from The Textbook Letter, May-June 1996

Reviewing LeBel's high-school chemistry series

Chemistry 2000
Book 1     1994     ISBN: 0-920008-51-8
Book 2     1996     ISBN: 0-920008-52-6
J.M. LeBel Enterprises, 6420 Meadowcreek Drive, Dallas, Texas 75240.

It's Scientifically Accurate,
but It Needs a Lot More Work

Rollie J. Myers

Chemistry 2000 consists of five paperbound booklets that evidently are meant to be used only once, by one high-school student. In each booklet, pages of narrative text and illustrations are interspersed with worksheets that the student has to complete as he makes his way through the subject matter.

The organization of the booklets is somewhat eccentric since the first, second and third booklets are collectively called Book 1, while the fourth and fifth booklets are called Book 2. The third booklet looks like an afterthought. It has anomalous page-numbers that don't comply with the sequence of page-numbers used in the first, second, fourth and fifth.

Earlier versions of Chemistry 2000 -- published in 1978, 1987, 1990 and 1993 -- had the title ALCHEM, and that title still shows up at many points in Chemistry 2000. In the fourth booklet, for example, an "Acknowledgements" blurb extends thanks to "the writers and consultants involved in the production of ALCHEM 2000," and a note exhorts the student to "follow the ALCHEM worksheets." Moreover, the name ALCHEM appears as a label at the bottom of every page in each booklet. The continued use of the ALCHEM title is presumably attributable to sloppy editing.

Standards and Requirements

Before we look into the content of Chemistry 2000, we have to consider what the ideal high-school chemistry text should present. First, the text should give a solid exposition of the traditional topics, so that students will understand the molecular basis of chemistry, including stoichiometry, and will appreciate the importance of bonding and molecular structure in shaping the properties of matter. This approach to chemistry, which started with John Dalton and reached its heights with Linus Pauling, is still necessary but is not sufficient. To understand the chemistry that so strongly influences the world around us, students must also learn about chemical reactions, including kinetics, thermodynamics, and various types of chemical equilibrium. And finally, they must learn how all of that classroom chemistry is actually related to problems which affect our own society and the world as a whole.

Today nearly every issue of any major newspaper contains at least one article that has a chemical theme. This does not mean, however, that a modern chemistry textbook can simply reprint portions of newspaper articles to show that chemistry is topical, or that a book merely needs to give tidbits of information about the lead-chamber process and the Solvay process. It means that a modern text has to explain, in some detail, such subjects as air pollution and water pollution; it also means that the text must explain the chemistry of mercury or lead, for example, so students can understand why the level of mercury or lead in drinking water is a matter of interest.

Clearly, a chemistry book can't give detailed treatment to every topic that has societal implications, but it should consider selected topics in ways that will help students to see that some societal problems can be solved only by applying principles of chemical science. The book should also show that every one of these problems involves unknown or immeasurable factors, and that there seldom is a single "correct" or perfect solution. Students should understand that, most often, all that we can do is to base our decisions on the best science that is available at the time, recognizing that our knowledge is imperfect and is clouded by uncertainty.

These standards for judging a chemistry text seem particularly applicable to Chemistry 2000. The slogan Science Technology Society appears on the covers of the first and fourth booklets, where it acts as a sort of subtitle, and the accompanying artwork includes a logo formed from the letters STS. Such features are clearly intended to suggest that Chemistry 2000 emphasizes connections between classroom chemistry and societal concerns.

Covering the Fundamentals

Chemistry 2000 begins with units about elements, compounds, chemical reactions, measurement in SI units, and stoichiometry, all of which appear in the first booklet. The second booklet covers the behavior of gases, concepts of chemical bonding, and solutions. The third booklet, the one with anomalous page- numbers, consists of a single unit dealing with organic chemistry. The fourth booklet has units about energy, chemical kinetics, and chemical equilibria, and the fifth booklet covers electrochemistry, acids and bases, and nuclear chemistry. (The Chemistry 2000 table of contents -- which appears in both the first booklet and the fourth -- promises a sixth booklet, devoted to industrial chemistry. However, there is no such booklet in the Chemistry 2000 package, and the general index does not mention industrial chemistry.)

The treatment of fundamental chemistry in Chemistry 2000 is relatively thorough. The discussion of chemical thermodynamics, for example, acknowledges both the "drive toward minimum energy (minimum enthalpy)" and "the drive toward maximum randomness (maximum entropy)," though it does not show how enthalpy and entropy are combined in the concept of free energy. The unit about chemical kinetics includes diagrams to explain how a catalyst facilitates a reaction by lowering the activation energy. The unit about acids and bases presents both the Arrhenius and the Bronsted-Lowry concepts, and buffers are covered well. In the unit on electrochemistry, the writers give careful definitions of cathode and anode -- which is more than we can say for the writers of some college texts.

The discussion of gases goes into considerable detail about manometers, pressure units and the ideal gas laws, and it even has an exposition of the sources of van der Waals forces. The writers generally use the kilopascal (kPa), rather than the atmosphere or the pascal itself, as their unit of pressure. There is some advantage in doing this, since pressure-volume products expressed in kPa-L are equivalent to pressure-volume products expressed in Pa-m3, an SI unit equal to the joule. As a result, R has the same value in gas-law calculations that it has in energy calculations. The writers of most college textbooks haven't figured this out yet.

What is equally important is that Chemistry 2000 is well written. I have found very few places where the writers have made misstatements about science. The glossary (which appears in the second book let and in the fifth) has a few items that could be picked at, and the word desiccant is misspelled, but most of the definitions are well formulated. In both the glossary and the main text, the writers spell liter as "litre" and meter as "metre"; these spellings (which probably reflect the fact that Chemistry 2000 was originally developed for sale in Canada) are acceptable, but they may be confusing to students in the United States.

The writers have attempted to make their material student- friendly in various ways, including the use of a cartoon figure named Marvin the Mole. Marvin is introduced at the beginning of the first booklet, where the student learns that Marvin was born at 6:02 on October 23. Eventually it becomes clear that this is a device that helps students to remember Avogadro's number.

The result of all this is that Chemistry 2000 is a fairly teachable collection of materials, provided that one can be happy with paperbound booklets in which text is mixed with consumable worksheets and quizzes.

Skimpy Bits and Pieces

We now have to consider whether Chemistry 2000 fulfills the promise of its STS logo. Does Chemistry 2000 really tell us about connections among science, technology and society?

The second booklet includes a special "Environmental & Social Issues Index" for Book 1, and the fifth booklet has an "Environmental & Social Issues Index" for Book 2. Each index directs us to some 60 different items. When we look at the items themselves, however, we find that they generally are skimpy and obsolete. Most of them are merely bits and pieces taken from the popular press, with few details and little or no explanation. For example:

The second booklet has an unnumbered page that is devoted to the stratospheric-ozone problem. It covers some chlorine chemistry and then makes some wild suggestions for using man-made ozone to replace the ozone that is being destroyed by CFCs. This discussion represents a start in the right direction, even though the science that it presents is not up to par.

As a whole, Chemistry 2000 is commendable for its scientific accuracy, and it seems to be evolving toward something that could be used in giving a modern high-school chemistry course. This evolution seems to be proceeding at a glacial pace, however, and Chemistry 2000 has a long way to go before the publisher will be justified in suggesting that these booklets have an STS emphasis. Perhaps the rate of improvement will accelerate as future editions are published.

Rollie J. Myers is a physical chemist, a specialist in spectroscopy, and a professor of chemistry, emeritus, at the University of California at Berkeley. He has taught introductory chemistry at that institution, and he has directed a summer program (sponsored by the National Science Foundation) for high- school chemistry teachers.


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