What We Learn When We Learn Chemistry


“But why do I need to learn this?” is a common refrain from students of all ages.  It is frequently a struggle to answer.  Other people design standard curriculums, and we follow along.  This is disheartening for both the teacher and the student.  

“What we learn when we learn…” is a series of posts on the essential lessons that students learn in various subjects that they might not recognize that they are (or should be) learning.  Many subjects and topics that we teach are essential not only for their content but also for underlying skills, ideas, habits, and perspectives that they provide. 

Hopefully, this will motivate both the parents, who may wonder why they are putting so much effort into teaching, and their students may be honestly asking how these things will benefit them in the future.

The Surface Content of Chemistry

The surface content of chemistry is essential, to be sure.  We live in a world of matter, so knowing what this matter looks like on a lower level is critical.  Being able to do basic reasoning about this is necessary.  Additionally, we live in a world dominated by artificial chemicals that clean the house, keep the car in working order, preserve food and other functions.  Knowing the names of elements and molecules helps students feel more familiar with chemicals discussed in the news or presented on an ingredient list.  Knowing something about how chemicals react together provides students with a life-long mental model for the world they can’t see.

It’s true that they probably won’t balance another chemical equation after high school unless they become chemists.  Likely, they won’t need to know the specific heat formula.  Likely, finding equilibrium points won’t come in handy later down the road.  However, that doesn’t mean that learning them isn’t helpful. Learning formulas and working problems enable students to remember the core concepts.  Working on chemical equilibrium problems won’t help them solve chemical equilibrium problems later in life.  Working equilibrium problems solidifies the idea that chemicals reach an equilibrium, which is vital for understanding what to expect from everyday chemicals in the house.

Remember that, even if your student never becomes a chemist, they may have to interact with a chemist. Knowing the language and having some experience with the process will help them have a shared basis for communication.  While “chemist” is a relatively narrow role, “chemistry-adjacent” roles include nurses, doctors, pharmacists, oil workers, food processors, mechanics, factory managers, and a host of other professions.

Enough about chemistry itself, what are the more profound lessons?

Math Lessons from Chemistry

Chemistry is one of the first subjects with a significant overlap between math and real life.  The mathematics in chemistry is relatively simple.  Most of it is unit conversions combined with elementary algebra and elementary arithmetic.  A few of the more advanced concepts will include some basic exponents, but that is as far as it goes. 

Even though the math in chemistry is simplistic, students often struggle with it.  Why?  Because it is the first time in the student’s career that mathematics collides with reality’s messiness.  What assumptions are made?  Are the units all correct?  What is the meaning of what I’m doing?  They’ve done word problems in math, but even if they have calculated how long it will take Jane to row across the lake, rarely is there a part of math that asks you to paddle it yourself!  

Having mathematics invade reality causes a panic moment for students.  It’s mainly in their head, but the important thing is to get them to wrestle it through to the other side. This is the learning that must take place. They have to recognize that the math isn’t changing when it hits reality.  All the things that they learned before still apply, although they must think about it more carefully.  

This brings us to the next lesson.

Logic Lessons from Chemistry

As mentioned before, chemistry math is elementary and straightforward.  However, it is different from much other math in an important respect: there are pieces that the student has to chain together to make everything work.  And, if it isn’t chained together in the right way, it won’t work.

It isn’t hard to see how these chains go together.  It’s just that students aren’t used to having to chain these many concepts together.  They aren’t used to thinking about “what is required in this formula?” and “what other formula will get me the requirements to the next formula?”  Every formula in introductory chemistry is very simple and straightforward.  They are almost ridiculously tiny.  What makes it difficult is the student has to figure out how to string them together.

For example, it is trivial to convert grams of a substance into moles of a substance.  It is basically the application of the periodic table. It is less important to recognize that if a formula requires moles of a substance, but you are given grams, to acknowledge that you can create a conversion between these using the periodic table.  If your results are in moles, but you need liters of gas, you can then use the ideal gas law to make the conversion.  Chemistry becomes a continual series of unit conversions and manipulations, each one tiny on its own.  The lesson comes in learning how to tie them all together to answer more significant questions.

This is a lesson in logic as much as in chemistry.  Throughout their lives, your children will need to figure out how to build what they want from what they have.  Chemistry gives them the practice of figuring out how all the pieces go together in a logically consistent way.  It teaches you how to figure out which part belongs and which component needs to be manipulated before inserting it.  This skill goes far beyond chemistry, but it is only really taught well within chemistry.

Spiritual Lessons from Chemistry

Chemistry can also be an essential source of spiritual lessons.  The first lesson is that just because something isn’t visible doesn’t mean that it isn’t important or active. Chemistry helps us realize that there is invisible activity going on all around us.  With chemistry, we look at physical things we can’t see, but we are assured that there are critical unseen things and apply them to the spiritual side.

In fact, chemistry also tells us how to understand the impact of unseen spiritual things.  In chemistry, many things are learned from secondary effects.  Likewise, when thinking about spiritual things, although we can’t see the spirit directly or see spiritual effects instantly, we can often see secondary effects.  Having experience with understanding things by their secondary effects can help recognize spiritual results based on secondary effects.

Philosophy Lessons from Chemistry

Chemistry, like other sciences, depends in large part on conservation laws.  The law of conservation of matter says that matter is never created or destroyed but merely changes form.  Likewise, the law of conservation of energy states that energy is never created or destroyed but simply changes form.

Both of these are actually outgrowths of a general philosophical principle: the principle of sufficient reason.  In Latin, we say, “ex nihilo nihil fit,” which means “out of nothing, nothing comes.”  This indicates that things don’t happen without sufficient causes.  The conservation laws are merely outgrowths of these philosophical principles.

Likewise, much in chemistry is based on a philosophical principle called “the identity of indiscernibles.”  This says that if two things are equivalent in all of their properties, they are generally equal.  We identify chemicals by their properties, and when we find an unknown chemical that matches, we have good reason to believe that this is the same chemical as before.  The more attributes we line up, the more likely we have found a match for our chemical.

Altogether, chemistry shows that these philosophical principles, developed centuries earlier, stood as a foundation for modern science.  That is, we couldn’t do science without philosophical principles.  These principles may seem obvious to us, but that is because they have become embedded into our society’s understanding of reality.

So, not only is knowledge of chemistry essential on its own, chemistry helps us take a more thorough understanding of mathematics, logic, theology, and philosophy.

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