Who inspires you?

heating of copper II sulfate

It might be the case that today's blog post is a bit off-topic from my traditional blog posts. It's a bit of a personal narrative, and I hope that's OK.

You see, today is the 21st of May, 2017 and this date represents the anniversary of my dad passing away. And that is significant because my dad was my role model. He was an environmental chemist working for the State of Washington Department of Ecology for many years, including my time as a chemistry major at university. I would occasionally visit his lab and observe him "on the bench" as he called it. There is no doubt in my mind that my interactions with him played a big role in my choosing chemistry as a major - despite zero pressure from him to follow in his footsteps. I can say, though, that he beamed with joy at my graduation ceremony when he got to meet many of my chemistry professors.

My first teaching job was in Los Angeles, California. As a young teacher, I was full of enthusiasm and energy - but I lacked the nuanced style of the veteran teachers around me. Each day was a new experience full of challenges; I loved every minute of my time in front of the classroom. And luckily for me, I still love being a teacher. I can't think of anything more important - or rewarding! - to call my career.

Recently I was chatting with a friend about my time in Los Angeles and I recalled a story I would like to share. My dad came down to Los Angeles to visit me for a few days. And being a chemist, he joined me in the classroom. The lesson plan for the day involved calculating the number of waters of hydration in copper (II) sulfate pentahydrate. I would say this is a "classic" lab where the students heat a sample of the hydrated crystal until it is dry. They use the masses involved to calculate a mole ratio and determine the number of waters of hydration. Below are a few pictures from a recreation I set up today.


My dad loved being there with me and interacting with my students. He was working with one lab group that was finished, and in his gentle manner he said to the group, "Add a couple drops of water to your crystals." And so they did, observing something like what you will see in the video below.


Needless to say, in my world as a newbie chemistry teacher I never would have thought of having my students re-hydrate the crystals. Of course the response from the students was immediate and very vocal. "Cool!" "Woah, what happened?" As word spread to the surrounding groups, my dad was called over by each of the remaining groups to show them the source of all the hubbub. I just stood back and smiled, learning a little something along the way. I now look for places where I can make connections between concepts. For example, with the rehydration the concept of reversible reactions comes into play. So often students think of reactions as a one-way street and this reaction is a nice reminder that this is simply not always the case. And of course the reaction is quite exothermic - so there is another connection to exploit. And colors of transition metal ions can be linked here as well. 

And now, over 20 years later, every time I rehydrate anhydrous copper II sulfate I think of my dad. And my smile becomes a bit bigger.

Who was your inspiration to become a teacher?

And what seemingly simple ideas did you overlook early in your career that you rely on now?