Is Chemistry the New Algebra?

More than 90 percent of Fairfax high school students take chemistry. That's a number Fairfax educators are proud of.

Nationally, the average is 54 percent, up from about 44 percent in 1990, according to the National Science Foundation. As states continue to increase their graduation requirements, we are likely to see the participation rates climb every where.

Why? It's a hard course. Colleges like to see it on transcripts. And more kids are supposed to be going to college these days.

"It truly is in a sense a gateway to college, just like algebra is," said Peter Noonan, assistant superintendent for instruction in Fairfax County, to explain why the county wants to keep increasing the number of students who graduate having taken the course.

There are plenty of tough science courses, though. I asked why chemistry should be the goal for all students, and not, say, physics.

Noonan said the way the course emphasizes the scientific method gives it an edge. It helps teach the critical thinking and problem solving skills that all students will need even if they never plan to refer to another periodic table of elements for the rest of their lives.

Which, I might add, I have not.

Did you take high school chemistry? Do you think it gave you an edge?

By Michael Alison Chandler  |  January 19, 2009; 6:00 AM ET
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How about adding the fact that Chemistry effects everyday life as a reason for encouraging it in high school. A good foundation in chemistry helps one gain a better understanding about things like cooking, cleaning and understanding how the medicines that one takes work. If people were more knowledgeable about chemistry then we would not have so many media scares and people would not buy the moniker "chemical free".

I took chemistry in high school and hated every minute of it! I went to college and much to my surprise I ended up majoring in organic chemistry.

Posted by: fedup25 | January 19, 2009 8:26 AM | Report abuse

My experience is actually somewhat similar to fedup25. I took AP chemistry and found it uninteresting, but without a sure career path other than "I want to do science", I stuck with it in college, where I, too, have now become an organic chemistry major.

It's always a travesty to me that general chemistry (which is AP chemistry) is so boring and different from higher level chemistry, yet also necessary background to succeed in higher level chemistry. I think AP and general chemistry probably turn away a lot of students who would find organic, inorganic, physical, or biological chemistry really interesting.

Posted by: UberJason | January 19, 2009 9:24 AM | Report abuse

Analysis and deduction is a complicated process. I could never take away from what I had learned in High School algebra class. Chemistry sounds interesting, although not as interesting as a grade for the course. Physics too, I could never get enough of my friends talking physics. LOL

Posted by: sssquirrel | January 19, 2009 5:56 PM | Report abuse

I enjoyed high school chemistry. I majored in chemistry in college and got a Ph.D. in physical chemistry at Cal half a century ago. Of course, it helped that my father, a patent attorney, had a master's degree in chemistry.
I think the beginning text books in chemistry are discouraging to students. The fun part is getting in the lab and doing things, but the texts make it look like a nearly pointless memory exercise. We need to know the names and symbols of some of the more common elements to get forward, but electronic structure of atoms and molecules really is pointless if we don't have any facts to tie them to. Balancing equations and chemical calculations make more sense if they are tied to lab work. Of course, laboratory instruction is expensive (lots of personal attention needed) so lecture is a cheaper alternative.

Posted by: hairyape68 | January 21, 2009 9:34 PM | Report abuse

I suspect chemistry is a good class to take because very often it is the first time students get a good grounding in the relationship between math and real-world problems. In Chemistry classes, the problems tend to be posed as they are in the real world, i.e. using English instead of just "solve for x". The student has to learn how to translate English into an equation to solve - and *then* solve it.

Math classes rarely tackle that translation step.

Posted by: JeffRandom | January 22, 2009 3:20 PM | Report abuse

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