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Pumpkin-LEGO-Man Is Coming to Teach You Chemistry!

23 May

In what was, retrospectively, one of the most awesomely nonchalant Girls Kick @ss moments of my life, I found myself yesterday sitting around a table with H., H., and M. discussing entropy and equilibrium and Legos.

Quick: if carbon dioxide (CO2) decomposes into carbon monoxide (CO) and oxygen (O2), has the entropy increased, decreased, or stayed the same?

If you said ‘increased,’ you’re right. If you had no idea what the hell I was saying, then you’ve probably forgotten most of your high school chemistry. For shame!*

And if you’re me, trying to explain entropy (a concept which you only kinda-sorta-maybe understand, even after a semester of 300-level thermodynamics) to a group of confused 10th-graders, you dive into the Lego bin. As in: You have a bin full of Lego men. You take the heads off of all the men, so now you have a bin full of Lego heads and decapitated Lego bodies. Has the disorder increased, decreased, or stayed the same? Laugh all you want, but I bet you can answer that question.

This is far from the silliest example I’ve come up with. This, my friends, is my schtick. I come up with really weird analogies. I’m the girl who explained Google Docs to her mother with underground caverns and scuba gear. I made my students change a story problem about docks to one about DUCKS because I thought it was more fun. And then there was the cat-up-a-tree-attached-to-a-phone-cord incident.**

But hey – it works. My mental pictures are usually silly beyond belief, but they’re just stupid enough and just clever enough that (usually) things are clearer after I dump my students into a bin of decapitated Legos. Even if I suddenly find myself in need of more Lego bits to describe more complicated reactions and suddenly we have Lego men with pumpkins and apples for heads and Lego heads stuck to cat bodies and cat bodies with apples for heads and…

And really, wouldn’t it be much simpler if we all just agreed to replace the word hypotenuse with hippopotamus? Most days I have trouble saying the word, and half of my students are so busy trying to translate their thoughts from Spanish or Hmong*** into English that it’s really just cruel to throw Greek**** at them.

In retrospect, depicting chemistry instruction as a pumpkin-headed monster was maybe not the best idea. In my defense, I drew this on day one of taking a new prescription, so I’m blaming the drugs. Although I’m pretty sure bizarre scientific metaphors wasn’t listed as a possible side effect.

*Disclaimer: I have forgotten every single aspect of high school chemistry that was not somehow reinforced by six subsequent years of studying physics.

**Not one of my better ideas.

***What’s a Hmong, you ask? You mean your school didn’t have signs posted in English, Spanish, and Hmong? Must just be southern Wisconsin…

****Yes, I’m aware that ‘hippopotamus’ is also Greek. But we learn it at an earlier age and it’s easier to say and stop poking holes in my flawless pedagogical logic already!

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