This essay by Steve Mayer Ph.D., Professor and Chair of Chemistry at UP, is the third in a series of short pieces that offer faculty across the campus an insider’s tour of one of the courses that make up UP’s Core program. Since the Core involves almost a third of the curriculum for every UP student, faculty can benefit from these discipline-by-discipline essays, to better understand the breadth of their students’ campus experience.
My calculus professor once said, “Anyone who has not taken a course in mathematics has not been liberally educated.” Mathematics is the language of science and anyone who desires to know our universe in a way that goes beyond simple observation must approach it with the tools provided by mathematicians. While advanced courses in physics and chemistry require sophisticated mathematical tools, core courses only require basic math skills, yet students can gain tremendous insight into how the universe works by using these simple tools; consider how much scientific understanding humans mustered before the invention of calculus (c. 1660 CE).
That said, Sir Isaac Newton catapulted our collective understanding of the universe into a new age of discovery with his publication of Principia. The resulting increase in knowledge lead to the brilliant set of equations postulated by James Clerk Maxwell (c. 1860 CE) that describe the connection between electricity, magnetism and the wave nature of light. This understanding delivered us to the doorstep of quantum mechanics where our collective minds were blown!
Our understanding of the universe through the lens of quantum mechanics is everywhere apparent; consider the smartphone. These devices employ the theory of quantum mechanics in the design of the CPU, flash memory and display. Also, the clocks onboard the GPS satellites that are necessary to locate your phone on the surface of the earth all use the quantum states of Cesium (bonus: the precision of the clocks is so great that the theory of relativity must be taken into account in order for them to be synchronized). I would riff on my calculus professor’s sentiment to say, “Anyone who has not been introduced to the quantum mechanical nature of the world has not been liberally educated.”
While quantum mechanics is clearly within the domain of physics, chemists rely on this theory to describe atomic and molecular structure. In fact, all of our courses communicate the importance of understanding the universe at the quantum-level. When we use the term “quantum-level” what we mean is describing the dynamics of very small particles (e.g. electrons) be they bound to an atom or freely traveling through space.
The chemistry department offers several core science courses that range from applying chemistry to our lives – Chemistry in Art and Chemistry of Food and Cooking – to discovering the science that all informed citizens should know – Science for Future World Leaders. In Chemistry in Art, students explore the chemistry involved in the creation and analysis of art. Topics include paints and binders, glass etching, acid-base chemistry (involved in frescoes and chemical identification of pigments), oxidation-reduction reactions (involved in the etching and coloring of metals), color and light, analytical methods for identifying pigments, light-activated reactions in blue-print art (cyanotypes), determination of authenticity (carbon-14 dating, anachronistic presence of pigments), historical inks, dyeing of fabrics, and chromatography.
In Chemistry of Food and Cooking, Students apply fundamental concepts from biology and chemistry within the context of food and cooking using guided inquiry activities to cover topics such as chemical bonding, protein structure and cell theory. The food-focused topics include meat, vegetables, spices, chocolate, and dairy that students can work on in teams under the guidance of the instructor allowing students to practice critical thinking about the principles of chemistry and biology. Students learn hypothesis design and apply the scientific process to fermentation, cheese making, analyzing food components, and other hands-on exercises. To understand the role of lactase in metabolism of milk and lactose intolerance, students carry out a simple fermentation experiment using baker’s yeast by measuring the amount of carbon dioxide formed.
In Science for Future World Leaders, students are introduced to topics of immediate concern to world leaders (and to all of us on the planet) such as global climate change, renewable energy sources, nuclear theory, weapons of mass destruction, quantum computing and exploration of our own planet and beyond. The students use equipment in the chemistry department, such as spectrometers to directly measure the absorption of infrared (heat) radiation by greenhouse gases (e.g., CO2 and CH4). The primary goal of this course is to cultivate scientific literacy in the students, one of whom might one day become President of the United States!
A recent addition to our list of offerings is a unique, team-taught course called Communicating Science in Public. This course, taught by Jeff Kerssen-Griep from the Communication Studies department and Steve Mayer from the Chemistry department, examines how science and communication intertwine in the practice, dissemination, and reception of empirical discoveries in STEM disciplines. Via hands-on experiments using equipment in the chemistry and physics laboratories and investigating others’ studies and popular discourse, students learn ways to understand, accomplish, and more effectively communicate about modern science in light of this knowledge set. The course utilizes both scientific and communication scholarship to help students draw conclusions about those interconnections. The students learn to
- Build scientific literacy through finding reliable resources, evaluating information and making use of that information.
- Connect scientific principles and technologies with events affecting our everyday lives.
- Develop skills and attitudes for communicating, working and making decisions with people of diverse knowledge and identities.
- Understand practices and concepts explaining how scientific thought influences and is shaped by the perceptions of various key stakeholders.
- Explain how we know and why we believe key concepts in the natural sciences and be able to use scientific reasoning, laboratory methods, mathematics and technologies to solve problems.
- Demonstrate theoretically based translation of complex scientific ideas, findings, and implications for lay audiences through writing and presentation aloud.
Through these courses, students are introduced to a scientific view of the universe and through this learning experience, we hope that they will bring their gifts and talents to bear upon society to make the world work better.