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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

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 18, 2012

You Should Take Chemistry: A Response

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Posted by Derek

The Washington Post has published another guest blog taking the opposite side of the recent "Why Are You Forcing My Son to Take Chemistry?" article.

S. Raj Govindarajan makes his case (some of which recapitulates points made by readers here). I doubt if he's convinced anyone who holds the view of the original authors, but I think he's on target with this part:

Should your son be forced to take chemistry? Absolutely. But the curriculum needs to be rethought in a way that would instill practical knowledge, curiosity about the world, and an appetite for at least understanding scientific achievement and its necessity/implications.

People don’t have to become scientists if they don’t want to, but they should have a fundamental understanding of scientific concepts. That way, people like myself need not be terrified that an ignorant public will vote to slash funding for scientific research and understanding. . .

Comments (9) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Chemical News


1. libfree on October 18, 2012 1:26 PM writes...

I would agree except for the ending. Voting to cut funding for research and development is not necessarily from a lack of scientific understanding. Some of us think that their are better ways of funding research and development.

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2. Another Kevin on October 18, 2012 7:15 PM writes...

The argument of, "the student will never need to know anything about (chemistry, a foreign language, trigonometry, world history, English literature...) seems at first glance to apply equally to all high-school subjects. And this may, in fact, be the case: certainly, in generations gone by, farmers, carpenters, plumbers, and so on typically had no more than an eighth-grade education. To some extent, those jobs have become more complicated, but to an equal or greater extent, they have been affected by credentialism. They now more likely require a high-school diploma or university degree simply because the applicant without one is competing against other applicants with one.

So we have the inflation of academic credentials on one side while anti-intellectualism erodes the meaning of those credentials from the other. We're left with years of 'education' that are little more than holding pens for people waiting to enter the job market.

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3. Aceto on October 18, 2012 11:03 PM writes...

I think the major thing that people are forgetting is that there's a reason it's called _high_ school. High school was never intended to be a generic least-common-denominator level of education that everyone would be expected to have. It was supposed to be a place where people learned about advanced concepts and became able to pursue a professional technical career. In practice, someone who doesn't want such a career need not attend, just as many people do not have high-school diplomas yet have fulfilling jobs and are able to make enough to live a decent life. There should be no pressure to finish high school. Once you force everyone to get into high school, you inevitably run down the path where some say it's too hard, and then you wind up dumbing it down to the point that it loses all of its meaning. Not only has this happened to high school, but it's already starting to happen with college and university-level degrees as well (and also, many would argue, graduate school, to some extent).

The point I'm trying to make is that it is absolutely appropriate to teach about fundamental concepts of chemistry, physics, mathematics, etc. in high school, because it is taken as given that a person who attends high school will need this knowledge later in life.

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4. Anon on October 19, 2012 9:42 AM writes...

There are a lot of concepts that we (those of us who have taken a few chemistry courses) take for granted that many people don't think twice of.
Such as solubility. Why is it that leaking oil doesn't just dissolve away in the ocean?
When I tune the carburetor on the pickup why is it that I have to get it just right between the fuel and air mixture. Is there a way to figure out the absolute best ratio between the two? Unfortunately it is hard to communicate appreciation for such a fast topic when someone has never experienced it.

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5. Sisyphus on October 19, 2012 9:33 PM writes...

So how many science classes did Al Gore take?

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6. metaphysician on October 20, 2012 9:17 AM writes...


Problem is, that has been increasingly not the case. Outside of the very lowest end labor and service professions, virtually every job requires at least high school-equivalent training. Sure, in a lot of cases this might better consistent of apprenticeship, for skilled labor jobs, but honestly, I don't want to live in a house built by people none of whom could do even basic high school math or reading.

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7. Anonymous BMS Researcher on October 20, 2012 9:46 PM writes...

I read in the memoirs of some famous physicist the single most usrful thing he learned in Chemistry clas was how to open a bottle one-handed.

It is an open question whether all jobs for which a college degree is required actually need them for the work versus as a filter. My job does require specialized knowledge, but most jobs are not R&D. For many jobs, I think the reason they require a college degree is because nowadays requiring a college degree is the only way to be confident somebody actually knows stuff they were supposed to have learned in high school. When talking with nonscientist friends and relatives I am frequently startled to realize most people do not know things I learned in high school.

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8. simpl re 7 on October 22, 2012 7:52 AM writes...

Another useful thing that physicists learned from chemists is that atoms are real, even if you can't see them - see e.g. the Wikipedia article on Boltzmann and his sceptic superior Mach.

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9. Anon on October 22, 2012 11:47 AM writes...

The divide between the Techs and the Fuzzies continues to expand. And soon we will have Title IX for women in STEM majors - even though technical jobs continue to migrate overseas.

This country is headed for a fall.

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