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Success in Chemistry

By Liz Brown, Ph.D., Upper School Science

I still remember the first day that I set foot in a chemistry classroom my sophomore year of high school. My best friend was my lab partner, I had a brand-new TI-84 calculator—the height of technology at the time—and a deep-rooted fear that this would be the class to bring me down. It didn’t take long for me to fall hopelessly in love with the subject, with its nuanced vision of a sub-microscopic world and with the elegance and absurdity of how perfectly my previous science knowledge nestled into place, the central, illuminating piece to the puzzle. It was also the dynamic and fearless woman, Mrs. Lang, at the helm of this class, who so unapologetically offered herself up as a guide to me and my peers, that drove me to college and then graduate school to soak up every ounce of chemistry I could find. Ultimately, I returned to teach high school chemistry in the hopes that I might, in some small way, pay tribute to her enormous impact on my life.

Success in chemistry requires thinking about the world in a way that most students have yet to encounter. How does one model something that is so small, the structure of which even the most powerful lasers can only begin to illuminate? Conversely, how is a student to conceptualize the mind-bending size of a mole and then use this metric to discuss chemical reactions they have never experienced? And, how do we teach students to approach problem solving in a class where no two problems are the same and the traditional step-wise process fails?

My response to these perennial problems has been to integrate student experience and intuition into every lesson. I have a penchant for anthropomorphizing molecules, asking how molecules “feel” in a given reaction or likening polarity to a tug-of-war between molecules, even directing students to get up in class and play-act a battle between two elements of differing properties to explain periodic trends. In my class, the periodic table is a 9’x9’ rug, a scientific yellow-brick road that models the changing elemental trends across rows and columns. Stoichiometry, the boogey-man of chemistry, is explored through the lens of baking; Tom Brady and his cheating scandal (or was it?), aptly named “Deflategate,” serves as a perfect tool for integration of gas laws and data analysis; obscure molecules become celebrities during the annual “Molecule that Changed the Year” poster presentation.

What lessons have I learned from my four years in the classroom at Tower Hill? There is no one way, or one right way, to teach chemistry; my approach changes yearly, as do the students. The only constant in the evolution of my work remains my complete and ceaseless love of my subject and of my students. Every student has the potential to become a successful chemistry student and to hone their skills of observation and analysis, if only they see the relationship between their study and their lives. It is this view, one that I realize I inherited from Mrs. Lang so many years ago, that drives me to create a classroom full of wonder, of unanswerable problems, of joy and unreserved inquisitiveness, of silly metaphors and brightly colored molecule projects, of life and of chemistry.

Liz Brown, Ph.D.
Upper School Science