When I was younger I wanted to be a science communicator, maybe a science writer. Science was—is!—can be—one of the best ways for me to experience wonder about the world, about the beautiful arrays of colors in plants or rock layers building up mountains or cats growing fur between their toes or how ears focus sound waves or the pleasant fizzy complexity of fermentation.
But science is hard. I like learning science and I like doing science but I’m not particularly good at it. Sometimes in a bodily way—my hands shake just a little, I don’t have strong endurance for 10-hour days—and sometimes in a mental way; I can’t stay focused on one topic or remember all the pieces of a formula or theory without notes.
It surprised me, then, how much I loved (some pieces of) organic chemistry class. I liked introductory chemistry fine. It’s fun to think about acids and bases and indicators, about how different types of chemicals react together differently, learning about the shuffling around of ions in solution to make a new precipitate, about solubility and chromatography and fascinating bubbling fluids of all kinds. But in OChem, we got to connect the theories together. Each individual atom, with such-and-such proton count and electron orbitals shaped like this, forms a particular number of bonds with other atoms resulting in molecules shaped like this! We built little stick and ball models of them. We learned about what complicated-ass molecule names mean and how to interpret line diagrams of chemical structures, what a benzene ring is drawn like and what it acts like, how different sticky-outy bits from a main carbon chain means a chemical reacts differently because of the actual tiny shape there!
That’s really what got—and continues to get—me: the connection between theory-rich discussion of atom counts and suchlike and the actual physical 3-dimensional spatial relationships between chemicals, which are after all just molecules made of atoms! The nitrogen likes making 3 bonds but makes them at a different angle to (say) a Carbon that’s bonded to an oxygen and two hydrogens; there’s a bonus pair of electrons on the end of a Nitrogen that push just like a bond would that the oxygen doesn’t have, and they all repel each other, trying to take up as much space (or as many steradians) as it can around the atom; so the Nitrogen has four things sharing space and the carbon has 3.
But when we teach organic chemistry, it’s short on wonder. Students get lost in a morass of memorizing lists of reactions and names of chemicals; a pile of flashcards in a 200-person weed-out STEM class where, if you’re lucky, your smaller section is a chaotic busy lab taught by an overwhelmed graduate student where you accidentally spill ether all over your hands repeatedly and get docked points for not filling out your carbon paper lab notebook with the correct margin size.
It’s difficult for all the wrong reasons.
Some parts of science are difficult to learn because they take a brain-shift, a change in perspective, zooming in or out incredibly far in time and space, or maybe holding multiple types of ideas together to track how they interact. The difficulty can be eased some through explanations or practice but can’t be skipped. But when the focus is on remembering the specific wording of the parts that necessary for the MCAT, you don’t have as much brain to apply to the difficulties and achieving actual understanding is that much more difficult.
That being said, some jargon is probably necessary, or at least useful to streamline learning discussions. Where I come down is: there’s no reason to disallow a vocabulary sheet in any learning context. Building reference sheets or tiny molecule models is one way to learn the patterns and a potential pathway to pick up on the interrelations and joy in them. We then can use the memorizable pieces to carry through discussions and problem-solving on a more abstract level rather than memorizing everything involved and hoping for the best.
I have zero training in education, to be clear. I am not a teacher. I have been a student at the undergraduate and graduate levels in various disciplines, including the basic sciences, and lifelong in a more independent way.
My more recent learning has been of a very different type though similar difficulty level. I take a queer-centered talmud course in Seattle called Gaymara. It’s taught Svara-style. We learn in a pretty traditional manner, including going through the text in the original hebrew and Aramaic with a dictionary close at hand. We build knowledge of the language as we go, discussing in chevruta (learning pairs) as we explore the text and its potential meanings and applications. After small-group learning, we come together to discuss as a whole class, figuring out where/if we messed up individually and building knowledge relationships as a whole.
And as the first piece of chevruta study, we work on memorization. We memorize because, historically, antisemites have a habit of burning Jewish books, but also because it can be a useful step in building knowledge. We recite back from memory (or as close to as possible) the text we learned the previous week: in Hebrew/Aramaic; in English as a direct/clear/simple/literal language translation; and in English with colloquialisms. Crucially, we do not memorize things we don’t understand; we (hopefully) encode things into our memories only once we understand them and their significance.
When we come together as a group for the second half of class, we discuss and teach and learn all at once. We sound out the language and, in the process, keep it alive in between turning pages of an inscrutable dictionary I love to hate. Language learning, like science, is difficult in some intractable ways, and interpretation of texts rooted in a different culture than ours is too; doing them at the same time helps root each learning in the other.
I’m learning vocabulary and some grammar word by word, but I’m also learning how to tell if the text shifts from Hebrew to Aramaic or back; I’m learning which rabbis lived where and when, and gaining a much deeper grasp of jewish history and our relationship with diaspora than I could by reading a translation, even if the text we’re studying is about something else entirely.
I took Organic Chemistry a decade ago. I passed, but not by very much. Time is its own ingredient: I don’t know if I would do better in a traditional classroom than I did last time, or worse; but I feel interested and capable in taking on the source material now in a way I wasn’t then.
I want to re-learn organic chemistry. I want to remember long-forgotten pieces of molecules and how they work together, electron pairs and covalent bonds, I want to think about perpendicular rings and little bitty structure diagrams. And I want to do it more like how I learn talmud: with a dictionary in front of me, and a reference sheet of definitions I build as I go. Talking about steps and meaning and shapes with a fellow learner (which, arguably, I really should have done the first time around), and trying to remember it not through rote repetition devoid of meaning but in connection with pieces I've learned before, and little models, and trying individual phrases and reaction diagrams on for size bit by bit until it clicks into place as part of a coherent and beautiful narrative.