Lessons learned from a 43-year long teaching career

Prof. Harold White is an Emeritus Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of Delaware, and is a proponent and practitioner of problem-based learning (PBL). Presented below is his lecture on the lessons he learned from a 43-year long teaching career at the university, presented on the occassion of his retirement from the institution.

I found Prof. White’s lecture very good food for thought. He makes ten points over the course of his lecture as the lessons he gleaned from his teaching career. Not in the least being impudent here, but somehow all of those ten takeaways seem like things a teacher just ought to know. But then, who am I kidding? As I sat listening to his video, I realised there were things in what he said that I learned only because I taught. Not because I would teach someday.

I went into teaching after a self-imposed sabbatical of teaching myself philosophy. I had workable (even if I say so myself) ambitions of integrating history and philosophy of science in my lectures. I did what I could where I could, given the usual constraint of covering the syllabus in time. But somehow something was still missing. Yes, the students were excited when we discussed atomism or when I boldly declaimed borrowing from Paul Needham: water is not H2O. But it all had to stop at some point in the core classes because the curriculum demanded I focus on something else about the atom or water.

Things were however different when I found myself in the elective courses Research Methodology and Forensic Science that I offered. Yes, I had done research, but no one had taught me Research Methodology as a course. And again yes, I knew the interdisciplinary concepts that went into making forensic science, but again, I had never taken a course in the subject. Consequently, I researched and prepared harder for these elective courses than for my core chemistry courses. Seems funny, but it was in these classes I began to realise how one topic can be taught in different ways. Pedagogy – that word began to make sense when we discussed Jane Goodall with her chimps in the Kenyan jungles, and when O. J. Simpson’s Italian shoes steered the direction of the class proceedings in our discussion on footwear impressions. But even then, these were mere case studies to me.

It was only recently through the works of Rick Moog and Harold White when I was formally introduced to guided enquiry and PBL that realisation dawned. Perhaps most of us as teachers are already adopting concepts from educational research without knowing that it’s a thing. But then, yes, having been exposed to the concept, I did realise directions I had not taken simply because I didn’t know they would lead somewhere. It is only now with hindsight that I know that O. J. Simpson’s case would be a classic contender to set up a PBL in Forensic Science. I did a case study, but a PBL session would have been so much more engaging.

Richard Feynman once said philosophy of science is as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds. And I did see this general attitude towards (history and) philosophy of science being reflected by some colleagues during my postdoc and also while I taught. Education research too seems to suffer the same fate. I feel sad, and I feel bad. In our bid for more and more narrowly focussed specialisations, we have forgotten that a good education is to make us think. History and philosophy and sociology and literature have much to offer to (and take from) science if we’d just open our eyes and really observe.

Video source: http://www1.udel.edu/chem/white/Talks.html

The Periodic Table and the Four New Elements

Was rummaging through my files on the computer, when I came upon this piece. It was written for ChemMag, the annual journal of the Department of Chemistry, Women’s Christian College, Chennai. It appeared in print in the 2016 issue.


The year 1869 was momentous for Chemistry. It was the year when Dmitri Mendeleev published the first ever Periodic Table [1]. But then, discoveries in science do not occur in vacuum (unless your protocol calls for vacuum, i.e.). Mendeleev gave us the Periodic Table, but he was drawing on work already done by Antoine Lavoisier, Johann Döbereiner, John Newlands and several others.

Historians of Chemistry believe that one fine night in 1869, Mendeleev literally fell asleep on his desk atop some note cards. Each of these cards carried information on every element known at that point. Mendeleev had 65 cards to work with. When Mendeleev awoke, he knew exactly how these cards were to be arranged, and he set about arranging these 65 cards in a systematic order based on atomic weights, which eventually gave us Mendeleev’s Periodic Table [2].

That was 1869. And this is 2016. From 65 elements then, our periodic table now boasts of 118 elements. We know that the elements in the Modern Periodic Table are arranged in increasing order of atomic numbers. We have the Groups – the vertical columns – which house elements based on their similarities in chemical properties, due to the same number of electrons in the outermost shell. And we have the Periods – the horizontal rows – which have elements arranged in the order of increasing atomic number, signifying an increase in the number of outer electrons, thereby demonstrating a move from metallic to non-metallic characteristics of the elements.

As new elements were discovered, they were provided appropriate places in the Periodic Table depending on their similarities with elements already known. But perhaps the genius of Mendeleev is in the predictive power of his Periodic Table. (That said, opinion however divides on whether it was Mendeleev or Newlands, who first left empty spaces for undiscovered elements.)

As the world was getting ready to ring in the new year, on 30 December, 2015, the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) announced that they had confirmed the existence of elements 113, 115, 117 and 118. This meant that the hitherto incomplete seventh row of the Periodic Table was now complete [3].

All of these four elements are highly unstable superheavy elements with very short lifetimes, and are synthesised by bombarding heavy metals with ionising radiation.

Element 113 – with a placeholder name of ununtrium – was synthesised at the RIKEN Nishina Center for Accelerator-based Science in Japan. The lab lead by Kosuke Morita had been trying to synthesise this element since 2004 with varying degrees of success.

Elements 115 (ununpentium), 117 (ununseptium) and 118 (ununoctium) were synthesised by particle accelerator scientists from the US and Russia.

With the elements synthesised, now comes the rather interesting task of naming them. Like astronomers discovering cosmic bodies, scientists discovering elements also get the right to name them. It has been suggested elemental names can be based on mythological concepts, places, famous scientists etc. (Polonium, Einsteinium – ring a bell?) In line with this thought, element 113 discovered by the Japanese scientists may well be named Nipponium. Deliberations are on regarding the naming of the other three elements.

In theory, the Periodic Table could still get bigger. We’ll have to wait and watch. Or contribute, and watch. But amidst this scientific celebration, there remains a rather comic situation that calls for our attention: Education Boards all over the world need to update their Chemistry textbooks which have now been rendered obsolete due to these discoveries!

[1] On the Relationship of the Properties of the Elements to their Atomic Weights, D. Mendelejeff, Zeitschrift für Chemie 12, 405-406 (1869).
[2] http://time.com/4165979/periodic-table-new-elements/
[3] http://www.iupac.org/news/news-detail/article/discovery-and-assignment-of-elements-with-atomic-numbers-113-115-117-and-118.html

Philosopher’s Wool and a Walk Down Chemistry Lane

Zinc oxide is philosopher’s wool. It is formed when zinc burns in air. The white fumes that form as a result of this burning produce a wool like substance, earning it the epithet – philosopher’s wool.

I went on Google Books to find some early references of the oxide, and what I found thrilled me.

The first is a treatise titled Chemical Instructor: Presenting a Familiar Method of Teaching the Chemical Principles and Operations of the Most Practical Utility to Farmers, Mechanics, Housekeepers and Physicians and Most Interesting to Clergymen and Lawyers. Intended for Schools and Popular Class-room by Amos Eaton. This was published in 1822. Eaton famously co-founded the Rensselaer School for ‘the application of science to the common purposes of life’ and was an advocate for the inclusion of women in science.

The following is an image from his treatise on Google Books describing the classroom demonstration of the preparation of philosopher’s wool.


And the following are two rather telling highlights from the Preface of the same treatise.

Here’s another book titled Chemical experiments : illustrating the theory, practice, and application of the science of chemistry, and containing the properties, uses, manufacture, purification, and analysis of all inorganic substances : with numerous engravings of apparatus, etc. by G. Francis. This was published in 1842.

The very first paragraph of the Preface here reads:

The Chemist and Druggist will find in this small book the best method of manufacturing every chemical substance which he is likely to want. The Lecturer will recognize the most remarkable properties of them all, clearly pointed out by such experiments as are easy and striking. The Student will be able to refer to and to repeat the experiments of the classroom with facility. The Manufacturer will find the economical principles of his trade illustrated and the best receipts for his articles given. While he who seeks amusement only will have a wide field before him, from which he may cull the choicest flowers; and should his means be limited, or his residence remote from cities, still little impediment will arise on this account, as one portion of the book assists the other; one experiment explains the manufacture of that substance of which other experiments explain the nature.

Sample this first page from the Introduction chapter which talks of chemistry in those days, which was a part of Natural Philosophy.

And here’s the combustion of zinc described in the form of a laboratory experiment rather than as a demonstration in the previous treatise.

Reading such texts, how can one miss the romantic appeal of chemistry? I hope more and more chemistry (science) educators take it upon themselves to incorporate such examples from the history of chemistry (science) to enthuse students towards the subject, and to inculcate in them an understanding and appreciation of the development of the subject.

PS. Here’s a poem by Brian Culhane titled Philosopher’s Wool from Able Muse, Winter 2009 issue.

Images from Google Books and archive.org

Exothermic and Endothermic Reactions – an Assignment OER

Someone in the know started teaching middle school chemistry about an year ago. A few months into the job, she needed help with her unit on exothermic and endothermic reactions. She specifically needed a classroom assignment to gauge her students’ understanding of the unit. The following is what I came up with to help her meet her goal.

This file lay dormant in my folder since then. I thought it would make a good post on day ‘E’ of the A to Z blog challenge.

Chemists, chemistry educators and you fine people – what do you think of the assignment?

M.Tech. in Science Communication

It’s that time of the year again when students find themselves at a crossroads, racking their brains wondering what to do next. I have two things to say to you if you are in such a situation. One: it’s okay if you do not have a clear roadmap of your career ahead, but it wouldn’t be okay if you do not think honestly about what you want to do in the years to come. Dive into yourself and find out what moves you, and then find out if you can make your career there.

Two: if you have found yourself fascinated about conveying science to a lay person, and if doing things innovatively and creatively drives you, then this M.Tech in Science Communication might just be up your alley. It’s a two year course offered by the National Council of Science Museums, Kolkata. The following is the advert inviting applications for the course from today’s The Hindu.

M.Tech. Science Communication

PS. I have a post in preparation for a long time now about Science Writing/Communication in India. Will do my best to post it at the earliest.

National Science Day celebrations at the college

We celebrated the National Science Day this year with much enthusiasm. The theme for this year’s National Science Day, as is well known, is Science and Technology for the Specially Abled.

To commemorate the day, we had three competitions for all PG students at the college. The first was – Essay writing in English, the second – Essay writing in Tamil, and the third was what we called ‘Teach a Specially Abled Child’.

The English contest was on the topic: What is the role of science and technology in the lives of the specially abled? The Tamil contest also had the same topic.

For the last contest, we had students come up with innovative ways to teach a concept from science/mathematics from VI to XII grades. The instruction was to ‘teach’ it to a specially abled child. States of matter, the atomic model, Doppler Effect, conductivity, fractions, shapes of geometrical figures — the students took up these and many other topics. And I must say, I honestly was delighted to see them put in the effort to prepare for it in the run up to the day. There was camaraderie, and a sense of contribution to a greater good. I was a happy person at the end of the day.

We had Dr. John Bosco Lourdusamy from the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT-M and Ms. Surbhi Sethia, Learning Facilitator and Founder Roots – The Foundation, join us on the day. John gave a talk which delved into the real nature of disability, making us all sit up and take note. Late last week and early this week, he gave generously of his time in judging the English essays.

Surbhi talked about the Science of Learning. Being a special educator, she gave us specific helpful comments on the students’ presentations. Late in the afternoon, she engaged the students and the faculty in an interesting and lively presentation, egging us to think of our individual learning styles. Both Surbhi and John served as our judges for the ‘Teach a Special Child’ event. Both of them very graciously also gave away the certificates.

All in all, it was a a great day. It was fun, and it offered loads to learn.

The following is the programme schedule we made for the day.


Will put up a few pictures from the celebrations soon.

A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall

A lot of ink has been spilled over the past two months on the decision to award Bob Dylan the Nobel Prize in Literature. Well, now the ceremony is done with, and Dylan being Dylan, gave it a miss. But he did care enough to write an acceptance speech which was read in his lieu by the United States Ambassador to Sweden.

But this post is about Patti Smith. About what she made evident when performing Dylan’s A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall at the ceremony. Patti Smith has been my recent discovery. Curiously enough, it was her Advice to the Young that I first listened to even before listening to her sing. But that Advice reeled me in to her — her very human self. And strangely enough, I have read Smith more than I have listened to her sing. Maybe I am just wired that way; reading and writing appeal to me more than music.

But back to Smith. At the Nobel Ceremony. She begins her rendition, but the enormity of the occasion soon gets to her, and is unable to go on. In her own words from her New Yorker piece,

Unaccustomed to such an overwhelming case of nerves, I was unable to continue. I hadn’t forgotten the words that were now a part of me. I was simply unable to draw them out.

Simply unable to draw them out. How very real is that! Just reaffirms my admiration for her and her work.

Smith, as you can see in the video that follows, apologises and continues with her performance to a cheering applause. She further goes on to write in her piece that the next day the Nobel scientists congratulated her on her performance and called it a metaphor for their own struggles. Such grace, I am bound to think.

Smith continues on in the piece and brings up something that I have been personally struggling with for the past few months. Why do we do what we do? The search for meaning. Here’s Smith articulating it:

Words of kindness continued through the day, and in the end I had to come to terms with the truer nature of my duty. Why do we commit our work? Why do we perform? It is above all for the entertainment and transformation of the people. It is all for them. The song asked for nothing. The creator of the song asked for nothing. So why should I ask for anything?

I teach and I write. I love what I do. But there are times when the voices in my head become just too loud for me to ignore, and I am forced to sit with them. And just listen to them, for I have no answers to the questions they relentlessly throw at me.

Why do I do what I do? Edify young minds, is what I wrote once when drafting my teaching philosophy. And truth be told, the phrase felt so dead that I haven’t finished the draft till date. Where do we get answers to such questions from? Passion is good. The desire to be a change is better. Being with the students is the best. But despite all this, there is something that is still missing. I evidently need to dig deeper for answers. And as I dig, lend me your ears (and spades, if you can).

Smith’s answer in her piece linked above is not lost on me. About an year back, besieged by a massive writing block, I asked myself: why should I write at all? I surmised that everything that needs to be written had been written, and that all that we write today is a variation of the same singular story. Perhaps the block resulted from the question and the answer I gave myself; I can never be sure. This is what resulted from that tumultuous time.

For I don’t know if there’s anything called
an original thought — man made fire, rolled
out a wheel, then along chugged a steam engine;
we now stand on the shoulders of giants; did
original thought stop at history o’clock? and
do we now live by the hourly gongs of progress and
mimesis? all stories have been told including this one.

Gradually enough I told myself that I write because I tell a story in the way that only I can. And I found it to be true to live with it.

Perhaps, I need to start digging here. Or maybe not at all, if I listen to Smith.