Chemistry’s Importance as a Foundational Science
BY GRIFFIN HURST
Allow me to set the scene. It’s your sophomore year of high school, and you’re about to walk into your chemistry class for the first time. Every single one of your upperclassmen friends have fed you horror stories about how ridiculously difficult this class is, and you’ve mentally prepared yourself to spend the whole year with your nose in a textbook just to survive with a passing grade.
The general public’s opinion of chemistry is pretty clear. I’ve heard countless friends complain about the difficulty of their chemistry classes or the frustration they felt as a non-STEM major, and I get it. Chemistry is a challenging subject, and it can be tough to survive one of these classes if it’s not something you’re passionate about. However, there’s one common question I hear that just doesn’t sit right with me: “Why do I even have to take chemistry anyways?”
While I could sit here and talk about all the reasons why I love chemistry, I recognize that my reasons for loving it as a chemistry major are unnecessarily erudite and won’t land with those who need the most convincing. Instead, I’ll talk about the plenty of skills a chemistry course teaches that are utilized beyond the bounds of chemistry itself.
General chemistry’s central mathematical tenet, stoichiometry, focuses primarily on unit conversions between different compounds. Due to stoichiometry’s constantly changing units and randomly inverted ratios, a general chemistry student’s central issue on any given problem is losing track of their units and messing up their calculations. If you’ve ever been one of these students, you know that teachers advise you to write down units for every step of the problem—and there’s a good reason for it! While writing down all the steps to a stoichiometric problem may be a tedious process, thorough documentation builds a student’s ability to learn from past mistakes or ideas. Since each unit conversion can be analyzed as a component of a larger equation, students learn to structure their work and locate errors quickly and effectively. When a single incorrectly-labeled molar ratio threatens to turn your midterm grade from 95% into 45%, you learn pretty quickly that time and accuracy is of essence.
Thorough documentation isn’t just limited to a laboratory setting. It’s a useful tool for simplifying complex work in all disciplines: note-taking in a history lecture, making swatches of the colors for painting, or even holding on to rough drafts of essays so you can refer to them during the editing process. Since my first chemistry class, I’ve found myself breaking down notes, math problems, and writing projects into sections, and it’s made me faster at catching mistakes and locating pertinent information.
There is only one other portion of a chemistry class that is as hated as stoichiometry: the lab. Whether it’s the stress of lab work or the tedious minutiae involved in writing a proper report, we’ve all struggled our way through a lab class. While the hours you spend writing information down in excruciating detail or the hand cramps you get from death-gripping the stopcock on the buret to avoid over-titration can seem pointless and repetitive, taking a chemistry lab will help you understand the importance of procedure early on in your academic career.
In the lab, procedures are meticulous, precise and lengthy. This hyperfocus comes from caution and fear of spilling a possibly dangerous chemical on yourself, and makes you good at reading, rereading, and executing procedures as written. This focus on following instructions word-for-word/step-by-step is almost unparalleled in other science labs and transfers exceptionally well to other aspects of life, including college! As students, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the sheer amount of things going on in our day to day lives. While not everything can be organized into a nice numbered list, I’ve found that writing out my daily tasks into a procedure, just like in a lab, is an easy way to mitigate this stress and help me wrap my head around what needs to happen and when. Whether it’s trying a new recipe or building IKEA furniture, the procedure-based skills I’ve learned in the lab makes it easier to succeed at whatever task I’m given.
In addition, lab reports serve as a great introduction to academic research and teach fundamental media literacy needed to excel in the working world. Prior to taking a chemistry lab, you might struggle to comprehend dense academic material such as the procedures contained in many lab manuals. But throughout your lab experience, you’ll be forced to digest that material slowly and write a report in a style consistent with working researchers today. Classes teach students techniques to write academically while honing their professionality and clarity, which comes in handy whether you’re writing an email to a future employer or sending a text to a technologically inept grandparent.
In my personal experience, the most important benefit to taking a chemistry class is more abstract. Chemistry is one of the first sciences students will take in their academic career where they study intangible things. We can’t see individual molecules or atoms, so when it comes to atomic particles, we only have theories as to how they exist at any given moment. As such, chemistry fosters an important method of interpreting information that connects the theoretical to the observed, where you draw conclusions on the state of the world based on supporting evidence within it. For example, as kids, we learn that water boils when it gets hot. Later, in a chemistry class, you are taught that substances in the gas state are high-energy. This prompts the student to connect “heat” to “addition of energy” before they even learn about thermodynamics. Scientific inquiry and deductive reasoning is taught naturally in chemistry and applies to all aspects of life, including history, English, and art. Having a strong foundation in the basic principles of the world and learning to build connections between the physical feedback we receive and the information we learn is vital to our everyday lives.
Good science teaches important lessons for everyone, not just science-lovers. To me, this is why chemistry is the most important foundational field. From thorough documentation to media literacy to thinking processes, chemistry trains important life skills that will continue to serve us in our everyday lives—and I’ve really only scratched the surface.
I can’t promise that you’ll love the class, but I can say that you’ll leave with a handful of exceptional skills. There’s so much to be learned about chemistry than what’s taught in class, so push through that quarter of titrations and stoichiometry. I promise it will help you in the long run.