The keys to learning college-level general chemistry revisited

The first principle of my blog is Creating Ecosystems of Success, and a key focus is awareness of the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields. A key class for many STEM-hopefuls is ‘college- level’ General Chemistry, both in high school and college. Some students, particularly those attending very competitive high schools, take college-level Chemistry and struggle with it.

Several years ago when I tutored part-time, I worked with several students in Northern Virginia where taking ‘Honors’ and ‘International Baccalaureate’ (IB) General Chemistry as freshman and sophomores was a normal occurrence. For three to four years, I worked in the former Northern Virginia Tutoring service where I consistently coached lost and struggling students, and helped them confidently finish their classes strong.  The service was run by my mentor and fellow blogger Dr. Ralph G. Perrino (Dr. Perrino’s blog).

I originally published this piece on the Examiner back in March of 2013. I’ve decided to republish this revised version as tutoring was a fun and rewarding experience for me, which also helped me earn some extra income. I myself didn’t fully grasp General Chemistry back at Hutch-Tech High School as a sophomore. It wasn’t until I was an undergraduate at Johnson C. Smith University (JCSU) that I understood and mastered this exciting quantitative science. I went on to use that knowledge in my graduate studies, in my federal science career, and eventually as a tutor.

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After starting my federal science career, tutoring not only allowed me to supplement my income, but it was a very educational experience for me as well. When applying to work as a tutor through the Northern Virginia Tutoring Service, I listed Biology, Chemistry, and Physics as my areas of expertise. I had some experience with all three disciplines in my undergraduate and graduate studies.

Chemistry by far was the course that generated the most demand for me, specifically ‘Honors’ and ‘International Baccalaureate’ (IB) Chemistry. IB courses are basically ‘college-level’ and can be quite a jump for some high school freshman and sophomores. Even some upperclassmen struggle in them. These classes are particularly problematic when the students fall behind in them early, lose confidence, and when the subject area falls outside of Mom and Dad’s areas of expertise – hence the need for a tutor.

The students who needed my help weren’t ‘slouches’ by any means. Most of them resided in Virginia’s Arlington and Fairfax Counties.  Fairfax County is one of the wealthiest counties in the nation – a county with a very strong school system where 90% of its students matriculate to college. The parents’ vigilance and drive to assure that their children do well academically is also a hallmark of this county. This was manifested in their willingness to invest some of their hard-earned money into tutors – sometimes several at one time for multiple children. Those parents were very impressive.

When working with the students, my initial goal was to approach them with a positive and optimistic attitude. Patience, understanding and a bit of humor were parts of my approach as well.  These were particularly important for students who had lost hope. After this initial part, we dove into the actual science and turning their grades around. There were four key principles that I stressed to my students: time management, taking initiative, practice and attention to detail.

The kids I worked with were ‘high achievers’ and typically juggled multiple classes, and in some instances, multiple Honors/IB courses. They were also involved in a plethora of after school activities (sports and clubs of all kinds), which often caused a bit of an overload. In cases such as these, time management for each class, especially the demanding classes, was very, very important.

The next principles I instilled were taking initiative and the importance of practice. College-level courses require students to assume more responsibility for their studies with less coddling by teachers. This is especially important for quantitative sciences like Chemistry and Physics, which are calculation-intensive and require rigorous practice. I stressed to my students that this was the only way to feel confident at test time, when students were tasked with working their way through several pages of complex problems, usually within 45 minutes to an hour.

The argument that teachers aren’t ‘teaching effectively’ in these subjects may be partially true in some instances, but what’s also true is that the teachers can’t do everything. They can’t make the students practice what they’ve learned after hours and on weekends – arguably the most important part their learning. This is where the most meaningful part of students’ learning takes place as was the case for me as an undergraduate when the light-bulb turned on one Sunday afternoon in Charlotte, NC.

Finally, I impressed upon my students the importance of learning to pay attention to several key details. Chemistry tends to start off with ‘concept-based’ learning: the trends of the “Periodic Table of Elements“, the micro-particles that comprise atoms, and then chemical bonding. With the balancing of chemical equations, the class becomes more ‘critical thought-based’.

The ‘quantitative’ phase starts with the “Stoichiometry” chapter which permeates throughout the remaining chapters. This is the phase in which the calculator becomes one of the student’s ‘best friends’ as they must calculate decimals, express numbers using ‘scientific notation’, and sometimes calculate ‘log’ values. When calculating acids, bases and pH values, students also must be able to use the ‘^’ calculator function in some instances, which admittedly confused me as the tutor once. An important part of this phase is understanding and being able to convert ‘units of measure’ – converting grams to kilograms, and then grams to moles, Celsius and Fahrenheit to Kelvin, and so on.

The calculation of moles, percent compositions, percent yields and so on, leads the class to become highly quantitative and the students then must also keep track of various equations/formulas, and chemical/physical constants, while also integrating concepts from earlier chapters. This continues into the “Solutions”, the “Gas Laws”, “Kinetics” and “Thermochemistry” chapters. While specific calculations are used throughout the course such as the conversion of grams to moles, some chapters have their own unique equations, formulas and units of measure such as ‘millimeters of Mercury’ (mm Hg) in the Gas Law chapter which is a measure for atmospheric pressure.

Examples of chemical/physical constants include “Avagadro’s number”, and the “Universal Gas Constant”, which itself has many different values depending upon the units used. As we progressed through the chapters, one thing I constantly had to remind my students of was always keeping their Periodic Table of Elements handy. I consider this the student’s first best friend in the class, as it has pieces of information about every element necessary to answer questions in even the more advanced chapters.

This all sounds like a lot right? Again, it can be particularly problematic if the parents have no experience in the area. Once lost, students typically need extra help in the form of spending more time with the teacher or working with a tutor. When the above-mentioned keys are introduced and the student buys in, he or she can gain confidence, get back on track and find the class to be fun. Tutoring caused me to have to relearn some material I’d forgotten over the years, and to learn concepts we hadn’t covered when I was an undergraduate.  In some instances I was learning along with the students I tutored.  This was fun for me and created a sense of adventure.

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If you’re a STEM-professional, tutoring is a really good way to generate a second income depending upon the demand for your knowledge set in your area or elsewhere. With the technology available to us today, tutors can work with students remotely in some instances without having to physically be there. In either case, helping students to understand their subject matter, and ‘to get over the hump’, is a very rewarding feeling, and an accomplishment all in itself.  It’s also gratifying when the parents thank you and stay on their children about when their next tutoring sessions will be.

What also helped me out during my tutoring experience was that I could go back and ask one of my veteran undergraduate Chemistry professors questions when I got ‘stumped’.  In some instances, I needed to be refreshed on some of the nuances of some of the problems I was doing with my students. I don’t think he’ll mind me mentioning him, and I’m very thankful that he was willing to provide guidance when I didn’t know what to do. This underscores the importance of not burning your bridges and maintaining relationships with your professors long after you’ve earned you degree.

My former professor also pointed me in the direction of the Chemistry Olympiad Exams for challenging and fun practice problems. You can download the yearly exams as pdfs for free.  The answers are in the back, so you can go over them yourself or with your student, and even work your way backwards to figure out the right answer, if either of you answered the question incorrectly.

Thank you for taking the time out to read this blog post. If you enjoyed this one, you might also enjoy:

The story of how I earned my STEM degree as a minority
The transferrable skills from a STEM degree in the basic sciences
Don’t Be A Mad Scientist: Avoid These Stupid Lab Mistakes
A look at STEM: What is Pharmacology?
A look at STEM: What is Toxicology?
A look at STEM: What is Inhalation Toxicology?

If you’ve found value here and think it will benefit others, please share it and/or leave a comment. To receive all of the most up to date content from the Big Words Blog Site, subscribe using the subscription box in the right-hand column in this post and throughout the site, or add the link to my RSS feed to your feedreader. Lastly, follow me on the Big Words Blog Site Facebook page, on Twitter at @BWArePowerful, and on Instagram at @anwaryusef76. While my main areas of focus are Education, STEM and Financial Literacy, there are other blogs/sites I endorse which can be found on that particular page of my site.

A Black History Month interview with Howard University’s Dr. Vernon Morris part one

I originally conducted this interview with Dr. Vernon Morris in February of 2016 and published it in both the Examiner and the Edvocate.  Not only is he a scientific peer, be he’s also a hero of mine.  In addition to his duties at Howard University’s Department of Chemistry and NOAA Center for Atmospheric Sciences (NCAS), he regularly takes his group out to the schools in the DC schools system to conduct science demonstrations.  He is an example of regularly being visible and helping to fulfill the needs of students in the community.

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While Black History should be celebrated throughout the year and not just in February, the month provides the opportunity to not only recognize African Americans who have made significant contributions in the past, but also those who are presently making history.  As there are numerous African American scientists and innovators who are typically celebrated during Black History Month in Science (Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM)), there are also quite few African American scientists in modern times that are worth recognizing.  One such scientist is Dr. Vernon Morris of Howard University.  On Feb. 16, in honor of Black History Month, Dr. Morris granted an interview to discuss his background, the path to his current career, and potential avenues for under-represented minorities to get involved in STEM.

Anwar Dunbar:  First Vernon, thank you for this opportunity to interview you.  My writings in February tend to focus on Black History Month.  There are African American scientists that we usually recognize such as George Washington Carver, Charles Drew, Mae Jemison and Percy Julian for example, but I realized that there are many African American scientists and innovators who are currently in the trenches expanding our scientific knowledge, and in your case making a difference in the community.  You’re doing great things in and out of the lab so I thought it would great to get your story out.  So with that, let’s get started.

Talk a little bit about your background.  Where are you from?

Vernon Morris:  I’m an Air Force brat so I don’t have a traditional home to claim, because I’ve lived in 14 different places growing up.  I finished high school in eastern Washington State; Spokane.  I’ve been living in Washington, DC longer than any other place, so this is my home now.

AD:  Now growing up, were there any scientists in your family who you were exposed to at an early age?  What got you interested in science?

VM:  No, I actually was not exposed at all.  I never had the chance to do science fairs or any of that stuff.  I think my first exposure to anyone who was in science was actually one of my mother’s friends, Carolyn Clay, who was an engineer from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI).  I used to talk to her a little bit and she actually got me into an engineering camp late in my high school years.  After that time though, I wasn’t even thinking about going to college to be perfectly honest with you.

Both parents were in the Air Force.  For much of my later youth my mother was a teacher and then a principal.  Truthfully, the only post high school institution I was thinking about was the Air Force Academy because they had a good boxing program.  I loved boxing and I thought I was pretty good.  My decisions throughout most of high school revolved around how to pursue boxing.

As I said, my mother’s friend got her doctorate in chemical engineering from RPI.  She had to be one of the few at that time, and I think she was working at Hanford Research Labs in Richland, Washington, which was a nuclear facility.  She worked there so I would see her from time to time when she would come visit my mother.

I always did well in science, but there wasn’t much encouragement to actually do science.  I liked math a lot.  I liked any kind of science; physics, chemistry, biology, all of those, but I got more discouragement in school than encouragement.  So she was one of the first people to say, “You know, you’re good at this stuff, so think about doing it.”  So the opportunity arose to go to Seattle (University of Washington), a more populated part of the state, where the camp was held and to see that engineering was cool.  I actually linked up with one of my father’s friends (a Mason) who was a steam engineer at the camp.  I apprenticed with him the rest of the summer on different projects.  It was interesting to see how things are being built, and how to apply the science, but it didn’t really change my course.

I ended up going to visit some friends and relatives in Atlanta.  There I saw the Atlanta University (AU) complex a little bit later and frankly speaking, that had a greater influence on me.  I received scholarships to go to other places, and visited them, but they didn’t have the same appeal as the AU Center.  Seeing my father complete his Bachelor’s Degree toward the end of high school, really made an impression on me as well.

AD:  So you went to the famous AU Center.  Did you go to Clark-Atlanta, Morehouse, or Morris Brown?  Which one?

VM:  I went to Morehouse and I had not made up my mind on a major.  I was literally running around trying to find a job and ran into Henry McBay, who is a very distinguished scholar and mentor for a lot of folks who got their chemistry degrees at Morehouse; and he basically offered to buy my books and a calculator, and take care of my school supplies if I would major in chemistry.

AD:  Really?

VM:  Yes, and I didn’t have enough money to say no (laughing).  I said, “Sure, it’s no problem.”  He told me that I would have to major in math if I majored in chemistry so that I’d understand the upper level courses.  And that’s actually how I selected my major in math and chemistry.  It was through Henry McBay.  I was literally running to get to another part of the campus and it was oriented in such a way that the Chemistry Building was my cut through.  He happened to be in the hallway and I almost ran into him.  He literally told me to slow down and then asked me about where I was going, what I was trying to do, asked what my major was, and through that conversation I wound up choosing my major.

AD:  Had the two of you met before?  You must have made quite an impression on him for him to make that offer.

VM:  No, I had never met him before.  It was my first or second week at Morehouse, and he was curious about whether or not I liked Chemistry.  He also introduced me to another professor who actually became my mentor later and who gave me a research job, Mr. John Hall.

AD:  So you earned your Bachelor’s Degree from Morehouse.  Where did you go after Morehouse?

VM:  From Morehouse I went to Georgia-Tech.  My doctoral studies were in Atmospheric Sciences, with applications in physical chemistry, so I took a lot of courses in physical chemistry and all of the core courses in atmospheric sciences.  My thesis was a combination of theoretical and experimental investigations of inorganic chlorine oxides, and the chemistry of the stratosphere.  It involved the application of matrix isolation, infrared spectroscopy, some ultraviolet spectroscopy to look at short-lived intermediates, free radicals that form from low pressure and low temperature reactions.  I performed quantum chemical calculations to help interpret the experimental results.

AD:  And just briefly, what did you find?

VM:  We found that some low temperatures stabilize some novel free radical structures that are completely unstable in the gas phase, and influence some of the heterogeneous reactions, and some of the actual gas phase chemistry that showed depletion.  It was actually related to the stratospheric depletion of the ozone.

At that time the stratospheric ozone hole wasn’t a well-understood phenomenon and they were trying to figure out whether it was dynamic or if it was chemical, and it turned out to be a combination of both.  We looked at the chlorine oxides in particular, extensively, and then some of the nitrogen oxides and how they contributed to the ozone depletion.

AD:  Now one last question about your thesis; what got you interested in atmospheric sciences?

VM:  It was John Hall.  I was again in a quandary about what I wanted to do, but it was either go into chemical physics, which is what he had done, or go into a more applied field.  At that point the ozone hole and stratospheric depletion of ozone in general was a really big deal and there were a lot of open questions.  It just seemed like a really exciting way to take the math, the chemistry and the physics and go after these larger scale environmental problems that were presenting themselves.

A single discipline wasn’t enough to address them.  You had to come in with a very multidisciplinary background.  I liked physics.  I tried to triple major in physics, but I it would have taken too long to finish so I just minored in it, and majored in the other two.  I liked applying chemistry and physics, and I liked understanding the environment.

John Hall actually had a joint appointment between Georgia-Tech and Morehouse, and while he was encouraging me to go to UC-Berkley or to Harvard, or some of his alma maters, the opportunity to go to a different school and still work with him was appealing, and actually my first daughter was born before I graduated, so weighing the prospect of leaving and not being near her sort of factored into my decision.

AD:  So at Howard University you interestingly go out to the ocean and conduct research there.  Just briefly, talk about your research.

VM:  We’re working on a lot of stuff, but the work revolves around trying to get a better quantitative understanding of how atmospheric particulates influence the chemistry of the atmosphere and climate across multiple scales.  These are multiple spatio-temporal scales.  There are time scales because the lifetime of aerosols tends to be days to months, but their influence in the atmosphere tends to range from that time scale to much longer time scales as clouds change their optical properties; that influences radiative balance and seasonal fluctuations.  If you look at particle evolution, once an aerosol is formed and injected into the atmosphere from the ground layer, how does it influence and have these multiplying effects across larger spatial fields as it moves around the atmosphere, and through larger temporal scales as it effects something that has a multiple “follow on” effect?

The ship experimental cruises allow us to look at the transport of aerosols that are transmitted from Africa either from the Sahara Desert or as a result of burning biomass from “Slash and Burn” agriculture.  Particles get into the atmosphere and influence tropical cyclone development, and they influence acidification of the upper ocean. They also influence microbiological transfer, the transfer of microbes across hemispheres.  They influence cloud properties and precipitation properties downstream and food security.  So they have all of these implications that are much longer and much larger than a particular fire, or a particular dust storm.  You have to connect that with field observations, laboratory studies and with space-based observations as well.

AD:  My first time meeting you was here in DC at the 2012 National Organization of Chemists and Chemical Engineers (NOBCChE) annual conference where you won the Percy Julian Award for excellence in teaching.  Was that for your teaching activities at Howard, or was it for the community outreach that you do at various local schools?

VM:  I think it was for the combination of teaching and mentoring.  In fact, I think it was the Henry McBay award actually, though there was a separate award for Percy Julian.  That was very special for me because I was a McBay mentee.  I think it was a combination of teaching and producing students at the university, the outreach internationally, and then the outreach locally, the way we try to get science to the community; the underserved communities in particular.

AD:  I’m a pharmacologist, so my knowledge of all of the notable African American chemists is admittedly limited.

VM:  Percy Julian actually designed the chemistry building here on the Howard campus.  He designed this building, designed the labs, and then laid out everything and then, because of a personal dispute with the provost and the president at the time, actually left before the building was commissioned.

AD:  You know, Vernon, as you were talking just now, I was just reflecting on how important it is to know these things.  A couple of years ago a mentor who himself isn’t a scientist, but who saw that I was trying to develop my own writing and mentoring voice, gave me a copy of Forgotten Genius, the documentary about Percy Julian.

When I was I watching it, I couldn’t help but feel that Dr. Julian’s story would have been so valuable to know when I was going through my own doctoral studies.  I didn’t deal with the racism that he endured, but just the scientific process; so many experiments have to be done before you finally get to the ones that actually work and generate quality data.  That documentary conveyed the essence of science, and it took me a while to figure that all out while I was working on my own thesis.  It would have been so valuable to know beforehand.

VM:  We actually screened that film here.  We used to show it on a regular basis to our chemistry majors because it’s very eye opening and shows the commitment that you have to have, in addition to some of the resilience you have to have for things to work out.  That guy was brilliant.

AD:  Yes, and there is a whole culture to what we do as scientists, and the story conveyed that as well.

This interview will continue in part two of A Black History Month interview with Dr. Vernon Morris.  A special thank you is extended to Dr. Morris and Howard’s NCAS for providing the pictures in this post.  If you’ve found value here and think it would benefit others, please share it and or leave a comment.

Please visit my YouTube channel entitled, Big Discussions76.  To receive all of the most up to date content from the Big Words Blog Site, subscribe using the subscription box in the right-hand column in this post and throughout the site, or add the link to my RSS feed to your feedreader. Lastly follow me at the Big Words Blog Site Facebook page,  on Twitter at @BWArePowerful, and on Instagram at @anwaryusef76. While my main areas of focus are Education, STEM and Financial Literacy, there are other blogs/sites I endorse which can be found on that particular page of my site.

A Black History Month reflection on Percy Julian

I originally published this piece on Percy Julian in February of 2015 when still writing for the Examiner.  He is someone I would also consider a “Hidden Figure” at least in my life.  Attaining a Ph.D. in the sciences myself, I didn’t learn about Julian until well into my science career.

When I watched the documentary Forgotten Genius, I was amazed not only about what Julian had to overcome, but also everything he accomplished scientifically, and how the very same scientific process I experienced as graduate student was similar to his.  Dr. Vernon Morris of Howard University’s Department of Chemistry and NOAA Center for Atmospheric Sciences (NCAS), later shared with me that watching Forgotten Genius is in fact required for Howard’s Chemistry students, and rightfully so.

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My last black history month reflection for 2015 will focus on the legendary Chemist Percy Julian.  Though honored with his own postal stamp in 1993, the name Percy Julian didn’t register in my mind until the annual conference for the National Organization for Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers (NOBCChE) in 2012.  Someone won an award named after him that night, but not being a Chemist myself, I didn’t have a feel for why he was held in such honor in that particular circle.  It turned out that there was an entire pantheon of well-accomplished African American Chemists.

Later on, a mentor gave me a copy of Percy Julian; Forgotten Genius.  The DVD chronicled Julian’s life from his youth in the Jim Crow south, to his collegiate studies at Depauw University, to his doctoral studies abroad in Austria, and then through to his vast research career in the chemical industry which almost didn’t happen due to racism.  What stood out to me from Percy Julian’s story was his perseverance in spite of the racism he encountered, as well as the fact that his original scientific interest was in plants which he later returned to, after receiving his chemistry training.

Why is Percy Julian important and what did he do in the field of chemistry?  A better question would be what didn’t he do in chemistry?  Among his many accomplishments were:

  • Becoming one of the first African Americans to earn his Ph.D. in chemistry by isolating the active ingredient in Corydalis Cava and identifying its structure. In the pre-civil rights era, Dr. Julian wasn’t admitted to any graduate programs in the United States, so he had to travel Austria, where he studied natural products chemistry under Dr. Ernst Spath at the University of Vienna.
  • After being denied professorships at universities in the United States, he was hired as the director of Chemistry for Glidden’s Chicago Chemistry labs. For African Americans, this breakthrough occurred ten years before Jackie Robinson integrated Major League baseball.  At Glidden, Julian isolated the alpha protein from soybeans, the first plant protein to be produced in bulk in the United States.  The alpha protein led to the generation of oils that were used in both food and industrial products of all kinds.
  • Discovering how to isolate large scale quantities of stigmasterol from the calabar and soy beans and then developing an industrial process for using it to generate progesterone in large quantities. This led to numerous hormone therapies and therapeutics by allowing pharmaceutical companies to industrially synthesize other sex hormones in large quantities making them more affordable (testosterone, estrogen, etc.).
  • Creating processes to mass produce Compound S (which could be converted to Cortisone), which at that time was a novel but expensive medication for arthritis and inflammation. Julian’s discoveries made the drug affordable for the general public and greatly improved the qualities of life of many people.
  • Starting his own company (Julian Labs), which mass produced hormone intermediates for the major pharmaceutical companies but potentially more importantly, gave jobs to African American chemists who couldn’t get work anywhere else due to racism. He also made himself a millionaire in the process.

In addition to his many scientific achievements and victories in the realm of chemistry, Percy Julian became highly involved in the Civil Rights movement and with the NAACP.  In the latter stages of his life, he was celebrated with more than 18 honorary degrees and more than a dozen civic and scientific awards.  He became only the second African American to be elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1973.

Julian’s story is important for several reasons.  First it shows what can be accomplished with great perseverance.  Second it is a testament to how much talent was and is wasted in urban communities due.  Julian’s story is very important for African Americans pursuing advanced degrees particularly in the sciences.  When watching Forgotten Genius, much of what Julian went through during graduate school reminded me of my own experience.  Seeing his story years ago would’ve helped me better understand the significance of my own graduate studies.  Today his story can help inspire younger generations of potential African American scientists, and innovators in a world where STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education is becoming increasingly important.

Thank you for taking the time out to read this blog post. If you’ve found value here and think it would benefit others, please share it and or leave a comment. I’ve recently started a YouTube channel, so please visit me at Big Discussions76. To receive all of the most up to date content from the Big Words Blog Site, subscribe using the subscription box in the right hand column in this post and throughout the site, or add the link to my RSS feed to you feedreader. Lastly follow me at the Big Words Blog Site Facebook page, on Twitter at @BWArePowerful, and on Instagram at @anwaryusef76. While my main areas of focus are Education, STEM and Financial Literacy, there are other blogs/sites I endorse which can be found on that particular page of my site.