Monday, March 4, 2013

Borg in the classroom

Reading Ray Kurzweil's book, The Singularity in Near, has been getting me thinking about how I can help my students go Borg--build technology into their lives, so they can be competitive in the marketplace of the future. I've been wondering why we don't take advantage of all the tools technology has to offer--why we keep using old methods when newer, faster ones could free us to pursue higher goals. So this past week I tried a little activity designed to whet their appetites and test my ideas about technology. I called it a Grok vs. Borg race, and the outcome was exciting.

I recently showed my students some online resources, like, that can balance equations and calculate masses of compounds--stuff they normally do with archaic tools like periodic tables and TI-83 calculators. Then I gave them a worksheet of chemical calculations--stoichiometry, to be exact, for all you chemists out there (and for those of you who have not blocked out your high school experience). I told them it was a "Grok vs. Borg" race ("Grok" being the name of Mark Sisson's hypothetical caveman). The worksheet is below. A handful of students with iPads or smartphones chose the "Borg" group. The rest of the class played the role of themselves--the traditional (caveman) chemistry students.

Though there was a bit of a learning curve for "the Borg" as they found their way around the websites, they edged out the cavemen in my first class, and won a decisive victory in the next. It was interesting to see the excitement and interest the activity generated, especially in the Borg team. The look on the winning student's face was precious: it was a look of confidence, power, and competence.

So what's my point? My point is resistance is futile. We all had better assimilate technology or be assimilated by it. Sure, students need a basic understanding of the principles behind the calculations, just like we (hopefully) all understand what a fraction means before we use a calculator for division, but it's time we moved on and took advantage of new tools, so we can go further. Just as Newton saw further because he stood on the shoulders of giants, we expand human capability when we allow technology to replace old tasks so we can focus on new ones.

And actually, I'm not convinced we need the basic understanding before we can move on to the more advanced. First, much of the most currently important chemistry (quantum mechanics, for example) is independent of the bulk of our high school chemistry curriculum. To tell you the truth, I sometimes feel as if I'm teaching some ancient, lost (and obsolete) art. Secondly, it is often possible to "run before we can walk." I learned to speak long before I learned how to conjugate verbs, and I can use the internet without being able to build my own search engine (though I do want to learn that). There's no reason one of my students couldn't solve some great future problem in chemistry without ever knowing how to use the factor-label method.

And make no mistake about it: The factor label method will soon go way of the slide rule, and stoichiometry will find it's place among the lost arts of double-entry bookkeeping and celestial navigation. Maybe we'll do it just for fun, but we won't need to. And that means we'll have more time and energy to do something better--more exciting.And that's what tools do for us: they enable us to do things we couldn't do before, or do them better than before. They empower us.

And they can empower kids. What if a tech tool could enable a student who couldn't do math to become a great scientist? What if the poor reader could master Shakespeare and Dostoevsky? What if the blind could see and the lame walk? This is the promise and purpose of technology. And how better to stay relevant to these young people than to help them augment their abilities with cutting edge exciting technologies so they can study the really exciting things. They know that much of what they learn at school is decades out of date--that they're like cavechildren being forced to learn the finer points of stonecraft while outside their windows the iron forge glows. It's time we let them throw out their stone tools for iron, their pencils for keyboards, and their calculators and textbooks for whatever they can find. And then watch them soar.

Here's the worksheet:

Stoichiometry Race

Group A can use calculator, periodic table, notes, textbook, pencil, and paper. 
Group B can use all of the above, plus the internet, including websites such as Google and:

Consider the following reaction in which the chemical weapon, phosgene, reacts with ammonia:
COCl2 +     NH3   CO(NH2)2 +   NH4Cl

1. Balance it.
2. How many moles of phosgene are required to react with 0.33 moles of ammonia?
3. How many g of urea (CO(NH2)2 ) are produced when 0.100 g of phosgene reacts?
4. What is the percent composition of phosgene?

Consider the following reaction:
C2H6O2   +   O2    CO2 +   H2O

5. Balance it.
6. How many moles of O2 are required to burn 0.25 moles of ethylene glycol (C2H6O2)?
7. How many g of CO2 are produced when 1,000.0 g of ethylene glycol is burned?
8. What is the empirical (simplest) formula for ethylene glycol?
9. What is ethylene glycol used for?