18 Jul 2008

Oliver Sacks' "Uncle Tungsten" and inorganic chemistry

Literature Discussion

Submitted by Joanne Stewart, Hope College

Students read Oliver Sacks' autobiography "Uncle Tungsten" and take turns writing chapter summaries and discussion questions. Some chapters focus on Sacks' childhood chemical explorations and others on the historical period of his youth. In the summary, students are asked to either explain the chemistry in contemporary terms OR explain the context (what was going on in the world) of the historical pieces.

Implementation Notes: 

We spread this out throughout the semester, reading a couple chapters a week. Students posted their discussion questions to our class web site.

Time Required: 
All semester.
Evaluation Methods: 

I have attached a copy of the rubric I used for the students' chapter summaries. We discussed some of the discussion questions in class and I put some of them on the hour tests. I have attached a file with some samples of student discussion questions.

Evaluation Results: 

We did this for fun and to push students to think about the chemistry they were learning in a very different context. It did, in fact, turn out to be a lot of fun; one of the most fun things I've done in a class. Students commented that it was the first time they had been asked to read a novel in a chemistry class.

Creative Commons License: 
Creative Commons Licence


I think I'll try this in the fall-see how it works out. I loved this book, and it tickled my inorganic soul...I can only hope it will do the same for my students, but only trying will tell. Thanks for posting this!

This sounds like a fantastic idea. At some point within the next few years, I will be asked to teach a first year seminar course. The content is entirely up to me, so long as it meets the general objective of teaching college-level critical thinking and writing skills. I think that coupling this book to others of a similar theme would make for a good course. I loved reading this book. In fact, I met Oliver Sacks at the Fall 2007 ACS meeting and had him autograph my copy.

Randall Hicks Assistant Professor Wheaton College (MA)

With thanks to Donna Sundre from JMU, we learned about a podcast interview with Sacks where he describes the periodic table paraphernalia in his home. It's great!

You can get it through iTunes (Best of the Left, the Feb 10, 2009 show called "The Laws of the Universe") or you can get it directly from the Best of the Left site: http://www.bestoftheleftpodcast.com/ (Podcast #253).

 The Oliver Sacks part is in "Chapter 8" of the podcast.

Well, I *did* do this last year with my inorganic class, more or less. I opened with a discussion about how I wanted this class to be more than content-focused on the material of inorganic chemistry, but also a course in which we thought about what it means to be a sceintist, the difference beteween being a student and a scholar, what it meant for them to "become real chemists" in a year's time, and how this fit into a larger context. To that end, I wanted us to read Uncle Tungsten together. A pair of students was responsible for discussion questions for each couple chapters, and the questions were posted on a blog I set up for the class. Everyone was to respond to all of the questions. I'd say that early on, it worked exceptionally well. The students really opened up, and had a conversation about some really great themes. As the semester wore on, the posting and responses got a little spartan...as we moved into the end of the semester, it all kind of dried up. I think I will definitely do this again, with a more rigid schedule, set up an RSS feed on the blog, and make a point of trying to fire discussion. I tried to "stay out" of the conversation last time, but I think by trying to stimulate dialog, it might become more interesting (and thus people might go back and forth in the comments more), and the energy might be more sustainable. But in doing this, I saw a side of my students and their introspections on their lives, careers, and what chemistry meant to them that I'd never seen before.

I'm going to use Uncle Tungsten again this year. I plan to introduce Oliver Sacks today with the following video: http://www.sciencefriday.com/videos/watch/10338.

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