Tuesday, November 03, 2009


Chemistry sets and science education

I’ve always been interested in science and mathematics, ever since I can remember; I can’t tell you when it started, because it seems that it started in the womb, and that I popped out with solar systems and quadratic equations in my head. Some of my earliest memories are of my father taking me to the American Museum of Natural History, and the attached Hayden Planetarium. When we moved to south Florida, when I was five years old, we frequented Miami’s Museum of Science and Natural History (now called the Miami Science Museum) and Space Transit Planetarium.

I had little model dinosaurs to play with, and I knew not only the dinosaurs’ names, but the names of the eras and periods and epochs they lived in. I knew most, if not all, of the 88 officially recognized constellations, and I knew the names of many of the major stars: Rigel and Betelgeuse in Orion, Antares in Scorpius, Vega in Lyra, Deneb in Cygnus, and so on, to Spica and Arcturus and Aldebaran and Regulus, and many more. I knew the names of the first seven astronauts, America’s heroes of space exploration, and I followed the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo space programs eagerly.

And I’d watch any and all science fiction movies, even if they’d make me roll my eyes and say, “They have a Stegosaurus fighting a Dimetrodon. That couldn’t happen: Dimetrodons are from the Permian period and Stegosaurus is from the Jurassic. The Dimetrodons were extinct for more than a hundred million years before the first Stegosaurus existed. Duh!”

Yes, even when I was six, I was pedantic.

Erlenmeyer flaskWhen I was a bit older, maybe ten or so, I got a chemistry set! While NASA worked on landing astronauts on the moon, I worked on mixing chemicals and heating flasks and test tubes with an alcohol lamp. I loved it!

But I didn’t just love it — I learned from it. I was also interested in collecting things (to a lesser extent, I still am; I think humans are natural collectors), and I collected things from coins and stamps to Matchbox cars and Superman comic books. With my chemistry set, I collected chemicals. Rather than just doing experiments out of a book, I would devise my own, using what I was learning about chemicals and their properties, about radicals and valence and such.

So I’d work it out. I had calcium chloride, and I had sodium sulfate. They both dissolve in water, but I know from what I’ve learned that if I mix solutions of the two, they’ll re-combine to form calcium sulfate and sodium chloride... and the calcium sulfate, which is not water-soluble, will precipitate out. I mixed them, and, as expected, the combined solution suddenly became cloudy. I got out the filter paper, let the calcium sulfate dry, and put it in a new, labeled bottle, one more chemical to add to the collection.

Through many iterations of that, as I amassed quite a chemical collection, I learned a great deal about inorganic chemistry. Yes, I made the occasional mess, when something spilled or bubbled over. My father didn’t know anything about what I was doing, of course, not in any specifics. But he kept aware of what was going on, and talked with me about safety. And when I wanted to buy things like acetic or sulphuric acid, he’d make sure we got a low concentration, and he supervised what I did with those (they were really great for making more chemicals!).

And I was a star student in chemistry class in school, when the time came for that.

Even though I didn’t, ultimately, go into a profession that involved chemistry (and, indeed, I’m sure I’ve forgotten much of what I once knew, as I’ve forgotten constellation names and dinosaur facts), what I learned from my chemistry set fed into everything else I’ve done with math and science: setting up hypotheses, testing them out, collecting and verifying the data, repeating the experiment, and so on.

But we’ve complicated things now. In recent years, we’ve been more worried about accidents (read: lawsuits), about what bad guys might do with the chemicals, and so on, and we’ve gutted the chemistry set. We can’t have highly reactive chemicals any more. We can’t have glass or fire. We can’t have anything that might remotely be turned into something explosive (so, no more making gunpowder or nitrogen triiodide at home). What passes for a chemistry set now is laughable, and will teach little about real chemistry — or about doing science.

That’s a pity. My chemistry set played a big role in turning me from a kid who read science books, into a real scientist.


Nathaniel said...

Your comment about the dimetrodons makes me feel the need to share this tale: when my oldest daughter was about 4, my brother took her to the Science Museum in Boston, and at one point showed her a dinosaur skeleton and asked, "Do you know what this is?" expecting an answer like "dinosaur!" Instead, she furrowed her brow, and said, "it's definitely some kind of sauropod, probably a diplodocus." I think he left his jaw behind on the museum floor that day.

Sue VanHattum said...

Are you saying it's impossible to get the same things for a home chemistry set that you used?

I expect schools to be overly cautious about chemical safety, but I wouldn't have thought it would be impossible to do this sort of thing at home...

Barry Leiba said...

I have no children, and so I haven't tried to buy them. [Um... "them" == chemistry sets. Not children.] I'm going by what I've read and heard from others.

From what I understand, "sets" contain few chemicals, mostly aimed at things that turn nifty colours. I've been told that they don't include glassware, as they used to. And hobby shops don't have chemicals any more. But this is all second-hand.

Of course, one can always buy proper chemicals from lab supply outlets. I imagine one could assemble one's own set of proper equipment, if one set out to.

But looking at it from how it would be for me... my father was a printer, not a scientist. He needed to be able to start me off with some sort of kit that he could just buy in a regular store. In my day, that worked fine, and allowed me to branch out from there. Today, I'm told it's not the same.

Thomas J. Brown said...

I had a chemistry set when I was a kid. It even had an alcohol burner. I never used, though. I'm quite sad that my kids will (probably) never have a proper chemistry set. At the very least, I had fun with mine!