The BATCHEM project

Posted on Feb 9, 2014

Chemistry is the study of matter, and the bedrock upon which studies of medicine, materials, energy, and the environment lies.  As such, introductory chemistry is a required subject for all scientists, and a solid mastery of chemistry gives deeper insight and appreciation to many other matter.

It is a challenging subject to study, as the “central science” demands from its student unusual versatility.  Proficient chemists seamlessly transition between the symbolic, microscopic, and macroscopic worlds, intuiting — as the situation demands — \(1.02 \molar \ce{CaCl2_{(aq)}} \) as an abstraction (with numerical properties such as heat capacity, volume, and mass) and as an imaginary movie in which hydrated \(\ce{Ca^{2+}}\) and twice that amount of \(\ce{Cl^{-}}\) are screened by water molecules, tumbling, colliding, and exchanging waters.  These then informs the chemist what to do in the physical world he occupies, from the choice of temperature and glassware to the choice of simulation parameters.

A proficient chemist also needs to be acquainted with the breadth of what nature offers, and understand the human context in how we humans can understand and communicate this breadth.  There are lots of facts to learn, and lots of communication protocols to be familiar with.

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Proficiency is best achieved by deliberate practice.  Deliberate practice, in short, is practice that specifically targets what one is not able to do.  To use a sports analogy, a basketball player weak in his off-hand would spend much time working on dribbling drills using that off-hand, whereas another who has a poor shooting form would work on habituating a good shooting form by repeating the action, first in isolation, then in game-like pressure and context.

Few students engage in deliberate practice, and early on in teaching I attributed this to a matter of effort.  Deliberate practice, in its constant push against one’s comfort zone, is necessarily painful and saps the will.  But there is really two more obstacles than that.

First, we need to know our weaknesses before we can surmount it.   To profoundly improve, one must not only move known unknowns into the known known realm, but also reach and wrench the unknown unknowns into the known unknown world.  Some students are willing to endure the pain, if only they know how to invite the pain.

Second, we need to have a realistic approach to surmounting that weakness.  Students can know they are weak in an area, be willing to tackle the weakness, but simply not knowing how to do that fruitfully, or lack suitable tools for doing so.  While throwing yourself heroically at the cliff sometimes work, there’s less bruises going up the gentle slope on the other side — and you still get to the same place.  While the fruits of learning is a state function, the process of learning is decidedly a path function.

Thus deliberate practice demands, in addition to perseverance, a level of reflectiveness and foresight inaccessible to a beginner.  This is where the teacher comes in, an explorer who have been through the wilds and know the short-cuts.  They would ideally also have a full complement of maps, tools, and wiles to guide the tutees up the cliffs for which they just have to climb.

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Just as chemistry demands unusual versatility in its study, it also demands unusual versatility in its teaching.  A workman’s utility belt wasn’t enough to hold the necessary tools; I need Batman’s belt, and I didn’t have one.

Teaching at a school in which students come from 80+ countries, our students arrive with vastly different background. In the same class I have a student who medaled in International Olympiad, and a student who have never studied chemistry before.  The latter needed more attention, but also much more carefully gradated practice material, and I could not provide for her.

Designing and typesetting just right exercises and questions is unreasonably time-consuming in chemistry, to the tune of 10-20 min. per short answer question.  Beyond the personal shortcoming called “perfectionism” (thus endless revision), there are two additional complications here.

The first is that chemistry, reflecting the tortured and uncertain world around us, is intrinsically full of exceptions and corner cases (see: reduction potential of Li, boiling point of Hg, properties of water).  Setting questions properly means tracking down properties, to ensure that the practice really coheres with reality.

The second is that much of chemistry is visual.  Text and numbers are easy to write and typeset, but figures, diagrams, and graphs are how prospective chemists ought to think.  There’s a non-trivial overhead for producing figures and ensuring they work for the exercise.  Heck, even just typesetting \[ \ce{CH3CH2OH_{(l)} + x O2_{(g)} -> y CO2_{(g)} + z H2O_{(l)}} \DHc = -1370 kJ/mol \] in HTML can take five minutes.

In any case, the upshot is that once a student exhausts practice material in the form of text-book questions and past papers, he’s done, at least until he can forget the solution he’s seen.

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Wouldn’t it be nice to have an Infinite Tome of Just Suitable Chemistry Questions? Imagine such a tome with guided practice for each of the disparate skill-set that makes up chemistry, which push you harder when you’re comfortable and eases off when it’s too hard.  Imagine that it can talk you through perplexities in response to what you’ve done.  Beautifully and accurately illustrated, the illustrations even let you turn the nanotube to look through the ends.  And the illustrations can hop hop hop out of the page to another piece of paper (or into the projector light), while the original remains.

I think that’d be awesome, awesome like Batman’s utility belt, and I’m convinced that it is doable.  Since it’s “awesome like Batman’s utility belt”, I call it BATCHEM in my head.