Yes, students should take chemistry. Here’s why

I published a post questioning mandated curriculum which was authored by a Maryland father who wrote that his 15-year-old son was taking chemistry even though the teenager had no interest in the subject. Here’s a piece explaining why chemistry is in fact an important subject for students to take whether they like it or not. It was written by  S. Raj Govindarajan, a Ph.D. student at the University of Akron in an interdisciplinary field that heavily involves chemistry. Govindarajan said he typically does not respond to articles, but had such a strong opinion that he felt compelled to write a rebuttal to the original piece.

By S. Raj Govindarajan

I graduated in chemical engineering a couple years ago, and did rather well in high school chemistry, scoring a 5 on the AP exam without any major troubles. You may argue that I may be a little biased about the importance of chemistry. However, having thought about,  and having tutored a number of indifferent students on the subject, I feel that the combination of my recent exposure to the travesty that is our public school system and my firsthand experience of students’ apathy towards subjects they are forced to take give me some unique insight on this article.

I really took issue with [David Bernstein's] reasoning as to why subjects such as chemistry are better left omitted by the obviously disinterested. I am sympathetic to his goals of need-based practical learning, and I understand his perspective on the need for school reform (though I am sure I disagree on the particulars). However, what was conspicuously absent from the article was the following explanation of why students should take chemistry.

One of my good friends was an apathetic chemistry-taker. He slept and slogged through it, scraped a ‘C’ and moved on with his life. A couple years later, he bought a few beautiful fishes and a tank. He took great care to add good water, to put good soil, etc. into this tank and give his fish a good home. Two days later, 3/4 of the fish had died. He couldn’t understand why. After some analysis, another friend and I explained to him a likely scenario: ammonia trapped in the soil that he had put in raised the pH to toxic levels for the fish. He didn’t consider, or understand, the concept that pH (that is, acidity or basicity) can be affected by the things you put in the water. Basic exposure to Chemistry (had he stayed awake in class) would have fixed this problem; it’s a fundamental concept of Chemistry that should be retained for future application.

 Nowadays, technology is progressing exponentially. There are amazing new innovations in the field of chemistry that will change our lives not too long from now. I would know; I’m in the field. At the same time, there are legions of politicians elected to higher office every election cycle that are as apathetic and ignorant towards fields such as chemistry as my poor friend with his dead fishes. Every year, these apathetic politicians write bills that can impact the safety of our waters, our stance on evolution, climate change, our endeavors in space, and even fundamental concepts such as the classification of birth control methods (such as the misunderstood science behind Plan B). Many times, science is misconstrued and twisted to meet political goals, and the public is none the wiser.

 I agree that school needs to be reformed. However, I suggest a different path, a path designed to instill a practical and useful understanding of science and its implications to the public. 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. That way, iconic moments such as the landing of Curiosity on Mars will not be overshadowed in viewership by shows such as Honey Boo Boo.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss | October 17, 2012