Why study chemistry?

This may be hard to believe, but many students in an introductory chemistry class don’t enroll out of sheer fascination for the subject.  Chemistry is required for many degree programs, from engineering to environmental science to healthcare professions such as nursing or pharmacy.  It’s a challenging class that students usually take early on because it’s a prerequisite for upper-level classes for many majors.  Many students haven’t learned how to study effectively by the time they first encounter a chemistry class, and consequently they don’t do well and end up resenting the subject.[1]

It’s unfortunate that chemistry isn’t better-loved among the general public, because a bit of scientific literacy can be very, very helpful.  For example, if we all had a solid understanding of chemistry, no one would be fooled by the sort of fearmongering that obsesses over any food ingredient that has more than a four-syllable name.  The market for expensive, pseudoscience-laden specialty bottled water would likely shrink if everyone understood a few basics about the structure of water (and just how clean tap water is in the US).  And no one would worry about dying a slow death at the hands of a microwave oven, because we would share an understanding of how light in different regions of the electromagnetic spectrum interacts with molecules!

Chemistry classes lay the groundwork for understanding these concepts and many more, but it is ultimately up to students to apply what they learn in the classroom to what they encounter in everyday life.  So, students, if you want to get the most out of your chemistry class, here’s a curiosity exercise for you: look around you.  Ask questions about what you observe.  Then, using your knowledge of basic chemistry concepts, try to answer your own questions!  Always sanity-check your answers to see if they make sense, too.  This can be tricky at first, but if you keep doing it, you’ll develop a much deeper understanding of the world around you–and a much deeper appreciation for chemistry.[2]


[1] This was me, but in physics.  I had to retake that class because I almost failed it.  Protips if you’d like to avoid my fate: show up for lecture, work the problem sets, and come to office hours if you’re confused.

[2] And no one will ever be able to sell you snake oil by using sciencey-sounding words, because you’ll know better.