First Day of Class

College students sitting in class (not my class - click for credit)

College students sitting in class (not my class – click for credit)

Today was my first day teaching general chemistry at Anderson University. I promise I won’t be reporting on every class session, but I couldn’t resist talking about this one. I started the class with a little demo. Prior to class, I had soaked a Q-tip in a slightly acidic solution of phenolphthalein, an acid/base indicator. In presence of an acid, it is clear. In the presence of a base, it is pink. I used the Q-tip to write the name of the course (Chem 2110) on a large sheet of paper, and it dried clear. I soaked another Q-tip in a solution of potassium ferrocyanide (which is a light yellow color) and wrote my name on the same piece of paper, right over where I had written the course name. It also dried clear. When I set it up, then, the students saw a blank sheet of paper.

I then sprayed the paper with a very weak solution of sodium hydroxide. The base caused the phenolphthalein to turn pink, revealing the class name. It had no effect on the potassium ferrocyanide. I then sprayed the paper with a weakly acidic solution of iron (III) chloride. The acid caused the phenolphthalein to turn clear again, so the course name went away. The iron (III) chloride reacted with the potassium ferrocyanide to bring out my name in blue. I love that demo, and at least a few of the students seemed to appreciate it.

After going over the syllabus and discussing the mechanics of the course, I decided to start by giving one of the best descriptions of science I have ever heard. It comes from Dr. Henry F. Schaeffer III, the Graham Perdue Professor professor of Chemistry at the University of Georgia. He is one of the most important chemists of our time, and here is what he says about science:1

The significance and joy in my science comes in those occasional moments of discovering something new and saying to myself, โ€˜So thatโ€™s how God did it.’ My goal is to understand a little corner of God’s plan.

I told the students that as far as I am concerned, that’s what science is all about – figuring out how God did it and trying to understand a small piece of God’s amazing plan for His creation. I then went on to discuss the introductory material for the course.

I was pleased to find out that two of the 61 students in my class had used my high school chemistry book! I wrote that book to prepare students to study chemistry at the college level, and I have received many notes from students, parents, and teachers indicating that it has. It will be interesting to see whether or not these two students have a similar experience.

It looks like the semester is off to a good start!


1. Sheler, J. L. and J.M. Schrof, “The Creation,” U.S. News & World Report (December 23, 1991), pp 56-64.
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  1. Trish says:

    Sounds like a great way to get the students’ attention. My physics professor did things like that to get our attention. Made it lots of fun. My favorite was an egg with a “seatbelt” in a “vehicle” slamming into a wall, vs the egg without a seatbelt.

    We’re loving Science in the Beginning, BTW. In a few years you’ll have to start asking your students if they used that book ๐Ÿ™‚

    1. jlwile says:

      I am so glad you are enjoying the new elementary course, Trish!

  2. Bill murphy says:

    You lost me at Q-tip. ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. Ginamarie says:

    Great opener! Can we buy those items at a local store? Where do you teach?!

    1. jlwile says:

      Ginamarie, you can’t get them at a local store, but you can get the phenolphthalein, potassium ferrocyanide, and ferric chloride from Home Science Tools, and you can use diluted ammonia for the base and vinegar for the acid.

  4. Robbin R says:

    Fun! My daughter is using your high school chemistry book this year. Have a great year!

    1. jlwile says:

      Thanks, Robbin!

  5. GRJean says:

    Reading about your great intro to chemisty flashed me back to my freshman chem. class at the University of Kansas and Dr. Clark Bricker. He had a chemical “magic” show that he took around which included phenolphthalein in a beaker to which he added things that made it change color and ended up by making it go clear and then drinking it! He also did stunts in class like putting solid sodium in a test tube of chlorine gas and burying it in a box of sand—only to pull out a salt shaker! And the most impressive was the lecture on chain reactions, where he mixed some chemicals, and then talked about the explosion of the ship in the Texas City harbor and had it timed so that when he got to ” and then there was an….” the test tube popped…loudly.

    I think your students are going to have a great year with an innovative and thoughtful teacher!

    1. jlwile says:

      It sounds like you had a great teacher, GRJean!

  6. Mary says:

    I would love to get to sit in on one of your lectures! I’m a homeschool grad who used your books and am now a grad student in Chemistry, teaching gen chem 1 (recitation, so it’s lecturing) this semester.

    1. jlwile says:

      I did recitations when I was a grad student, too, Mary. They are what got me interested in teaching.