Fun Day 8/14/20

Thoughts by Richard Bleil

Oh, what a fun day. Well, a “fun” day anyway. This was a day filled with chores, including everybody’s favorite, a trip to finally get a license plate for my vehicle. Odd thing, I showed up about noon, which I thought had to have been pretty much the worst time to show up as I figured everybody and their dog would be trying to register and renew vehicles as a lunch chore. I barely could fit in the door when I arrived and stood in line for an hour. But when I finally got back outside, the line waiting to get into the line was probably as long as the line inside. Very sad. I did try to get a new driver’s license as well, but I didn’t get there in time, and didn’t have the documentation. So, I’ll try it again tomorrow.

Most importantly, I prepared the sites for my upcoming courses. Classes start next week, technically on Tuesday, but I won’t have any until Wednesday. It’ll be an interesting course load this semester, with a section of chemistry lecture, one of chemistry lab, plus physical chemistry lecture and lab.

The physical chemistry lecture and lab should be interesting. Physical chemistry is the study of energy in chemistry, and includes thermodynamics, quantum theory and, time permitting, a smattering of quantum theory. Thermodynamics are the laws that drive our macroscopic world; anything that happens must happen in accordance with the laws of thermodynamics. Quantum theory are the laws of the sub-atomic world, and statistical thermodynamics is the bridge between the two.

When I taught in South Dakota, I had developed a program that basically was an undergraduate chemical physics program, a program that they failed to appreciate and is now gone but my graduates were very popular in both graduate programs and in industry. Being the only chemistry professor, I taught all four years of chemistry, from the fundamentals when they first arrived to the advanced courses in their senior year. It was an interesting opportunity. I thought about the student walking into the program, fresh out of high school and what they looked like, and the students I wanted leaving the program and how I want them to look. I had four years (typically) not just to teach them the courses, but to help mold them into the professionals they would become.

This typically meant spoon-feeding them in first year chemistry, day by day topics on the syllabus, and a complete and specific list of homework problems they need to be able to do to be successful. By the time my students took thermodynamics (physical chemistry), the syllabus was little more than a vague list of topics. I expected them to pick up the burden. They chose their own homework, they read the book, and the “lecture” was mostly just discussing the topic and answering questions from the reading. As a matter of fact, we would often discuss thermodynamics over hot wings at a local pub.

As an adjunct professor, my power is very limited, but, I’m the only professor teaching thermodynamics this year, and fortunately my supervisor seems to trust me. As such, I’ll be able to again be a little bit sparse (maybe not as sparse) with this year’s courses. I’m planning on making the course very informal. We’ll have specific objectives, but we’ll determine the homework to solve as a group (there are currently only three students registered). The lab should be most fun. For the most part, we’re going to come up with experiments as a group in real time for the principles we’re working on. This might seem odd, but if you think about it, they’re probably only one year away from graduating, and if they get a job in the sciences (including graduate school), there are no nice books with lab procedures. They’ll get problems, and they’ll be required to figure out a way to solve them. So, that’s what we’re going to do.

Probably the most interesting idea will be regular (nearly weekly) short essay homework problems. I’m planning on coming up with a series of questions to get them to think about how the principles we’re learning applies to the world around them. For example, I often like to say that even abstract concepts, like falling in love, must follow the laws of thermodynamics. One of my questions will be to ask them to explain what I mean by that, and, no, ‘because everything follows the laws of thermodynamics” won’t work.

So, in a little bit less than a week, this experiment in teaching continues. It’ll be interesting to see how it goes.

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