Part the First
After some encouraging words from chemists at Chem 13 event in Canada, I felt that I should try another venue this year. Well I have done Canada, got the Maple Syrup, so why not the States? I applied to carry out a workshop at the BCCE2014 at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, Michigan and I am given a generous 3 hours for the workshop.
The logistics are tricky. Peter Hoare is doing a session but all that required is a computer. But I work on the principle that computers can go wrong and I don’t know how to fix them. Chemicals work and if there is something wrong I know what to do. David Read and Samantha Pugh from the UK are also going. I am sure they will have something to say about the trip themselves.
When you tackle something like this, there are several logistical hurdles to jump. The first is just what are you going to do. I take a boot-full of equipment on a microscale workshop in the UK. This cannot be done here so activities are shortened and one only takes what you can do with minimum fuss. This really stops me from doing reaction kinetics which is very heavy on the number of solutions used.
Fortunately, GVSU will supply the chemicals and standard equipment so it is only the specialised equipment to take. Walking through security with my batteries, syringes and wires is hair-raising enough but I have not been stopped yet. Here they advised me to post the equipment and with the help of CLEAPSS (to whom I am very grateful) and our fantastic senior technician, Mary Owen, it was sent and arrived in 3 days! I will spend a morning making up my solution in the University. This is what I call a proper holiday!
The next hurdle is writing the blurb for the session. The course organisers have written the criteria and, as usual, it couched in that somewhat impenetrable management/ environmental/pedagogic language and yes one must add the words, sustainability and investigation. We might sneer at this but it does bring what you do into focus. I think I have learnt more about how short and long-term memory works in the last 6 months than ever before but perhaps I had forgotten I had learnt it. I must admit to the notion that whatever course you follow, whatever syllabus you follow etc, you can manoeuvre all your favourite practical activities into the system. You may need to tweak or alter the approach but the mechanics are just the same. So here, I am introducing a practical technique and then collecting ideas from the participants on how they could use it.
I was worried that being from the UK might not help gather people to attend but I have my 20 for the Monday afternoon and I see names I recognise from Canada.
The in-word there is “flipping”. So I flipped them a PowerPoint 5 minute movie. Nobody has responded yet so I assume they are all on holiday or as educators they like to flip but they hate being flipped!
Well this might all come to an end on Thursday as my bucket ticket is refused so I hope the next instalment is from the States.
Part the Second of The 2014 Biennial Conference on Chemical Education trip: Bob's "Over the Pond" Chemical Adventure
Well that was painless. It was the safety talk and the lady redeemed herself by acknowledging that we were all professionals at our jobs. Instead of Health and Safety in the use of chemicals, it is called Chemical Hygiene, which is quite strange to my ears. The terms “risk assessment” and “control measures” were not used although the former was implicit in the procedure. I always wonder why any presenter would wish to put the audience at risk?
So there it was, my box. It was sent from CLEAPSS on July 2nd and arrived in Michigan on July 5th which was not bad at all. Had it all survived? Unfortunately the handles on 2 of the CLEAPSS mugs had gone. A student is assigned to us to help with getting ready and setting out and Stacey was a great help. First in CLEAPSS tradition, I have to take a photograph of a CLEAPSS mug in an exotic location. You can take that statement any way you like.
The organisers and the technical staff were really helpful and all was nearly ready in 4 hours.
Er, I hope!
After breakfast in an all-American diner, it was time for the first day. Workshops start in the afternoon but the opening ceremony is in the evening with a key-note speaker. This is in the huge gym-hall where basketball takes place. There is nothing else on so about 1000 people are there to hear John Warner give an inspired talk about his life and how he became the motivator for green chemistry at the Warner Babcock Institute and the educational offshoot Beyond Benign. The 12 principles of Green Chemistry are in A-level syllabuses but we do not practice Green Chemistry in the syllabus. He asks the question, “Why should any chemist wish to make a toxic compound?” And I would add, via a hazardous procedure!
The workshop on inquiry labs was good but illustrated to me how important it is for the technology not to get in the way of the chemistry and the learning process. A stand-alone colorimeter with results manipulated via an excel spread sheet would be quicker. The other inquiry on keeping your hands warm could be done with a thermometer. What was interesting was comparing the cost of materials with safety, environment and toxicity.
Oh dear it’s me today! And the opening lecture is at 8-15 am. The organisers can do this because most of the attendees are in residence, after all, it is a big country.
Part the Third of The 2014 Biennial Conference on Chemical Education trip: Bob's "Over the Pond" Chemical Adventure
“You see more in a drop than you see in a test tube”
Ohhh! It is the sound chemistry teachers all like to hear from a participating audience. Here I have passed hydrogen over hot iron(III) oxide, water vapour condenses down the Pasteur pipette, nothing much has happened in the tube so far but I place a magnet above the pipette and there is a sudden attraction of iron particles to the ceiling of the pipette. "Ohhh". It is quite dramatic especially when viewed on the screen using my webcam. That establishes my credentials, after all who is this Englishman showing the Americans microscale; after all did not the Americans invent it? Well yes they did in a away but it has not taken off as predicted in the 1980 and 90s. As in the UK, only the committed and dedicated few read Chemical Education Journals and read CLEAPSS literature in detail incorporating new techniques in their teaching; and these are not the authors of books and the setters of examinations either. Usually teachers will perform a practical as they were taught at school, college or university or take the details from a textbook, written by an author who performs practicals that were taught at school, college or university. This means that innovation is rare. As I say on my website www.microchemuk.weebly.com, to be accepted it has to offer something more than the procedures a teacher already adopts. You can see the method on the RSC site using copper(II) oxide.
Before my workshop, I went to a food chemistry course which demonstrated amongst other things, how lecithin trapped the flavour molecules in a foam. Foamy cheese? Well perhaps not, but foamy ginger and lemon was great. I was clock watching and had to leave early to set up the workshop but there was another workshop going on in the room so I had to work quietly (Can Bob really do that?) and then set up, eat a very quick lunch, all in 90 minutes. To my theatrical-trained mind, it was not ideal preparation.
I had 17 there instead of the promised 20 but several came up to me later in the week to apologise for not coming but school politics had demanded that curricula and syllabus information was more important (where have I heard that before). But they had seen the videos and were very impressed. The micro electrolysis is a knockout as usual and they gazed with awe as they saw copper crystals being produced at the cathode. I allowed them to try other salts. One electrolysed iron(II) sulfate(VI) solution and found the solid on the cathode was magnetic. As they performed the diffusing precipitate experiment one said, “You know, you see more in a drop than you do in a test tube” What a great comment! The American teachers are very good at manipulating equipment etc. There are very few school technicians as we know it, so teachers have to prepare solutions, set up and arrange for disposal of chemicals. Just remember how spoilt we are in the UK.
At the end one of ladies from Arizona said, “Hey you guys, lets help Bob clear up”. I also let them have some equipment so I did not have to take it all back. It took another 30 minutes after that to complete the clear up and exhausted I trudged to the picnic with 3 bags of equipment I was taking back with me. There I met the full English team at last with Samantha, Julie, Peter, Chris and David who will no doubt provide you with a full and serious academic round-up of the proceedings. The fruit here is fantastic but what is this, copper(II) sulfate(VI) solution masking as lemonade? No, it is Blue Raspberry Lemonade. What Blue raspberries? No, there is a very dark raspberry but it is raspberry flavoured lemonade with Brilliant Blue FCF. I couldn’t be bothered; it was wet, cold, unlimited in volume and free.
But, I had entered an air-conditioned building a day earlier I shivered. The throat started to ache by the time I got the hotel the cold was taking hold.
I will never complain about American beer again. The brews in this area are fantastic but we never see them in the UK. The Arizona 3 took me to breakfast and a meal and looked in horror as I ate a burger one evening. “Hey Bob, just grab the burger in both hands a take a bite”. “But it squidges out” I said – no it doesn’t, not with their recipes.
Well, I had a good day and we might cringe at Americanisms like “Hey have a good day” and “My name is Ambrosia and I am you waitress for the evening, do let me know if there is anything I can get you”. It is said with conviction unlike some our waiters and shop assistants. And Hey, you guys, I’m OK with that.
Part the Fourth of The 2014 Biennial Conference on Chemical Education trip: Bob's "Over the Pond" Chemical Adventure
I can take it easy today. I go to a workshop on Lego. The Americans are very hot on Lego, I had been to the wonderful Grand Rapids Museum and they had huge architectural Lego structures and a full-Lego working train exhibit. The exhibition on Michigan’s contribution to the American Civil War was excellent. They had a working “shopping area” and the gentleman in the print shop turned out to be a retired Geology teacher. Other volunteers were playing the theatre organ and operating a full-working fairground carousel. The city of GR is very modern with only a few of the old buildings. As the clock tower on the old Town Hall was being demolished, the inhabitants realised the heritage they were losing and they restored the clock for the museum.
Stoichiometry is the biggest conversation stopper on earth! “So what do you do?” “Teach chemistry.” “Loved the explosions but hated the equations and maths” Interestingly the presenter said that using Lego is better than Molymod balls in the classroom because there is more familiarity with it and this directness allows the chemistry to come to the fore. With Molymod, everyone wants to make a dog! I remember using iron nails and tacks to teach moles but here Lego pieces can be used to represent isotopes, formulae, equations, limiting reagent and percentage yield. I just feel you cannot go along with the analogy too long because at some point, charged particles (“ions” are so neglected) and correct spatial diagrams need to be introduced.
Now to a session of Caveman Chemistry with Kevin Dunn, who I had heard of many years ago. He described how he teaches chemistry to non-majors, using history and project work; all rather engaging.
I visit the exhibition and whoa there; is that me? There I am on the ChemEd2015 website poster. I suppose I shall have to go to there now to fulfil the promise of the poster. I also meet the Chem13 magazine group from Canada. There are many other book and equipment sellers. I also see the microwaves ovens they use in chemistry but more on this soon.
A quiet evening in TGI Friday with the inevitable burger, Founder’s IPA and “Sean Penn” was at the bar talking to everyone and all talk back to him. I am English and I get smaller and smaller and disappear so he doesn’t talk to me. The barman has already flipped at my accent. “Hey are you from the UK or Great Britain?” The question will be in the next quiz evening I think. Baseball is on the television; still trying to fathom it out.
Part the Fifth and last of The 2014 Biennial Conference on Chemical Education trip: Bob's "Over the Pond" Chemical Adventure
But I am better on Wednesday with the exciting afternoon on the Lake ahead. But first, it is microwave chemistry. Green chemistry is big in US chemistry research and education and heating by microwave is a must. On show is a proper chemistry microwave “oven” with rotating carousel for repeated experiments and a there is a single pot version. But at £20000 this is all a bit hefty for me so I ask the question “Can I use a kitchen microwave?” Guess the answer. Well I said, schools cannot afford this money and I bet 2 year colleges cannot, (those visitors from 2-year colleges agreed with me) so why not make $1000 version for teaching purposes. An academic pipes up, “But what about reproducibility of results?” I don’t think some academics realise that teaching is different to research. I am not out to write a paper for a Journal and I have no need for reactions going to 100% yield (whatever the result, it will be interesting) but I do want to show students the very latest techniques, emphasising green chemistry and possible solutions to world issues, which I hope will inspire students rather than the “edutainment” presentation of explosions and fire which some outreach speakers and school teachers think will get more students into science. Using microwaves is a part of creative chemistry and many students feel science is not a creative subject as opposed to arts subjects and responsible for much of the ills of the world, yet creativity in science is the answer. The company said they may some plans for a teaching model so I hope they look into it. An ester smelling of banana in 3 minutes! Thankfully I had a fair amount of support for the view. The company warned that there have been fires and explosions caused by heating highly flammable materials, but these have been caused by wild amateurs wanting to make explosions. The worry is fuelled by the placing a light bulb or grapes in a microwave and obtaining plasma. However, cyclohexane will not get hot because it has no dipole but low MWt alcohols would get warm and the temperatures rise above the flash point. Can there be ignition in a microwave? Another worry concerns making superheated liquids. A primarily educational safety organisation such as CLEAPSS needs to investigate this further and present a set of control measures so that these ovens may be used. A sensible article in the SSR provides a good start.
Well that’s next year’s work sorted.
But now on the coach to Lake Muskegon, this tiny lake has seen great changes to its ecology and water over the past 200 years ranging from logging to a dumping ground for mercury switches. We were presented with an excellent talk and demonstrations of testing the waters. This lake has a narrow channel into Lake Michigan and we see the famous beaches of Michigan. To all intents and purposes, we are at sea, and I had found out that the US Navy used the lake for training purposes (and still do) in the 2nd world war, converting an old paddle ship steamer into an aircraft carrier (USS Wolverine) for training. It was one of the amazing discoveries I made on an all-too short visit to the excellent Gerald Ford Museum in Grand Rapids.
Back to the hotel and then the final main event which is a show put on by a group of musical chemists going by the fantastic name of Al D Hyde and Ketones. There was supposed to be hors d'oeuvres but not in America, it was the full works and with Founders beer as well. They are a really good show band (or bond) of chemists with “Shout” and Dancing in the Streets, being the best items.
On Thursday it is goodbyes to the excellent workshop organiser (Professor Stephanie Schaertel), the Arizona 3 and others but there is time just to pop into a symposium on safety. A recent incident (they are not accidents!) and court case in California is concentrating minds in the USA but there may be over-reaction to the use and transferring of chemicals (do not call it handling). Safety is a fine balancing act. As with the safety review of my workshop, management has to ask the questions.
School teachers and technicians of the UK; be grateful for the existence of CLEAPSS and SSERC in the UK and never say a bad word about the HSE!