Me, a Coach?

This is a relevant question I was recently asked by the principal to be the assistant coach of the school soccer team when the former coach goes on maternity leave.  This job might seem odd for a chemistry teacher at first, but, in fact, it is not. We are often called upon to do double duty in school, especially since the budget is tight for new staff. The administration loves it when we agree to work in the sports program to keep it alive and vibrant. I, for one, am willing to help. Sports are vital in kids’ lives, and I would hate to see an extra-curricular program like soccer cut because it is peripheral in some minds to basketball, softball, and volleyball.  Acceptance for soccer in the US has been long in coming; but when it finally hit, it was with a hard smack. The students love it—girls and boys—of all ages. It may not be the great American pastime yet, but it is certainly close with school kids.

While I believe in keeping soccer on the docket in principle, I also happen to have played it as a teen myself. I wonder if the principal knew this when he made his request. Regardless, it is a fact and I am probably the best choice among the faculty for this role. The coach is so grateful because she wants what she started to continue full-fledged for the months she is gone. I get it and will follow her lead as to the game rules and practice routines. This will involve some afterschool time, of course, so the students can stay in shape for the league events. Parents take the games seriously and expect top performance from their offspring. I believe they are more competitive than the children. This means I am charged with the task of making them the best players they can be. Soccer skills, as in any sport, are all about repetition, repetition, and more repetition to build muscle memory and that can be learnt a lot easier using the right soccer training equipment which our school luckily has. Once it is learned, a student can go on to excel in more advanced programs. I am part of establishing life-long patterns.

There are different schools of thought on coaching. You can be a tyrant, yell, and demand success. You can be more encouraging and supporting behind the scenes as well, along  the lines of Vince Lombardi in football. He revolutionized the approach and will follow suit. Kids can take only so much criticism. Good coaching entails less attack and more love. But within this framework, you can be consistent and rigorous. Meanwhile, I have to bone up on strategies to get ready for my new role, and it won’t hurt to watch a game or two.

Lab Safety and Home Experiment Safety

In the last blog I said we are going to discuss the issue of safety in the laboratory. But I hope that many of you reading this will be doing your own experimenting at home. That makes the title of this blog cover not only how you think about safety in a laboratory environment, but in your not-so strict world of home experiments.

The rules mentioned here are used in almost every school you go to, and most of them you need to take home with you when you are doing your own experiments. It only takes one violation of the rules to drastically affect your entire life. Pause to think how many adults have ignored common sense safety rules when handling fireworks, and what they now have to live with.


  • If you have long hair, tie it back, put it in a bun, or do whatever you need to so it will not catch fire. This is especially true if you put chemicals on your hair, such as hair spray.
  • Clothing that can come into contact with chemicals or an open flame need to be secured. This includes long sleeves and scarves.
  • As was noted in the last blog, get a quality set of goggles to protect your eyes. The question of when you should have them on is best answered by saying that whenever you are conducting any part of an experiment, they should be on.
  • If you wear acrylic nails you are not to be near any open flame. This is one of those rules that is strictly enforced at the school level, but is easy to ignore when you are performing experiments at home.
  • Keep all your experimental equipment – beakers, flasks, test tubes, etc. – in front of you and below eye level at all times. Turning your back on any experiment is inviting disaster.


There are many others, and when you go into a class they will be reviewed and discussed with you at school. These are the most important rules.

One of the problems with doing experiments at home is that you don’t have the proper sink and drain to safely conduct experiments and discard your used materials down a sink or drain. In fact, there are many states that have regulations that prohibit duping certain chemicals into residential drains and sewage systems. From a safety viewpoint, you never know what might happen when what was safe to do at school with a laboratory sink, is done at home in a stainless steel or non-lab certified sink.


If you plan on doing chemistry experiments at home regularly, you will quickly learn what is and isn’t safe for your particular environment. Ask your Chemistry teacher to answer any questions you might have about doing experiments at home. Or send me a note!


These first 5 blogs have covered the basics of what Chemistry is about, some of the formal methods to use that you will learn in class, and how to have fun while being safe during experiments. I hope I have shown you there is a nice balance that can be achieved through learning and doing, while being able to take seriously the challenges of choosing Chemistry as a profession – either as a Chemist or a teacher.


Next blog we are going to start moving forward with more challenges. Until next time, have fun and stay safe!

The Science Behind Vacuums

Knowing how practical I am about teaching science, one day a student asked about vacuum cleaners and why the new technology is so important. He brought up the subject because his mother wants a new machine, specifically the cyclone Dyson, when the old one is working perfectly well. I can see his father balking at the expense and was eager to support the child who was trying to back his mother in her request. I wanted to explain in layman’s terms how suction power varies with different brands.

Traditional vacuums are ingenious but less innovative than the Dyson model. It is all about air pressure not an actual “vacuum”. Suction is the mechanism that picks up dirt. With a piece of tissue paper and a comb, any mysteries will be revealed. Starting my demonstration, I breathe out as much as I can.  The teacher that I am wants to explain the process in simple terms, and I hold my breath while placing the two items (the tissue wrapped around the comb) against my mouth. I lean against a dusty upholstered chair and press my mouth and the comb against the piece of furniture. When I take in a sharp breath, I am breathing through the comb. Taking the item away from my mouth, I see that the tissue is full of dirt! Basic science in a nutshell.  Repeating these steps, I see that the tissue builds up debris and the air isn’t flowing quite sufficiently. Thus, a suction vacuum has to have powerful air flow. It has to have a decent motor and good filter system, bagless or not.

The dual cyclone Dyson still operates as a suction appliance, but with an upgrade such that the dirty air is drawn in by a fan. There is a drum in the vacuum bin whose top corner takes in this air—the angle is most important in the technology since it creates a centrifugal force (a spiraling motion). The largest dust particles spin out of the airstream, falling to the bottom of the drum. Interesting but not complicated. The filter then traps the air, catching more particles, as the air continues its path along a cone-shaped cylinder, also found in the bin.  The air spins to the cone’s bottom, faster and faster, as the centrifugal force increases. Ultimately, dust is forced against the cone sides and through a hole as air escapes up the center. This was a revolution in vacuum machine science that only came in the 1970s, later upgraded to the Dyson Ball in 2005.

Bravo to James Dyson for giving us an energy-saving and time-efficient alternative to traditional suction.  Before his inventions, talking about vacuum cleaners was never as interesting. Meanwhile, my student has an arsenal of information with which to convince his dad that the time has come for a new vacuum for mom. How appropriate that it is Mother’s Day.

Shop and Science

As a chemistry teacher, I try to inject some science into everything I do for the students. The lessons, of course, are pure examples of the basics that this age group should master. I also teach an elective class in woodworking, one of two shop classes still offered by the school (the other being metal work and welding). I am glad that the administrators still see fit to keep these practical programs, when everyone else is cutting them along with the arts and music. What a shame, but it is all about budget I am told.  What does this say about the state of our educational institutions in this country? Science is being diminished along with penmanship, considered an old-fashioned ability. What is left? Even history has been completely rewritten and condensed.

Nevertheless, I do what I can to make the woodshop curriculum meaningful and education on several levels. Sure, the kids learn to use woodworking tools like an electric saw, shaper cutter, nail gun, sander, router and drill. Notice that they are all electrically operated. This leads to an obvious need for a lesson in how electricity is harassed and produced, who discovered it, and what chemical principles are involved. They come in later when we discuss the various stains and surface treatments of the wood being used to build a table, chair, or cabinet. There are various agents involved that react differently to produce the desired results. If you want to be a chemical engineer, this might be the sort of knowledge you must study.

While shop classes entail a lot of show and tell, or my assistant demonstrating a particular skill, there is a time and place for a lecture or two. Chemistry fascinates the shop students because this might be their first exposure to a fascinating subject. They often go on to take the series of chemistry classes I offer for science majors. The school also includes physics and physiology in their program. I do double duty sometimes, covering a variety of material.  Of course, it is on a fundamental level at this stage of education.

I love making science come alive by showing how it pertains to everyday life. It is not just an abstract, academic subject for eggheads. I believe that every kid should have some exposure, even if it has to be in shop class. Most schools don’t have a science requirement anymore beyond a simple “intro” class. So be it, but I try to squeeze it in wherever I can to make it interesting and relevant. When students, who would otherwise not take shop for a future career in the construction industry, come to my class for its novel approach, I am more than thrilled. For me, this is what teaching is all about. Let me close this blog with a hearty “long live science.” Encourage your kids to ask for shop in their school.

Fun with Chemistry

The first 3 blogs have been about a lot of academic stuff – basic forms of matter, the Scientific Method, and some history. But now we can turn to actually doing some chemistry things because I know that most of you don’t want to sit around and read all day. We’ll go through a couple of easy experiments, but first there’s something that I can’t say enough about.



I’ll make this quick so we can move on to the experiments, but safety is the number one priority in the Chemistry lab or anywhere you are going to be doing lab experiments. You should at least have a pair of goggles and some type of vinyl covering for your hands to prevent accidental spills or handling dangerous chemicals. The next blog will cover this topic in more detail.

Now on to the fun stuff.


Burning money.

We don’t need CGI to make our money appear to burn. All it takes is some common household items, and of course, following the experimental procedures. I highly recommend using low value bills – $1 – just in case something goes wrong.

Get together the following items:

tap water

alcohol (the non-drinking kind)

table salt

a pair of tweezers

a bowl


Here is the procedure.

Mix the water and alcohol in a 1:1 ratio. This means equal amounts of each in a bowl. Add just a pinch of salt to the mixture, then stir the contents thoroughly.

Next, take your $1 bill and soak the money in the bowl. Be sure not to soak the bill too long. If the bill starts to curl up you know it has been too long. If this happens, take it out, get another bill, and let the other one dry out.

You can now set the bill on fire, holding it with the tweezers. What you should see is the bill burning for a very short period of time.

Why does this work? The alcohol will burn off the bill before the flame is able to set the money on fire. You can do the same experiment on many things made of paper: pages of books or old printouts. Just avoid trying it on anything valuable, such as legal documents or family records.


Diet Coke and Mentos

You most likely have heard of or seen this experiment, and some of you may even have done it. But here I’ll show you a few add-ons you can do to make the experiment even more interesting and give you a better sense of what actual experimenting is like.

Get a measuring stick to measure the height of the eruptions.

Use different size openings for the container. For example, you can cut part of the top off of the Diet Coke bottle or even use PVC pipe to place inside the bottle and narrow the size of the opening.

Use a timer on your smartphone or a watch and time how long the eruptions last.

You can still have the same fun but will also begin to learn to ask questions about why things are the way they are. This follows the Scientific Method approach and is something you can take with you to class when you are doing laboratory experiments.

Solids, Gases, and Liquids

Solids, liquids, and gases (or gasses) are the three basic states of matter. Plasma is the 4th and Bose-Einstein condensates is the 5th, but most people are comfortable knowing the basic three. The easiest way to remember the difference between the three is to think of water. Note that water is essential for almost every living thing to exist.


We’ll start with water as a liquid because no matter where you live you will be familiar with this state of matter. It chemical composition is H2O. This chemically represents two Hydrogen (H) atoms and one Oxygen (O) atom that are chemically bonded together to form what we see, smell, touch, taste, and hear as water. When you stop and think about how amazing it is that this liquid chemical composition can actually be heard, you should appreciate water and Chemistry more. You can’t hear iron or sodium.


Water as a solid, ice, is the next topic of discussion. The chemical composition is the same, but it has a crystalline structure. We often hear about ice crystals that form in the winter, and snow is a crystalline structure of water. There are two crystal shapes of ice, hexagonal (5 sides) and cubic or diamond shape. But just holding a piece of solid water in your hand shows that this structure is easily changed from the heat of your body.


Finally, there is water as a gas, which is in the form of water vapor. The simplest way to see water vapor is to heat a pot of water to boiling and watch the steam rise. Once again, heat is the dynamic that is responsible for changing water from one state of matter to another. You actually breathe in water vapor from the air around you.


So what have we learned here? That Chemistry is really not that hard when you look at the world around you and keep things simple. Sure, there is a lot more to Chemistry than just water, and to give you fair warning there is also a significant amount of Math involved when moving forward to Advanced Chemistry topics. But we are just covering the basics here, so there is no need to panic. You don’t have to worry about being Einstein because he was much more into Physics than Chemistry.


Where Chemistry becomes challenging is understanding the various interactions of the elements at an atomic level. At the beginning we discuss about what we can see with the naked eye, but equipment such as electron microscopes are required to start to solve some of the more challenging aspects of the science. I don’t think any of you have an electron microscope at home, so going to a laboratory is a trip you will have to take to see the real challenges offered by Chemistry.

Accidental Discoveries that Changed the World

I would like to say that based on my last blog, that Chemistry and science is very neat and orderly because of the Scientific Method. But I can’t. In fact, some of the most important discoveries the world has been able to use in everyday life came about purely accident. We will just look at a few here, especially those that are about Chemistry.


Are Pharmacists Chemists? Well, not so much today but back in the 19th century they were known to conduct some of their own experiments. John Walker, a British pharmacist, was stirring a batch of chemicals and saw a dried lump of something on the end of his mixing stick. Naturally, he went to scape it off and the result was sparks and flame, creating the first (fire) match.


Super Glue is something we absolutely need in a pinch, but it was the result of a failed experiment. Harry Coover, Jr. was in the process of experimenting with specific chemical compounds known as acrylates. His experiments led him to trying to create a heat resistant coating for cockpits on jets, and when he took two plastic lenses and spread this new acrylate between them, he could not separate them. What he had expected to happen, that he would be able to separate the two pieces for further examination, never happened. It took a little thought and ingenuity, but Coover would market this accidental product as Super Glue a few years later.


This last one is something that is non-chemical but everyone should be familiar with. Text messaging. Long ago in 1987, mobile phones (not smartphones) were being worked on by European engineers with the idea of making them smaller and more portable. Back then, some cell phones were the size of a World War II walkie-talkie. (That is such a cute name!) The primary goal was to create a system that would work throughout all of Europe. To test the system, a script was written that allowed the engineers to send short messages to one another. Voila! SMS texting was born.


What does all this show you? That you should always be looking for opportunities in your everyday life to see something that everyone else has missed. As a chemistry student, applying the scientific method is essential for you to become proficient at Chemistry, but in the real world everything does not always end up the way we think.

Scientific Method and How to Use it at Home

I hope you saw from the first blog that one of my goals is to make Chemistry and science easy to understand. The essential thing to know about Chemistry is that it has certain rules that have been developed about the way things work. In a broad sense, this is called the Scientific Method. We will be talking about that here, and how you can use it at home. This will help you use it throughout your whole life as you continue to become more knowledgeable about Chemistry and science.

There are a series of steps that have to be followed in a specific order for you to be able to say that any question you ask has been properly solved using the Scientific Method. So let’s begin by choosing something that is a chore around your house that you have to do.

Taking out the garbage.

  1. Ask a question.

That question is likely to be ‘why do I have to take out the garbage’. Asking why something is the way it is often is one of the best questions a student of science can ask.

  1. Do background research.

You can ask what will or will not happen if you choose not to take it out. For examples, besides your parents getting upset with you (a cause and effect concept) you can research things like rodent infestation, vermin, odors, or the decomposition of organic matter. These latter two topics are related to Chemistry. Learning what is already known will save you oodles of time in deciding how best to answer the question.

  1. Construct a hypothesis.

This is a scientific way of saying, “If I do this, then that will happen.” Here, you might say if you let the garbage pile up then the organic matter will begin undergoing a chemical change. This part of the Scientific Method should be stated in a positive way (if I do this, rather than, if I don’t do this) and needs to be specific and clear.

  1. Create an experiment to test the hypothesis.

It is not recommended that you let the garbage pile up at home, but if you had your own laboratory you could set aside a contained space that would let you see and measure what happens to the organic matter. You might see that a Hostess Twinkie exhibits to change over a 30 day period, while the McDonald’s French Fries actually start turning color. Both are valid results of the experiment, even if nothing happens.

  1. Analyze the data and draw conclusions.

There are a few steps before and after this one, but right now it is OK to leave them be. We will get to them later. Notice that you have to have data, meaning whatever you are seeing happen has to be measurable and can be recorded for others to see. Doing this means that other people will be able to see not only what you have done, but how you did and check to see if they can produce the same results.

That wasn’t so bad, was it? This blog is about Chemistry, but you can see how the Scientific Method applies to Biology, Etymology, Psychology, and many other sciences. No matter what area of science you choose to pursue as a career (I’m hoping it’s Chemistry) you will use the same method to create and conduct experiments, and draw conclusions for others to test.