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OCT. 23, 2018

Environmental Chemistry at The Outdoor Academy

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This fall The Outdoor Academy added a new class to its curriculum: Environmental Chemistry. I was tasked with the fun challenge of piloting this course, which is not just your average 10th grade chemistry class, but a truly OA chemistry class. What does that mean, a truly OA chemistry class? Well, I’ll let my students do the talking. 

In class yesterday I asked The Outdoor Academy’s inaugural EChem class, a small and wonderful group of only four students, to share what they think about Environmental Chemistry. Some of their responses speak to the style of teaching they’ve encountered here, which often differs from what they’re used to at home. “When teachers don’t lecture you and let you participate in a discussion, it’s more fun and you learn more,” says Anna, a student from Miami Beach, FL. “I don’t feel like I’m being graded, I feel like I’m actually learning. At home, I take a class just thinking about my grade, but now I think, ‘I don’t understand this, I should go back and try again.’”

Others echoed this sentiment. “I put conscious attention [into learning] as opposed to just passing the class,” says Oliver, a student from Los Angeles. Cesca, also from Miami Beach, added, “I want to pay attention because what we’re learning actually matters in the world.” Anna agreed, saying, “it makes us aware of how much chemistry is a part of our lives.”

As a teacher this is gratifying to hear, especially because it speaks to the goals I have for students in EChem. The course objectives I’ve outlined for the class are to understand the chemical components and concepts as they relate to environmental issues, to understand how chemistry is relevant to one’s own life, and to draw connections between chemistry and other physical sciences. I remember taking 10th grade chemistry, and though I loved it, most other students in the class were checked out; they didn’t understand it, or didn’t see how they would ever need to know it, or both. But let me tell you: chemistry is so cool and fascinating and applicable! Okay, I may be biased because I’m a chemistry teacher; but if you don’t believe me, take it from my students.

Anna captured this idea beautifully: “I was always so scared of the periodic table, but now it’s so cool that I know what it is and how it works!” Cesca agreed with this, saying, “it’s nice to have everything make sense! I was expecting it to be a lot heavier on math and things I don’t understand, like traditional chemistry.”

It may not be traditional chemistry, but we still tackle the nitty-gritty of chemistry principles, such as atomic structure, bonding, molecules, chemical reactions, acids and bases, and all that fun stuff. “I love putting the elements together [into molecules], learning about covalent and ionic bonds,” says Cesca. “It’s cool to think that that’s what actually happens.” She also offered the insightful and esoteric observation that atoms aren’t alive, yet they are the components of all living things. I think these students are destined for big things.

Most of the course has focused on learning about environmental issues through the lens of chemistry. One of Oliver’s favorite topics was the atmosphere, learning about greenhouse gases, the layers of Earth’s atmosphere, and how light travels through and interacts with the atmosphere. Right now we’re learning about the hydrosphere. Anna thinks the water cycle is the most interesting concept we’ve learned so far: “how the water at the bottom of one river could end up in an ocean, and then it could end up in Norway in a glacier.” Our next unit will focus on the geosphere, and finally, we’ll learn about the chemistry of climate change.

In summary, the first semester of Environmental Chemistry has been a great success (in my humble opinion). I think we’re on to something here. But if this blog post demonstrates nothing else, I think the takeaway is that the students here at The Outdoor Academy are simply incredible. 

I’ll close with a quote from Rebecca, a student from Washington D.C. This warmed my heart to hear, and, in my mind, summarizes perfectly why Environmental Chemistry is so important. “It’s really cool learning about what we’re walking around in,” she told me. “We’re connecting what we’re learning to things that are relevant, and not just the environment, but politics and people’s lives.” 

                    See? Chemistry is so cool.

 By Caroline Lauth Quarrier, Environmental Chemistry Teacher