Tuesday, July 14, 2009

What else did I learn about chemistry?

Yesterday, I talked about all the various ways in which baking soda has endeared itself to me.

Today, I'd like to ramble on a little more about a related topic, the things I've learned in chemistry class, which are not entirely the same thing. I didn't take any chemistry courses in college; I did, however, two years of chemistry in high school, and got a 5 on my AP Chem test, so perhaps I learned about basic chemistry in class.

The AP chem test turned out to be the most valuable AP test I took (out of four), since it gave me a whole eight credit hours, a sequence that was actually on the checksheet for my physics major at some point. AP Physics wouldn't have done as much for me, ironically.

The man who taught both of my high school chem classes, was just an incredible teacher - maybe not the most organized-seeming person, and he would ramble and get side-tracked once in a while, but his stories would drive home valuable lessons. Not only did his lessons send me through the AP test, but years later, I took the physics GRE and knocked out a 770.

I hadn't taken any formal coursework in thermodynamics when I took the test, which made it tricky, as that was one of the topics it covered; however, I was surprised at how many thermodynamics questions I could answer based on things my chemistry teacher had taught me back in high school. I still remember many of the lessons I learned in class; one of the odder ones is to always taste test, and that a little bit of lime flavor goes a long way. He had us making ice cream for a lab once.

Another lesson that was reinforced in my first chemistry class - perhaps not the best lesson to take to heart in high school - was that the less work you seem to do to get a given test grade, the more it impresses people with your intelligence when it's a high grade. I shared my 10th grade chemistry class with a much more studious girl named Jennie, and she expressed amazement that I kept acing quiz after quiz in that class. I sat in the back corner, where the distracted talkative kids were.

The guy in front of me was facing a failing grade long before he got the crap kicked out of him by some rough characters in the parking lot across from the school one lunchtime and wound up in the hospital; I probably had three of the four lowest grades in that class sitting nearest to me. But even if I seemed terribly distracted, had a habit of not doing homework and turning lab reports in late if ever - things that Jennie had apparently noticed - I tended to pay attention to what my teacher was actually saying, because it was so interesting.

Later, I looked back on Jennie telling me that she was amazed that I could keep doing so well in the class without doing work, and I see one of the moments where I was closest to consciously realizing that more than anything else, I was making a conspicuous display out of laziness throughout high school in order to score some kind of points with my peers. Now that I've seen that sort of attitude from the other side of the classroom, I strongly suspect some of my teachers in high school felt frustrated with me.

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