Chemistry

After the last Coursera course I took, I felt up for something in the hard sciences and something more mathy. Ideally I wanted something about Physics but none seemed available. This one however caught my attention, a fundamental Chemistry class offered by the University of Kentucky. Chemistry was always one of my weakest science subjects because I always felt like it consisted of memorizing lots of details about specific reactions. So I guess taking this to brush up my knowledge of it is a pretty good idea.

This one is jointly taught by Allison Soult and Kim Woodrum. It is supposed to be studied over the course of seven weeks and the workload is considerable as the videos for each week adds up to a considerable length. Assessment is via the usual multiple choice question quiz at the end of each week and there’s also an end of course exam. Handouts are available as a separate download, always a nice touch and there are even extra practice problems with their solutions available. Unfortunately there are a number of errors both in the slides and in the lectures and these have not been fixed even though this course has been available for a while now. If you check the discussion forums, you’ll see students raise these issues over and over again but there doesn’t seem to be any sort of official response, making it feel as if there’s no one left actively managing the course.

As I only have a high school education in chemistry, I was surprised that pretty much the first thing this course talks about is light. It then goes on from there to quantum theory, the dual nature of the electron and the Heisenberg Uncertainty principle. Wow, it sure feels like the teaching of chemistry has changed a lot since the last time I studied it. It turns out however that this methodology totally makes sense and I really appreciated how all this builds up to an understanding of how electrons are configured in atoms and from there we have a better picture of what the periodic table of elements is all about and why it’s laid out the way it is. If nothing else, this was the most important lesson I took away from this course: a broad overview of chemistry and how it fits in together with physics and how the properties of all molecules and atoms naturally fall out of how their electrons are configured.

Of course there are also lots of stuff that are essential for those who are going to make a career out of this and may be interesting to know for dilettantes like me but is so reliant on rote memorization and so details-based that I’m sure to forget everything about them soon enough. These include the lessons on how the nomenclature for different types of compounds are organized and the molecular geometries for different species of chemical elements. Still I found the lessons about using experiments to calculate enthalpy change to be fascinating and this course gets bonus points for including an example that uses rocket fuel as I’m still playing Kerbal Space Program. The latter parts of the course have a heavy emphasis on solving practical problems. I actually found these to be easier than the theory stuff as they are only about recognizing the type of problem and applying the appropriate solution template, especially as the maths are merely simple algebra. I’m not sure how much I really gain in understanding from knowing how to work these solutions but I guess it’s a cool trick to know.

One amusing thing I noticed about this course is that professor Woodrum speaks with a highly distinctive southern twang. Obviously I’m no American but hearing this accent still instantly make me think of her as being less educated and intelligent. This is wrong of course as the excellence of the course materials here gives me no reason to doubt her competence and professionalism, but it’s funny how instinctive and ingrained this kind of prejudice is. The only real complaint on the sound front is that volume levels across videos are terribly inconsistent. A couple of videos have the volume turned down so low that they are barely audible and you need the subtitles to understand what is being said. As it is, you’re forced to constantly adjust your volume knob from one video to the next.

Finally, I suspect that some people might be put off by the dryness of the presentations. The instructors make no attempt to introduce themselves or their subject. Usually the professors in these online courses will have some fluff videos talking about the importance of their subject and how it relates to the world and individual careers. The closest thing to that in this course are videos of the instructors doing experiments in a classroom so this course is basically all chemistry all the time. I’m fine with that as I think this wastes a minimum of time and it feels great to get right into the subject and people should be aware of this. In any case, I thought this was a fantastic course on the fundamentals of chemistry and it really helped me gain a firmer understanding of how the modern teaching of it is organized.

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