It’s the beginning of another another academic year. In addition to teaching online courses, I am once again teaching Thermodynamics at Anderson University. I love teaching thermodynamics, because it is a difficult subject, but it explains so much about creation. Unfortunately, many scientists and even some engineers (like Bill Nye) don’t understand it. I hope that my students walk away with a solid grasp of the subject.
Of course, teaching at the university on top of my online courses will make me a lot busier than I should be, so I am not sure how much time I will have for blogging. I will try to write at least once a week, but we will see how that goes. For now, I hope that you enjoy this video, which is the demonstration I did for the first day of class. A variation of the first part of the demo (the aluminum foil heat engine) is in the last book of my elementary science series, Science in the Industrial Age. Students make the engine when they learn about Sadi Carnot, the father of thermodynamics.
I have been putting together some videos for the online classes that I will be teaching in the fall, and I just posted this one to YouTube. It demonstrates the true definition of boiling point, and it shows how you can freeze a liquid by boiling it. It also demonstrates what the triple point is.
I thought some of my readers might be interested in a demonstration that I worked up to show my thermodynamics students that surface tension can exert a force by which it can do work. The result is certainly not what you expect, and I think it is fairly dramatic.
As I have mentioned before, I am teaching a thermodynamics class at Anderson University. The first few lectures were mostly composed of review. It is important to do such a review, because some concepts are so critically important that I must be sure the students remember them and understand them well. Whenever possible, I like to do demonstrations to help the students visualize the concepts I am trying to get them to understand.
One of my very favorite demonstrations involves something surprising that happens when you burn natural gas in just the right way. It can be used to illustrate several different things, but I used it in my thermodynamics class to illustrate the concept of power. I hope you enjoy it:
Nearly two years ago, I announced that I was going to teach a one-semester course at Anderson University. It’s one of the few Christian Universities that I am willing to teach at, because it doesn’t have a long list of doctrinal beliefs to which you have to agree. Instead, it seems to understand that the quest for truth is important and cannot be hindered by one specific interpretation of the Scriptures that has been developed by fallible people. Instead, if we are to learn the truth, we must honestly search the Scriptures, honestly study God’s creation, and honestly explore the various ideas that have emerged throughout the history of Christendom.
It was the first time in 19 years that I had taught a complete, semester-long college course, and I posted a few articles about my experience. I had a great time, and I decided that I wanted to do it again at some point in the future. Because I had some book deadlines with which to contend, however, I couldn’t do that right away. Now that my book deadlines have slowed down a bit, I have decided to go back to the college classroom once again.
This fall, I will be teaching thermodynamics at Anderson University. It is an upper-level course, typically taken by juniors. I use some aspects of thermodynamics in my research as a nuclear chemist, and it is actually one of my favorite topics to teach. As a result, I am really looking forward to it!
In the fall of 2014, I taught a chemistry class at Anderson University. While I had been a guest lecturer for several university-level courses over the years, it was the first time in 19 years that I had taught an entire, semester-long class. As a result, I experienced some things I had never experienced before, and one of them was students using laptops to take notes. It wasn’t incredibly common in my class, but every day, a few students would come in, sit down, and open up their laptops.
I wasn’t crazy about the students using laptops in my class, mostly because I think they can be distracting for the students using them. If a student sees an e-mail message or Facebook notification, it is easy for the student to flip over to those things rather than concentrate on what is happening in class. However, I strongly believe that at some point, you need to start treating students as adults. Thus, I didn’t tell them that they couldn’t use laptops. I did note who the laptop users were and, when I processed test scores, I would compare the average of the students using laptops to the average of the rest of the class. Each test, the laptop users had a lower test score average.
Of course, my sample size was very small. As a result, the statistical error kept me from making any firm conclusion regarding laptop use in class and performance on the tests, but the results did correlate with my “gut feeling” regarding laptop usage, so I became even more convinced that laptop usage in class harms a student’s performance. Little did I know that there is actually a large body of statistically-significant research on the subject, and the studies are in general agreement: taking notes with your laptop is simply not as effective as taking notes longhand.
I haven’t written much about the chemistry course I am teaching at Anderson University, but it has been going very well. In fact, it is almost over. I don’t know whether or not I will do it again. It is a lot of fun to be teaching in a live classroom, but it also takes a lot of time to do it right. Unfortunately, that means less time for writing. Whether or not I do it again, I am glad I that did it this time.
As a part of my duties at Anderson University, I was asked to give a lecture for the public that is part of a very interesting series that the School of Science and Engineering is hosting. They said the lecture could be about anything, so I decided to share with the audience the fun you can have with chemistry. In the end, this turned into a lecture about fire, because I am a bit of a pyromaniac. I personally think all chemists are pyromaniacs, at least to some extent.
I started the lecture with burning gases that were held in balloons. Along the way, I taught the audience the basics of combustion. You can see a video of that part of the lecture below. Unfortunately, the camera had a bit of trouble focusing, because we dimmed the lights so the fire could be seen better. In addition, the best part of the lecture (burning a mixture of hydrogen and oxygen) did not translate well on video. The result was a loud explosion that shook the hall, but the camera’s automatic volume adjust ended up making it sound pathetic, so I cut it from the video. Nevertheless, I think you will enjoy the video segment, and I hope you learn from it as well.
In case you haven’t read two of my previous posts (here and here), I am doing something I haven’t done for nearly 20 years – teaching a university-level chemistry course. The class has been going on since the last week of August, but starting this past Friday, the topic has been nuclear chemistry, which is the speciality in which I got my Ph.D. Obviously, then, it is near and dear to my heart. We are probably spending too much time on the subject, but I just can’t help it. We will be getting back to “normal” chemistry (which concentrates on electrons) soon enough. For now, I want the students to see the wonders of the nucleus!
Of course, the most reasonable subject with which to begin a discussion of nuclear chemistry is radiation. So I taught the students about the various modes of radioactive decay, why radioactive decay happens, etc. Then I tried to make the point that radiation is everywhere, and that’s okay, since our bodies are designed to deal with low doses of it. I then showed them a Geiger counter and a radioactive source. The source was labeled with the warning symbols you see above. Not surprisingly, when I put the source up to the Geiger counter, the students heard lots of clicking, because the source was emitting gamma rays.
Then I surprised them a bit. I put an old orange ceramic plate up to the Geiger counter, and it started clicking a lot more than it did with the source I had just used. That’s because the pretty orange color was made using uranium oxide, which is radioactive. It emits alpha particles, beta particles, and gamma rays. People ate off those plates for many years before it was determined that they shouldn’t be made anymore. I did the same thing with an old wristwatch. Once again, the Geiger counter went nuts, because the watch’s hands and numbers had been painted with a mixture of radium and zinc sulfide to make them glow. The radium also emits alpha particles, beta particles, and gamma rays. I then assured them that modern luminous paints aren’t radioactive.
The reason I am writing this blog entry, however, is because of a question one student asked me.
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. Schaefer 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, ‘So that’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. Return to Text
No, I am not going to earn another degree. You can’t teach this old dog any new tricks. However, for the first time since 1995, I will be teaching a college chemistry class. I have to admit that I am a bit nervous about it, simply because it has been so long. Of course, I am also excited about it for exactly the same reason. While I truly enjoy interacting with students over the internet, it will be fun to go back to the classroom and interact with students who are right there in front of me!
It’s not that I never get to interact with students in that way. After all, I travel to all sorts of homeschool conventions where I get to interact with lots of students and parents. Indeed, one of my favorite convention experiences was a session where I did nothing but answer student questions. In addition, I have been a guest lecturer at many universities, both in the U.S. and other countries. However, it has been nearly 20 years since I spent an entire semester teaching one group of students.
Whose students will be subjected to my presence for an entire semester? The science majors at Anderson University, about which I have written before (here and here). It is one of the few Christian universities at which I would be comfortable teaching, because it doesn’t have a long list of beliefs to which its professors must subscribe. Instead, it takes the mission of a university seriously – to tackle tough questions in as open-minded a way as possible.
I have added a new blog category called “College Chemistry,” in the hopes that I can write about my experiences over the course of this semester. I really have no idea whether or not I’ll actually do that. I’ll just have to see how it goes. As a final note, this doesn’t mean I am making a change in my career’s focus. I believe God has called me to work with homeschoolers, and I will continue to write and speak for them. This is (most likely) a one-time thing. It fills a one-time need that Anderson University currently has.