It was almost lunch time and the majority of the students had finished their worksheet. The classroom teacher had decided it would be no imposition for him to leave early, so I was left in charge. A few girls in the back were chatting about a YouTube featuring a teenage girl consuming a disgusting item, trying to figure out how it was faked. I was politely prodding a boy who had spent much of class simply staring at the textbook. Swiveling his head, he attempted to flag their attention, eager to get the YouTube link.
So I asked “Why did you need to know it?”
“I need to see the video.”
“But it’s is faked.”
“Well, it’s just the thought of it.” he grinned evidently pleased at the sickening image he imagined.
“What is the use of watching something that really isn’t happening?”
“Who cares as long as it is interesting. It’s more interesting than chemistry,” he shot back.
There are a few ways I could respond:
1) Explain how there would be no such thing as videos on YouTube without the contribution of chemistry savvy individuals in the fields of photography, film, and integrated circuits. However, due to these innovative people (plus software experts) video encoding can be done by the average second grader. With advance knowledge in science no longer necessary to do so many tasks due to electronic devices, this student may see no motivation to learn them.
2) Try to point out that real information is bound to be more useful that than a obvious fabrication. Although this seems obvious, it is extremely hard to combat the human attraction for the sensational story. As journalist Robert Bianco noted concerning movies, “The preference for fiction over fact is hardly a new phenomenon.” This student was searching for something interesting little concern about the truthfulness or applicability of what he learned.
3) Find a video with adequately realistic disgustingly gross scenes to teach the procedures that this student found boring. Despite the myriad entertaining videos on the Internet, those with adequate instruction in stoichiometry are mostly words on a screen or writing on a board. If attention grabbing sequences are added to this kind of instruction, students pay attention to these scenes and not the instructions for solving the problems.
4) Inform the student that learning applications in chemistry will lead to higher thinking skills. Although this may be true there is no evidence that higher thinking skills can be transferred from chemistry to designing software or interpreting a novel. If his career goals are not going to require any further knowledge of chemistry, he might as well be studying complex problem solving in some other domain.
5) I asked the student what he felt he needed to learn in order to do what he wanted to do. He said he was planning joining in the army and become a gunner in a helicopter. I responded from my experience as creating lessons for a newly armed version of an army observation helicopter (OH58-D) during the time of the Gulf War.
“You need to know basic chemistry and physics both if you are going to be dealing with ordnances.” I said.
“I’m not going to do that, I’m going to be a gunner,” he declared, repeating the thrilling description that an army veteran had given him.
I hope most high school students will not have as rude an awakening as he will, if he ever reaches his dream job.