Golden Opportunities 10/7/20

Thoughts by Richard Bleil

As the president is discovering the hard way, this pandemic just isn’t much fun. No, I’m not going to “rib” him about it; that’s not the point of this post, but as difficult as the pandemic is, it does provide opportunities for us to learn and think outside of the box.

This week, my chemistry lab is doing an “experiment” on molecular shapes. There are ways to predict the shapes, and frankly some properties, of molecules called the Valence Shell Electron Pair Repulsion Theory. Any woman who has had the misfortune of my asking her out understands repulsion very well. Basically, since electrons all have the same charge, all the theory really says is that these electrons will arrange themselves so they are as far away from each other as possible. Makes sense, right? But as simple as this model is, it does not really help to make the shape of molecules seem “real”. It’s all just theory.

There are ways to kind of mitigate this “unreal” situation. There are several model kits, made of plastic or wood and springs, that one can purchase. These kits all have the correct angles and are designed so you can “build” your own molecules. They are, however, remarkably expensive for what they are, albeit less expensive than they used to be. The college where I teach handles this with an old lab they wrote back when these kits were cost-prohibitive that uses Styrofoam balls and toothpicks. Okay, honestly, this allows students to build their own models, but seriously? Styrofoam?

My regular readers know that recently I lost my father, the last of my parents, who left me an inheritance. This inheritance allowed me to purchase a molecular modeling software package, a rather high-end package in fact, that can do a multitude of molecular modeling calculations. In addition, it can automatically generate images of these molecules, which can then be rotated, zoomed, and even projected as a three-dimensional image (remember those old posters that if you stared at them a three-dimensional image appeared?). These lose the tacit feel of building your own models, but on the other hand are more realistic.

With the campus on current close-down status, with all lectures required to be taught remotely, the only courses still held in person are labs. But, now we have this odd situation where I have the tools necessary to give an enhanced laboratory experience, more realistic, and more safely by performing the lab remotely. It’s actually rare that labs are better remote than they are in person, but this is a situation where that seems to be the case.

There are several reasons that I purchased this package. First is my experience with packages such as this. As a computational chemist by training, I’ve worked with these packages frequently, and that familiarity allows me to understand their capabilities and see the great teaching potentials they represent. Second, being that there appears to be a Covid-19 crisis on campus, it’s just safer for the students to avoid being crammed into a lab. Finally, thanks to my father, I could afford to purchase this package, so really it’s a posthumous gift from him to my students.

This is an opportunity presented by Covid-19. We are learning a lot of great lessons on hygiene, personal space, and protecting others. When we’re healthy we don’t tend to think of the possibilities that we might be carrying potentially disease-causing germs and viruses, and many of us don’t act in a way to protect others. Before the pandemic, it was not uncommon to see people in public sneezing or coughing without covering their mouths, and getting closer to others than necessary when interacting.  Every culture has a certain common distance in social interactions that are just learned habits. In America, we’re kind of middle-of-the-road. As I understand it, when traveling to countries in Europe, Americans tend to get uncomfortably close to Europeans as we talk with them. On the other hand, people from Asian countries are the exact opposite, and often stand much closer to Americans than we are comfortable with when interacting with us. Now, we have a universal standard of at least six feet, a comfortable distance we can all choose to adopt, and an adoption I hope we maintain after the pandemic is over. I also hope we all maintain the simple habit of washing our hands!

Corporations have been forced to contend with remote employees. We’ve had the technology for years to move a large fraction of our workforce online. There are several advantages, including the ability to hire outside of commuting distance, flexibility of hours for employees and therefore longer hours for employers, and less expense in buildings and utility expenses since fewer desks and space is required, and yet, the paradigm shift has never occurred. No doubt this is because of the fear of the new model where hours are not so important as results. It’s simply easier to track hours; did the employee check in at 8 and out at 5, but this doesn’t help to ascertain how effectively they worked in those hours. Now, to remain open, many companies are required to transition to allowing employees to work from home. Hopefully this is a trend that will continue.

Educationally, maybe it’s time we start looking at our old-fashioned classroom teaching as well. This lab has probably not changed in several decades; maybe it’s time to look at the advantages and disadvantages of Styrofoam balls as educational tools. We have an opportunity here if we have the courage to seize it.

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