Three months, or even one month prior to our last session, discussing that gallium could dissolve in water would have probably bored my student. However, learning that a gallium spoon in the presence of water could “disappear” engendered the perfect vehicle to learn: sincere curiosity.
Thanks to the “disappearing” gallium spoon, my student whose goal had been to merely pass her chemistry class transformed almost instantly. She was eager to learn how this phenomenon happened, and even more eager to see it happen before her eyes.
“This is such a good book that I would actually read it in my spare time,” she said, placing The Disappearing Spoon onto my desk. “You know, if you have a spoon of gallium and place it into water, it will dissolve,” she smiled, suddenly inspired for next year’s April Fool’s Day.
Thanks to a spoon, my student grasped how important―and enticing―context could be once considered.
Context, because it is critical, should always be considered. Chemistry is a wonderful avenue to that idea.
We are all familiar with the idea of taking someone’s words “out of context.” We are familiar with the idea of having to consider context for literature analysis or even literary production. It is important to see how an environment can induce or alter behavior, including chemical behavior. Remembering the importance of context-especially as units of the central science overlap is key. It can help us see that electrons are not just isolated entities in space, and that so many elements exist in certain ways due to the nature of our world. Plus, thinking about a context allows a student to surpass the possibilities; they can suddenly start thinking of exceptions and the “what if’s”.
Even for the student who doesn’t wish to continue studying chemistry outside of high school, chemistry teaches the importance of context. This idea can bolster learning and lead to more nuanced understandings. For example, in nutrition science, it is not only important to see what foods people consume, but rather, to also consider what is consumed alongside those foods. It is also important to see what is consumed with certain nutrients, as nutrients are accompanied by other nutrients. Take another example: ozone. Ozone is protective in the stratosphere but harmful in the troposphere. Grapefruits perhaps illustrates another important example of this principle. While the grapefruits themselves are significant sources of vitamins A and C and phytochemicals, they can create a disaster when taken simultaneously with certain medications. Simply put, grapefruit can inhibit some drugs’ metabolism, meaning grapefruit consumption can result in a drug circulating the body for too long. Perhaps the more familiar example of dark chocolate-a source of fiber for humans, a way to death for canine companions-best exemplifies the importance of context.
Simply saying something is “good” or “bad” without contextualizing those statements can be extremely misleading. Removing context from a conclusion can result in overgeneralization that may misconstrue a truth. It can rob a student of understanding mechanisms behind scientific results, thus focusing too much on the what and not appreciating the how or why. Not thinking about context can encourage mechanical memorization over sincere understanding.
Moreover, the current pandemic has shed light on how necessary it is for us to consider context. In light of efforts to destroy the virus via cleaning products, the CDC has reported a spike in calls about poisonous exposures. Regardless of how one decides they want their personal spaces cleaned, it is always good to understand how to interact with something as mundane as cleaning supplies safely. For instance, bleach can kill viruses on surfaces. Bleach, in the human body, is highly corrosive. The take-away is that something that is “good” in one case is not necessarily good in other cases and certainly not in all cases. Cyanide salts are highly toxic, but cyanide appears in such low amounts in apple seeds that it is below the threshold of causing harm. These are “real world” examples of how the importance of context can render significantly different outcomes.
Again, chemistry is a subject that can introduce the importance of context in fascinating ways that allow a student to think about context. Ultimately, considering context helps students become critical thinkers for a variety of chosen professions. Whether a student is an aspiring lawyer needing to understand the “loopholes” of regulations, or a student is an aspiring epidemiologist outlining the limitations of a population-based study, recognizing the value of context is a powerful skill. AJ’s chemistry team is ready to help students develop that skill in parallel with mastering their chemistry course in high school.