years are now a fog. Except the girl who sat in front of me in geometry, her hair, delicate arms and wondrous legs -- that I remember in vivid detail, down to the shoes she wore. But the inability to recall what we were ostensibly once taught I agree is a poor reason for pardoning a child from the experience.

On the other hand, given the overall dismal reports we hear regarding education outcomes in this country, I'm not sure it really matters what subject matter is taught in a high school classroom. Too much effort, I suspect, particularly in science, is devoted to teaching students how to get answers to pat questions, and far too little up front explaining what the questions are, and why the questions are important and relevant in the first place.

Btw, I note the author of the WaPo piece didn't close his parenthetical, tsk tsk.

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5. Keith Robison on October 16, 2012 11:59 AM writes...

In a similar vein, there was a recent op-ed piece arguing against teaching algebra broadly, which I covered in a blog entry: An unconvincing case to X-out algebra

The chemistry post you reference just drips with gross know-it-all-ism, as did the algebra article. The writers are convinced that (a) they can perfectly predict who will or will not be interested in a course, that (b) the course cannot be any better than what they had in the subject, and (c) any counter-example of the utility of a subject is simply to be ignored.

A good example of the silliness of the author's article is making it sound like the only thing chemistry teaches are simple facts that can be dredged easily out of Google, such as the number of elements in the periodic table. Just looking at the elements, facts like the regularity of the periodic table (that organization isn't just for looks!), the differences between metals & non-metals, the concept of isotopes, the fact that the number of elements is different then when the author took chemistry (though in the same general order-of-magnitude -- those are big ideas that his son might take away if given the chance.

The fact that small numbers of identical objects -- electrons, neutrons & protons -- can be combined into a larger collection, and from that larger collection a nearly infinite number of other items can be generated -- though with rules which constrain that huge combinatoric explosion.

The other thing I find annoying that seems to pervade these sorts of polemics is the notion that all analytical thought is equivalent -- that there is no difference between analysis in the sciences & in other subjects. While there are core similarities, it is very different when there is actually a provably correct answer (and therefore many provably incorrect answers). That's not to put science over other fields, but to recognize that there is a significant difference (and, of course, often in science we don't know enough to be provably correct).

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6. Chris Hansen on October 16, 2012 12:01 PM writes...

I took high school biology and physics. When it came to chemistry, I demurred. We weren't forced to take it. Same with calculus. I took one day of the class and didn't understand the review. So, I decided (on my own) to withdraw. I've never taken another math course. At uni I took experimental psychology and (I think) passed. Herbert Terrace of Nim Chimpsky fame was my professor. After that, I never took another science course.

Now, 38 years later I am retired, and had a good career in market research and in software testing and test management. I majored in Latin and Greek at Columbia Univ. and actually got a BA degree. I am moderately interested in chemistry and science in general, but have no training in it at all.

If the boy isn't interested, he may become interested when taking it. However, it's more likely that he'll be bored, uninterested, and get poor marks in it. Will understanding some elementary chemistry benefit him in later life? Undoubtedly. Will not taking chemistry hamper him in later life? Probably not. If he relents later on and requires chemistry, he can take it at university.

And yes, learning some principles of the scientific method would be useful for everyone. But just because it's useful doesn't mean that everyone would be interested in it. So let's not pile on the father or the child here. Better a less-well-informed child than someone who actively dislikes science and wants to have nothing to do with it later on in life.

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7. milkshake on October 16, 2012 12:21 PM writes...

he could be also shown - if the science teacher is any good - how not to do experiments: fiddling with adjustable parameters or carefully selecting only certain datapoints "to make the results come out right". Because when interrogated after Russian manner, the natural laws will confess everything (you tell them to)

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8. z on October 16, 2012 12:31 PM writes...

Is the primary function of an education to learn specific skills to do a job? I would argue that it most certainly isn't. Especially at a high school level, but even beyond, I believe it is far more important to learn how to think, how to be creative, to solve problems, develop self-confidence, flexibility, adaptability, all those sorts of things, as well as to gain a very broad, baseline understanding of the world. The best way to do all of those things is to study a wide range of different subjects that make you look at the world from different perspectives and require different approaches and different ways of thinking. Doing this, you should also end up with the practical, real world skills you need for the career path you want to pursue, but you'll have a lot more than that as well.

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9. johnnyboy on October 16, 2012 12:32 PM writes...

I'll hazard a conservative guess that about 90% of what we study in school never gets used at all in later life - reading and writing do, but that's about it. The point of school is not simply to learn a job skill, not at 15 anyway, but rather to give you a broad perspective of what is out there. Sure that kid may be bored out of his mind by his chemistry class, but at least he'll have an inkling of what chemistry actually is. His father may have a more utilitarian concept of what high school education should be: in that case he should homeschool his kid and stop whining. But my guess is that he's just another of those overprotective parents who want their kids to only do what they feel like doing - in that case good luck living with his son at home until he's in this thirties...

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10. betacarbon on October 16, 2012 12:33 PM writes...

I also think we do a disservice to high school and college students by not teaching them a small unit on the history of chemistry. For instance, describing how organic chemistry and studies of fermentation provided conclusive evidence against vitalism is a critical lesson in objectivity. If everyone had these stories buzzing around their heads, they might be less prone to buying into dogmas like "intelligent design."

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11. MIMD on October 16, 2012 12:33 PM writes...

I think "The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark" makes a good argument for why Johnnie and Janey should have basic science courses such as biology, chemistry and physics.

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12. Bitter about lit on October 16, 2012 12:42 PM writes...

Since when do we care if the kids will like the coursework? If we left it up to the kids the class rooms would probably be empty, eh? If my Daddy had written a letter to the editor, could I have gotten out of reading all those miserable "classics"?

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13. Bitter about lit on October 16, 2012 12:43 PM writes...

Since when do we care if the kids will like the coursework? If we left it up to the kids the class rooms would probably be empty, eh? If my Daddy had written a letter to the editor, could I have gotten out of reading all those miserable "classics"?

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14. Bitter about lit on October 16, 2012 12:44 PM writes...

Since when do we care if the kids will like the coursework? If we left it up to the kids the class rooms would probably be empty, eh? If my Daddy had written a letter to the editor, could I have gotten out of reading all those miserable "classics"?

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15. Bitter about lit on October 16, 2012 12:44 PM writes...

Since when do we care if the kids will like the coursework? If we left it up to the kids the class rooms would probably be empty, eh? If my Daddy had written a letter to the editor, could I have gotten out of reading all those miserable "classics"?

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16. Bitter about lit on October 16, 2012 12:45 PM writes...

Since when do we care if the kids will like the coursework? If we left it up to the kids the class rooms would probably be empty, eh? If my Daddy had written a letter to the editor, could I have gotten out of reading all those miserable "classics"?

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17. Anonymous on October 16, 2012 12:50 PM writes...

Everyone should have to take science courses until they are ready to conceed their scientific opinion has no merit. I say this with the climate change deniers in mind, but it might not be a bad idea. If you get to the point where you are defending a thesis (and still not ready to conceed your scientific opinion), you deserve the degree. lol

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18. kmb on October 16, 2012 12:52 PM writes...

Science teaches analytical skills. Analytical skills are transferable to other areas, even non-science areas. Let's say that this child will never use science or math his entire life, whatever he ends up doing as a career or just in his day to day life, he will need to use analytical skills. Take the chemistry class and learn some analytical skills. Even simple stoichiometry teaches students to use analytical skills and make sure that things logically make sense.

If one chemistry class in high school is the most miserable this student will ever be in his life, he will be a lucky man.

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19. opsomath on October 16, 2012 12:52 PM writes...

A few thoughts.

1. Am I whining about having to take English literature, or German, or history, in college? No? Okay, good. Shut up.

2. A physicist opining that chemistry is all memorization. Very good source, right there.

3. I learned about opportunity costs in my economics class, yes. I found that concept from a science I am not practicing for a living very useful. Why did you assume that I didn't know it? Not everyone is willfully ignorant of things outside their specializatoin.

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20. partial agonist on October 16, 2012 1:00 PM writes...

We don't need more scientists but we need an awful lot more scientific literacy. If this boy's chemistry teacher is good at relating the big picture points, he might grow up to

-question the people who insist that vaccinations (rather than lack therof) pose a public health threat
-doubt that an expensive plastic wristband will put him in harmony with the cosmos
-resist the urge to waste money on homeopathic placebos
-understand that quacks like Stanislaw Burzynski are just out for your money

plus a laundry list of other things, any of which his Dad likely buys into

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21. Curious Wavefunction on October 16, 2012 1:00 PM writes...

As I say in my own post, I feel like sending a few beakers flying through that physicist's window. And imagine an experimental physicist saying that about chemistry, an inherently experimental science.

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22. Todd on October 16, 2012 1:04 PM writes...

Hey, I feel the kids pain. Except in my case, I despised my English and Literature classes. Heck, in college, I did all I could to avoid those things. That said, you need at least a passing familiarity with things you don't like so that when you're older, you can engage them without looking like a complete fool.

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23. paperclip on October 16, 2012 1:04 PM writes...

Chemistry is one of the few subjects in which it is considered acceptable, even "cool," to be ignorant. I wager most people would be embarrassed if they were asked to find Brazil on a map and couldn't do so, and they would offer a sheepish excuse if they were unable to name any of our early presidents. But the subject of chemistry may garner the unapologetic response of "I have no clue what you're talking about." Chemistry is, like, too hard, and weird, and you have to be some sort of nerdy super-genius to get any of it.

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24. CMCguy on October 16, 2012 1:26 PM writes...

I think the Chemists here are taking this too personally as appeared to more against an antiquated system for dictating curriculum requirements which HS chemistry as illustrative example. That said I do believe scientific literacy is important to all and should start even before HS even if survey/exposure levels- unfortunately it often require teachers of science who are knowledgeable and inspirational and does not in general seem to be over abundance of former and perhaps a critical shortage of the later.

At the same time now should go experiment on some physicists.

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25. mass_speccer on October 16, 2012 1:34 PM writes...

I'm from the UK so I don't know much about the US education system.

Here it seems that most education is based on passing the exams at the end. The exams obviously can have a huge impact on people's lives.

I think it would be nice if there was a way of teaching people things for the purpose of 'interest' rather than actually having to pass exams.

It probably is hard to balance the two sections though.

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26. John Wayne on October 16, 2012 2:08 PM writes...

Looking back at high school, I am not sure which of my teachers taught based on memorization and which ones tried to get me to think; I was a teenaged boy.

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27. Anonymous on October 16, 2012 2:18 PM writes...

i hated chemistry in high school thinking that i will never need this stuff. today i have won awards for my graduate work in transition metal catalysis. i do not think that taking or not taking chemistry at a high school level would have impacted in a major way as I remember clearly that my teacher could not tell or explain the difference between covalent or ionic bonds.

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28. bbooooooya on October 16, 2012 2:27 PM writes...

I always hated English, so I took as little as possible

Lukilee, I don't needz to rite to has the good kemistree

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29. GC on October 16, 2012 2:39 PM writes...

Meh. I'm kind of glad for these sort of folks. They make it easier for me to get a good job while they're stuck saying "would you like fries with that?"

I went to an even worse school where I took no chemistry or biology at all, in a backwater little town.

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30. LolCat on October 16, 2012 2:42 PM writes...

I hatez Eenglish too.

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31. mad on October 16, 2012 3:45 PM writes...

This has nothing to do with chemistry itself its all financial.
Chemistry generally requires more work than other classes especially if you don’t like it. Overcoming that challenge (doing something well even if you don’t like it) will help you in any field but…getting B in chem wont help you as much as an A in Non-chem for your 4.0 average/scholarship application.

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32. DrSnowboard on October 16, 2012 4:05 PM writes...

Story on the BBC Radio the other day discussing the Arts vs Science divide in journalism, life etc.
Boy on being told he has to take english literature and latin "but sir, the boys who choose english lit and latin aren't forced to take science?" Headmaster: "That's because they are already well-rounded individuals, there is no need"

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33. The Iron Chemist on October 16, 2012 4:09 PM writes...

"If he relents later on and requires chemistry, he can take it at university."

Given that I've seen students who've allegedly taken AP Chemistry struggle with college-level general chemistry (and badly), I wouldn't recommend this.

Given how much technology impacts our daily lives nowadays, I think that a firm understanding of scientific fundamentals is an essential part of every student's education.

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34. polymer on October 16, 2012 4:21 PM writes...

derek, i just have to say, I love your blog

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35. me on October 16, 2012 4:35 PM writes...

It is quite possible that the chemistry teacher in high school was a disaster. Too many of them are. It is however not possible to be "well educated" (in my opinion) without being exposed to certain foundational principles of modern science. I would include (non-exhaustively) differential calculus and basic chemistry and physics. I would include being able to read an write (and knowing about some great writers), knowing enough history to understand where we are today. I would also include understanding *why* all those things are required.

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36. ZombieSymmetry on October 16, 2012 4:42 PM writes...

I was just reading the other day that erythritol, one of the many sugar substitutes, "sounds like a chemical, but it is actually a naturally fermented sugar alcohol." Apparently, it is made from something other than chemicals. Perhaps unicorn horns and rainbows.

On the same web page, I read that molasses is much healthier than refined (and therefore TOXIC) sugar and evil HFCS. The reason the author stated that molasses was healthier was because it was "100% pure" and made by mother nature (again, unicorn horns and rainbows).

These are the knuckleheads who don't want to take chemistry and who don't want their children to take chemistry. If we lived in a world where such people just kept their mouths shut, I wouldn't object quite so much. But we don't live in such a world. These are the people who object to all things "chemical," who think that HFCS is evil incarnate, and who think that genetically modified crops are part of a secret plan to overthrow the human race.

That being the case, I say: No chemistry, no graduate.

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37. JC on October 16, 2012 5:18 PM writes...

I agree with the Dad. Teach the kid to sweat pipe, then become a plumber. You can't outsource a toilet.

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38. MIMD on October 16, 2012 5:23 PM writes...

Didn't Sears and Gilbert sell a bazillion chemistry sets every Christmas in the 50s and 60s??

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39. anony on October 16, 2012 5:34 PM writes...

"Didn't Sears and Gilbert sell a bazillion chemistry sets every Christmas in the 50s and 60s??"

Yeah, but these decades are long gone. In fact, some smart people fear (Neal Stephenson has written about these issues) that "the era of science" is over. The implications, if one agrees with such premise, are dire.

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40. Laura on October 16, 2012 5:38 PM writes...

I can't reiterate what kmb said above enough. While the knowledge imparted in secondary schools is important, just as important if not more so are the methods of approaching problems and plain THINKING that are imparted at these levels. The ability to approach problems from different perspectives and angles comes from doing just that!

There was a truly fantastic article about the importance of good math education, for instance, for all in the NYT some years ago (I've been looking now for awhile and can't find it) and it resonated with me on many levels. Honestly, getting a broad education as a minor - and providing one to those minors as adults - is a civic responsibility.

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41. Anonymous on October 16, 2012 6:03 PM writes...

Spending your time having a great life at the Jersey Shore will teach you all you need to know to become famous and rich, whereas $100 K in student loans makes you erudite unemployed scientist. Now tell me again why this father has it all wrong?

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42. hn on October 16, 2012 6:16 PM writes...

I get this regularly:

"You're a chemistry professor? I hated chemistry!"

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43. Anonymous on October 16, 2012 6:49 PM writes...

As Ralph Waldo Emerson said long time ago: " One of the benefits of a college education is to show the boy its little avail." A class on atoms and molecules has never hurt anyone - we are atoms and molecules after all.

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44. Anonymous on October 16, 2012 7:28 PM writes...

I heard an ignorant commercial about artificial sweeteners with names I couldn't pronounce touting one of the rebaudioside A products (forget which one). Cute™ trade names don't make a sweetener any different from another - they're all chemicals, eventually, as See Arr Oh and ChemJobber have pointed out on various occasions.

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45. RLR on October 16, 2012 7:55 PM writes...

The comments on the Post article from other residents of Montgomery County have clarified that high school students have to take one biology class and one physical science - which can be either chemistry or physics or earth science. No one is forcing this kid to study chemistry.

That being said - my niece is a graduate of a Montgomery county high school. She could have had a good education - but instead her mother and her art teacher encouraged her to go to art school. Predictably, she paid little attention to any other subject, and had poor grades, but she did make it into a private art school.

Now, a year and $35,000 later she has quit art school and has decided she wants to become a doctor (like her grandfather and two uncles). She is a smart kid who is now academically unprepared for college, competing with well-prepared students. She is enrolling in community college and will be taking the equivalent of high school science and math courses, just to get up to speed. It is as if she went to a sub-standard school in an inner city or out in the boondocks, instead of an affluent county that spends large sums of money on its schools.

This is a good example of why the father in the Post article should not discount the value of taking science courses, no matter what interests this 15 year old now has.

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46. RB on October 16, 2012 8:43 PM writes...

"We are forcing your son to learn chemistry in the hope that he won't grow up to be as dumb as his parents."

I swear there should be a minimum science and algebra test that is required before someone is allowed to own a tv and/or computer. You fail either of them, no TV or internet for you.

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