Politicians have been using science as a punching bag a lot lately. It’s hard to overstate the dangers of this, given that scientific thinking and the distinction of fact from fiction fuel our ability to cure diseases, invent new technology, and generally explain how the world works. Meanwhile, science educators shoulder on with preparing the next generation of critical thinkers and scientists, including Science Department Chair, professor, and author Dr. Johan Erikson who crosses Portland Harbor on the Peaks Island ferry each day and commutes to Saint Joseph’s College on Sebago Lake. Erikson makes his debut on Peaks Island Press for publishing a paper in the Journal of Chemical Education that shows science educators how to help students understand “how things work” by outlining a new chemistry laboratory demonstration. True confession: I’m married to this guy and after eight years of blogging about Peaks Island authors, it occurred to me that I hadn’t written about the very one that I live with. Forehead slap. So better later than never.
Titled (are you ready for this?) “Partially Miscible Water–Triethylamine Solutions and Their Temperature Dependence (The American Chemical Society), Erikson’s article demonstrates a concept that he says learners of chemistry find counterintuitive: that the ability of two different substances to mix with one another can change greatly with variation of their temperature. The jargon version of this is “temperature-dependent partial miscibility. (see figure)”
Hang with me and this will make sense.
Why should anyone care about “partial miscibility?” As Erikson explained it to me (he was driving; I was taking notes), understanding this concept is an essential part of making sure that engines run, that metal structures stand, and that diamonds can be found in some rock formations, while they can’t be found in others. Erikson said,
“Miscibility is when alcohol and water mix at all temperatures and ratios, whereas oil and vinegar remain ‘immiscible,’ or unmixed, at all ratios. People have seen these phenomena and they recognize them as normal. In contrast, whether or not some compounds mix or don’t mix depends on their ratio and temperature. That’s what this demonstration is about– ‘temperature dependent partial miscibility.’
“Testing this principle with a visual demonstration pushes the students’ intellectual process past doubt and memorization to building a knowledge based on evidence. Students of science need to both learn theory and see evidence to really understand something. In education at all levels there’s pressure to move quickly on to the next topic; this forces teachers to deliver either theory or evidence. As a result, students don’t really get it.
“I was teaching a Physical Chemistry course and the textbook discussed this [partial miscibility] phenomenon but the students were like ‘what?’ We were trying to interpret graphs and equations. We had nothing to look at. I searched for a demo, but couldn’t find one. So I made one. It took several trials and lots of time to make it work. Then I thought, ‘someone else might like to use this’ and submitted it to the Journal. It’s hard to come up with a new demonstration. There were only six created and published last year.”
When scientists develop a hypothesis about how the world works, they have to prove it by testing the hypothesis, by seeing if the same tests replicate the same outcomes, and then interpreting the evidence to establish what is fact. A good demonstration shows the steps of scientific process well.
Since most of us aren’t up on the distribution of chemical education literature, let’s put the scope of Erikson’s publication into perspective. The American Chemical Society is the largest scientific organization in the world and the digital and print distribution internationally of its journal reaches 125,000 monthly. This is an audience reach about which many authors can only dream.
Congratulations on empowering other educators to develop our next generation of scientists.
Other articles where you can explore Dr. Johan Erikson’s work:
Journey of Discovery on the Schooner Bagheera Portland Magazine, 2017
Sea Change in Science: Department Receives National Science Foundation Grant Saint Joseph’s College Magazine, 2017
Patricia Erikson blogs about Maine, travel, and writing from a vibrant, literary community perched on Peaks Island, two miles off the coast of the beautiful and award-winning city of Portland, Maine. If you haven’t already, follow Patricia on Instagram at @seashorewrite or subscribe to Peaks Island Press in the upper right corner at http://www.peaksislandpress.com