Teaching chemistry is a tough job. The reason I make that slightly boastful statement is that as an educator in chemistry, you have to teach on a variety of levels. I personally have taught everything from advanced graduate-level organic chemistry, all the way down to explaining the chemistry of Jello to my 8 year old god-daughter. There is a dangerous trap into which educators can fall, and it’s this trap that I’d like to discuss in this article: how much “dumbing down” can you do before the subject begins to lose its meaning?
Allow me to give you an example. Nursing students need to have a pretty good handle on unit conversion. If they’re on the job five years later, I don’t want them giving me 10 kilograms of warfarin instead of 10 milligrams, because they didn’t understand what the prefixes on the dosages represented. So, unit conversion is a strong skill for nursing students to have, and it’s a skill that’s taught in every general chemistry book, Chapter 1. However: do nursing students really need to know how to use molecular mass to convert the number of milligrams of warfarin to the number of molecules of warfarin, using Avogadros Number? Probably not. It’s something with which chemists are concerned – determining the number of “moles”, or molecules, present in a flask is crucial to determining the outcome of a chemical reaction – but nursing students probably don’t need to know that.
The difficulty arises when you consider that most general chemistry texts (for chemistry majors), the books with which chemical educators are likely most familiar, present both topics at the same time. It makes perfect sense to do so – both types of calculations use the same mathematical strategy to solve (dimensional analysis), and so the trap is that when teaching / tutoring a nursing student, you (as a chemical educator) must be very, very careful to lower the amount of information down to the level that they need without changing the quality or accuracy of the information.
Teaching nursing students accurate science is important, and sometimes that gets a little lost in the translation. Instead of presenting them with the level of chemistry they need and leaving it open-ended (implying that there is a higher level of complexity present that you are not discussing), some educators make the mistake of implying that this lowered standard of information is “all there is”. Let me give you an example that cropped up with a nursing student that I was tutoring. Her classroom teacher was teaching a class on nursing-level chemistry, and was telling them about heat – a valid subject for the class – and how microwaves can be used to heat objects. This is all true so far. Microwaves cause objects that have permanent dipoles – a permanent partial separation of electron density within the molecule – to vibrate, which generates heat. Water has a permanent dipole, for example, due to the presence of the oxygen and the fact that the oxygen is far more electronegative than the hydrogens. Water is heated in a microwave.
Instead of teaching the class that microwaves can be used to heat some molecules (and leaving unsaid the explanation of how – unimportant to nursing students, they are just learning about heat and heat sources), this particular teacher taught them that water must be present in order for an object to be heated by microwaves. He even put that question on the final exam, and scored my tutoring student wrong for saying (correctly) that water does not have to be present; only a dipole needs to be present. This is an example of the classic mistake that I’m trying to correct by writing this article.
Teaching nursing students chemistry is challenging. As an educator, you must lower your level of sophistication and complexity. Nurses live in the real world. They deal with patients, with hospitals – they’re not going to be in a chemistry lab, synthesizing a new gasoline additive. We as educators need to teach them correctly, even if it means we don’t teach them the complete story, and we need to make sure that our internal mental “dumbing down” of our thought processes doesn’t give them the implication that the simple version you’re presenting is all that exists.