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The World of Chemistry: “10 Unsolved Mysteries”

November 23, 2011

3D rendering of DNA Strands, IStockphoto

I read a fascinating article by Phillip Ball in Scientific American entitled, 10 Unsolved Mysteries.  He writes about the 10 unsolved mysteries in chemistry and biochemistry–the sciences of atoms and molecules.  As a chemistry and biology teacher, I was fascinated by his approach of challenging us to think about scientific concepts from the perspective of unsolved mysteries.  Could we excite the imagination of our students by thinking about science as an exploration of unsolved mysteries?  Popular culture, CSI-type programs, have captured the imagination and attention of people over the past ten years.  Why not approach science education in a similar way?

I know many of my colleagues will say that students need a great deal of content knowledge before they can actually think creatively about the “unsolved mysteries” of science.  Maybe that’s the case, but I also wonder if our imagination is constrained by our past experiences in the classroom.  Do we think of the science classroom in too limited a way?  Why not explore new ways to approaching our instruction or new ways of turning students on to learning science?  Project-based learning, in tandem with the “unsolved mysteries” approach, might be a way to think about teaching science in creative and interesting ways.

Here are Ball’s 10 unsolved mysteries in chemistry and biochemistry:

1. How Did Life Begin?
2. How Do Molecules Form?
3. How Does the Environment Influence Our Genes?
4. How Does the Brain Think and Form Memories?
5. How Many Elements Exist?
6. Can Computers Be Made Out of Carbon?
7. How Do We Tap More Solar Energy?
8 What Is the Best Way to Make Biofuels?
9. Can We Devise New Ways to Create Drugs?
10. Can We Continuously Monitor Our Own Chemistry?

I will be the first to admit that these questions may be too complex for the average secondary student.  However, what is the “student-friendly” version of each of these questions.  Could a course be designed around these questions or 10 other questions of similar interest and complexity?  If so, this course might be the perfect vehicle to teach the 21st Century skills that we know students need to develop before they move on to higher education.  Let’s put our imaginations to work.

The Center for Teaching would like to promote this type of work as part of its curriculum development program.

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