As chemistry teachers, there are many ways we can relate our subject to the world around us. Linking with an effort to increase literacy at my school, I've started reading a non-fiction book with one of my chemistry classes titled, “The Case of the Frozen Addicts: Working at the Edge of the Mysteries of the Human Brain." Written as a third-person account of J. William Langston, M.D., coauthored with Jon Palfreman, the story follows Dr. Langston as he unravels a puzzling sequence of cases involving drug addicts in the Bay Area near San Francisco. These drug addicts start developing symptoms of Parkinson's disease almost overnight. The story reads almost as a mystery novel - except it's a true accounting of the patients and the efforts of the doctors and scientists involved trying to understand the perplexing symptoms. The victims involved had all injected what they thought to be heroin. Instead, they were using a designer drug manufactured in a clandestine lab. As fate would have it, they were actually injecting the results of a chemical reaction gone badly. One of the products of the designer drug production damaged the cells of the substantia nigra where the neurotransmitter dopamine is produced. This lead to an almost immediate onset of Parkinsonism.
I don't want to play spoiler here in case you want to read the book, so I won't go into many of the details of the story. If you'd like more background, The New England Journal of Medicine has a review.1 Instead I'd like to focus on how I use the book within my class. To give some background, the class is an introductory chemistry course for grade 10 students aimed at preparing students to enter the IB Diploma Program chemistry course in the fall. The curriculum for the one-semester course certainly covers many standard chemistry topics such as the mole, bonding and Lewis structures, solutions and solubility along with reactions and stoichiometry. My hope in using the book is that the students will be inspired to engage in the curriculum and find ways to connect the topics of the course to the world around them. The book discusses the chemical syntheses involved in the making of the designer drugs. This will hopefully lead my students to want to understand chemical structures better. During our unit on bonding, we will break out the model kits and build some of the molecules that have a role in the book, such as L-Dopa and MPTP (1-methyl-4-phenyl-propionoxypiperidine). Students can see first-hand how small changes in molecular structure can lead to drastic differences in biological activity within the body. And looking at L-Dopa introduces the concept of stereochemistry, which can lead to many extension topics for interested students.
There are also many ethical issues that can be discussed from the book. In one of our upcoming weeks, I have plans for a fish bowl discussion with the possible topic being the legality of designer drugs. When the events were taking place in 1982, street-savvy chemists found loopholes in then-current drug statutes by modifying molecules to make them technically legal, while being just as dangerous and addicting as their analogues. The students will get to discuss their views on this issue. Based on their first blog posts summarizing and responding to the first few chapters, opinions will vary, leading to some interesting exchanges. While the fish bowl is happening, I will have the students on the outside of the fish bowl engaged in a backchannel discussion using Twitter and our class hashtag, along with #FrozenAddicts. I'll then use Storify to make a record of the exchanges from the discussion.
Just this week I asked students to form groups and create posters with four sections: summary (of chapters 4-6), response to any issues in the chapters they’ve read, questions sparked by their reading, and topics to study in order to understand the book better. I only gave about 40 minutes for this task, and I could have given even more, as the groups were really active in their discussions about what to put on their posters. Additionally, with extra time the class would have benefited from some open-ended discussion so they could process the ideas of other groups.
As mentioned earlier, I've asked my students to blog as a way to respond to the text. The first blog post was simply a summary of the first few chapters, along with an open ended request that the students 'respond to the text,' along with a list of questions inspired by their reading. Future blog posts will center on the ethical issues involved and other topics that come up in our class discussions. As I write my own blog post here, my students are drafting and editing their second blog post. If you're interested in reading (and hopefully commenting on) some of the students' work, visit our class blog and look for the "Student Blogs" page: http://aisbchemblog.wordpress.com.
I'll share some reflection on the fish bowl discussion and other activities in a future blog post to give you an update and share more ideas.
The Journal of Chemical Education offers summer reading suggestions each year2 and I'd suggest adding this to your reading list. The book is no longer in print, but I was able to purchase a full class set from Amazon last year in preparation for using the book.
Do you have other non-fiction books or novels that you read with one of your chemistry classes? Please share your ideas in the comments. I'm always looking to expand my reading list and find new ways to get students thinking about the connections between science and society.
New England Journal of Medicine 1996; 335:2002-2003.
Journal of Chemical Education 2013 90 (7), 823-831.