Eavesdropping on Professional Chemists


My husband and I are both chemists, but in very different capacities.  My focus is teaching while he is a lab supervisor.  As such, we have very different discussions when we meet with colleagues.  Usually.  A few weeks ago we attended a meeting together and I felt right at home.  The discussion topic was lab audits.  This is when fellow chemists enter a different lab and make sure that everyone is following protocols properly.  It reminded me of what we often do with our students.  "I see you are using a graduated cylinder.  Why did you choose this tool?  Was that the best tool for the job?  What made you decide to use a graduated cylinder instead of a beaker? etc."  The discussion continued to hit home when the chemists began discussing significant figures.  They went on and on about how these chemists didn't know a thing about significant figures!  "Sometimes we don't use them.  Are they really important?  Can't we just put as many digits as our calculator gave us?  How do we even determine sig figs?"  I nearly laughed out loud as I have had similar discussions both with colleagues and students.  It reminded me of how important our jobs are.  We need our students to learn these skills in our high school and community college classrooms.  We not only need to teach them the skills, but they need to know when, why, and how to apply them.  We want our students to be the ones absent in these stories because they are the short story.  "Why did you use this number?  Because based on the instruments I used it was the proper number using significant figures."  These stories are not as humerous or entertaining, but I hope my students are the heroes in these less exciting tales.

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Comments 1

Deanna Cullen's picture
Deanna Cullen | Mon, 09/29/2014 - 15:31

Thanks for sharing this, Sarah! I tried the activity that Erica Adams discussed in a recent post and found it to be great for helping students to determine the rules of sig figs themselves instead of providing the rules for them! I asked students to come up with rules and then showed them the rules in a text book. They were right on!