To read about F's and my London trip, start here and click "newer post" to continue the story.

Monday, March 17, 2008

F and her roommate are here for spring break. We went to the Bok Sanctuary yesterday and they've seen the pretty lake downtown with all the birds but apart from that we haven't done much yet. I don't know if they are all that interested in going to the beach but I will feel bad if we don't go.

We had an appointment for F this morning, with a neurologist, to continue to work with her migraines. We're increasing Nadolol, which I wanted to do, and he talked to her about timing with taking Zomig. And somehow we had a lengthy conversation about ... atoms. Atomic weight v. atomic number. Weight v. mass. Avogadro's number. He is reading a book about Rutherford and had forgotten his freshman chemistry so he was happy to have his questions answered. Really, I am such a nerd. I feel sorry for F, to have a nerd mother.

How did I get to be such a nerd? you ask. Well, when I was a girl my dad and I both enjoyed science fiction. (Still do.) The two of us had that in common, and since there was no bookstore in the town where I grew up he often took me to the bookstore in Tupelo and gave me some money so I could get the latest Bradbury or Asimov or Heinlein or whatever there was.

One day there wasn't anything on the science fiction rack that I didn't already have or that looked halfway decent. There was a rack of nonfiction next to it and I moved over to look at that. I found a book, a collection of articles by one of my fav writers - Asimov - about actual science and math. Possibly it was Science, Numbers, and I. In desperation I bought it and took it home.

And this opened up a whole new world for me. This stuff was real. Asimov produced several of these books and I bought them all, and read them until they were broken-spined. When I got into high school I enjoyed my chemistry and physics classes. Had a great teacher. But I already knew a lot of that stuff because of those books.

When F started high school chemistry, she sighed, "I don't get orbitals."

"What's not to get?" I said.

I pulled the book over and started reading. The first chapter was written very dryly and raced through important information way too quickly. But I remembered that I already knew about orbitals when I took chemistry in high school, so I don't know how her book would have compared to mine. I had to take a short trip down memory lane to remember how Asimov explained them, and when I did, I flipped the book around and found the periodic table and explained them to her using that. First, of course, we talked about what the atomic number is (it's the number of protons) and where you find that on the periodic table; and then we talked about charge, and started building the 1S orbital; and we talked about spin, and why hydrogen wants to lose an electron, thus forming a positive ion, while H2 is a very stable molecule; why helium doesn't need or want to bond with anything (it is a rock, it is an island) and so on from there. Orbitals make a lot more sense when you can correlate them to how they make the atoms act. So we marched through the first three or four rows of the periodic table and talked about where the electrons went and how those atoms interacted. I hope she understood it. She probably did, because she's pretty deft with her Lewis structures.

I have to say that it's a theme I've seen throughout F's schooling, in her math and science classes: they did not spend enough time on basic things. They rushed ahead to get all the stuff in. You don't have to memorize things like whether barium chloride is BaCl or BaCl2 if you can glance at a periodic table and see that barium is going to be an ion with a charge of +2. To be able to do that you have to stop, and explain, and think, and draw pictures for yourself, make guesses and check yourself, and all that takes time. I don't understand the rush-ahead thing when the kids get through with class and whole swaths of them don't retain anything. Plus, it's no fun and they don't get why anybody could think this stuff is cool.

1 comment:

theobromophile said...

Very true. I was lucky enough to have a chemistry teacher who refused to make us memorize anything. His thought was that we would naturally do that after having gone through the thought process many times.

I really liked being taught chemistry from a systems perspective. It is all part of the same system, so once you know how one part works, you build on that to get to the next place. Many schools force kids to memorize, with no discussion about why things work they way they do (crucial, IMHO, in science and in math).