Committee on Chemistry in the Two-Year College Report, Fall 2015

Bringing in the Old with the New
In June while the eastern US experienced record setting rainfall and the already bone dry western US baked in record setting heat, my son and I embarked on a 12 day father-son hiking/camping expedition. We visited four national parks and two national monuments, saw a cougar, hiked among cathedral tall redwoods and Douglas firs hundreds of years old, explored pitch dark lava tube caves and steaming fumaroles, spent a cold and windy night at an isolated lighthouse, and anxiously waited out an impressive lightning storm in the high Sierra in a converted Forest Service fire tower lookout (1-4). My son summarized the trip best, “Dad, this is epic!” Indeed.

Invigorated by the trip and catalyzed by the numerous, thought-provoking insights from a 12 year old, I decided to find more creative, new (if not unorthodox) ways to introduce general and organic chemistry topics into my teaching portfolio. Perhaps use more compelling examples of how chemistry is an integral part of pressing environmental and societal issues. Or use more examples on how non-human animals adapt to their environment. Everybody likes animals, right?

This ‘new’ approach is not entirely new. For two decades I haven’t shied away from discussing societal issues. This spring in the first five minutes or so of an organic chemistry class I discussed the 100th anniversary of the first use of poison gas in human warfare, borrowing heavily from the cover story of the February 23, 2015 issue of Chemical & Engineering News (C&EN), which included articles about this infamous anniversary and the development of modern chemical warfare agents (5). Students fell silent as I read aloud the horrifying eyewitness account written by a young German soldier of the attack as printed in C&EN.

Want to view free webinars dealing with climate change? Check out The Ohio State University Changing Climate webinar series (6). Though the series’ focus is the Great Lakes region, nevertheless the topics covered are not limited to midwestern geography. Chemistry faculty everywhere will benefit professionally and intellectually from these resource-rich, information deep, multidisciplinary webinars.

Ice influences the global climate. Greenland’s shrinking glacial ice sheet and the retreating and thinning of Arctic sea ice will in some way affect Earth’s climate. When discussing thermochemistry, I weave into the narrative the liquid water/ice/vapor cycle. But showing water’s phase diagram and discussing heats of vaporization and fusion really are not that exciting. So why not use the kaleidoscopic, hauntingly beautiful time-lapse imagery of award-winning photojournalist James Balog’s Extreme Ice Survey (EIS) to add some visual seeing-is-believing ‘eye candy’ to the discussion (7). In short, Balog and his team are documenting the rate at which extraordinary amounts of ice are melting from Earth’s climatically cold regions. The rapid disappearance of the ice landscape is unexpected and disturbing.

What weighs about 100g (about 17 quarters), travels between 300 and 470 miles daily during its annual ‘figure eight’ migration from the Arctic to the Antarctic (roughly 22,000 miles) and back, and in total travels upwards to 55,000 miles every year for 30 consecutive years? An Arctic tern, the animal kingdom’s relentless ultra-marathoner (8). An Arctic terns’ lifetime frequent flyer numbers equate to about 1,650,000 miles, or about 3.4 roundtrips between Earth and the Moon, or 66 times around Earth’s equator. Imagine the energy and metabolic requirements to accomplish such a feat for such a small body mass! When migrating, Arctic terns feed voraciously on oily fish and krill, taking advantage of the easily digestible (the oils are liquids so no energy is expended for chewing), high energy and relatively easily oxidized mono and polyunsaturated fats. Perhaps this remarkable animal can be used as an introduction to discussions on energy and the energy derived from chemical bonds (say, double versus single carbon-carbon bonds).

Or how about the toughest little bird you never heard of, the bar-tailed godwit, which makes the Kia Soul EV look like an energy-consuming hog, triathletes like wimps, and a Tough Mudder obstacle course a casual stroll to the mailbox. In October they leave Alaska and fly non-stop (= no food, water, or sleep breaks, no pausing of any type) over the vast Pacific Ocean until they arrive about eight days later in New Zealand, an epic endurance flight of 192 continuous hours, oftentimes against the prevailing winds and through storms, covering over 7,000 miles (with an average speed of 36mph), all the while consuming their body mass as they utilize the energy tied up in their fat reserves. Oxidation of fats produces the water needed during flight. For more about the remarkable energy and metabolic requirements for bird flight check out references 9 and 10. Talk about this in your class. I guarantee you’ll get some students’ attention.

Slán go foil (Goodbye in Irish Gaelic)

1. National Parks- Yosemite, Lassen Volcanic, Crater Lake, and Redwoods
2. National Monuments- Lava Beds & Oregon Caves
3. Point Arena Lighthouse (
4. Calpine Fire Tower Lookout (
7. &

Scott Donnelly
Chair 2YC3
Professor of Chemistry
Arizona Western College


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