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from The Textbook Letter, July-August 1997

Reviewing a high-school book in chemistry

ChemCom: Chemistry in the Community
Third edition, 1998. 643 pages. ISBN: 0-7872-0560-5.
Copyrighted by the American Chemical Society (Washington, DC).
Published by the Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company, 4050 Westmark Drive,
Dubuque, Iowa 52002.

It's Interesting, but It's Not a Chemistry Text

Rollie J. Myers

ChemCom, developed by the American Chemical Society, has been a very popular high-school text. Its mission (as described in the preface to the third edition) is to help students to

• recognize and understand the importance of chemistry to their lives;

• develop problem-solving techniques and critical thinking skills to
apply chemical principles in order to make decisions about scientific
and technological issues; and

• acquire an awareness of the potential as well as limitations of
science and technology.

The book has been built around socio-technological issues, and chemical principles are "presented on a `need to know' basis," the preface says.

As those statements suggest, ChemCom is not an intellectual presentation of chemistry, and it relates virtually nothing about chemistry's history. There is no mention of Dalton or Lavoisier, for example, or anything to tell where the theory of the atom came from. Avogadro, Charles and Gay-Lussac get a few words, but only because their names are associated with essential laws that are hard to avoid. In ChemCom, contemporary scientists get all the play, because this is a book about contemporary issues.

The 43 chapters are grouped into eight units: "Supplying Our Water Needs," "Conserving Chemical Resources," "Petroleum," "Understanding Food," "Nuclear Chemistry in Our World," "Living in a Sea of Air," "Personal Chemistry and Choices" and "The Chemical Industry." Each unit contains five or six chapters, which are designated by letters: chapter A, chapter B, et cetera. Almost every chapter in the book has a laboratory exercise.

As an example of the ChemCom writers' approach, consider the unit dealing with water. The writers start chapter A with "news reports" about a fish kill in a river near the imaginary town of Riverwood. They next introduce the topic of "Measurement and the Metric System" and give two and a half pages to measurement of length and volume, but they ignore the matter of significant figures. Next comes a lab exercise involving filtration, then some statistics about the use of water in the United States, and then some information about how Earth's water is distributed: 97.2% in the oceans, 2.11% in glaciers and ice caps, 0.62% in groundwater, and so on. Chapter B introduces mixtures and solutions, then tells about atoms, molecules and chemical equations. Chapter C discusses solubility, acids, bases, pH and ions. The unit's last two chapters are very practical. Chapter D deals with some water-treatment technology, chapter E revolves around the explanation for the fish kill: The water in the river contained an excessively high concentration of dissolved air.

In similar ways, practical knowledge is stressed throughout the rest of the book. Students learn about such things as the future of the world's oil reserves, how many calories humans need to consume each day, and how one can try to compare the risks and the benefits of having a chemical plant in one's home town.

The writers' view of the world, and of what is important, is narrow and a little provincial. On page 11 they say that "Early humans simply drank water from the nearest river or stream with few harmful effects" -- as if this happened only in the distant past. (Africa is still full of humans who get their water in just that way.) Risk-benefit analysis is a subject that interests only a small percentage of the world's population. And much of what the book tells about water and water supplies is local engineering, not chemistry.

Chemistry is a universal subject and a universal intellectual achievement, illustrating how we have learned about nature. Yet a lot of today's educators say that we must teach science in a way that makes it relevant and touches students' day-to-day lives, and that we can't do this if we present abstract concepts, tell about intellectual history, or try to show students how we have come to understand our universe. ChemCom seems to reflect this belief, because it does not merely seek relevance by showing how abstract science can be applied; it seeks relevance by denying that abstract science is important enough to be taught at all.

Even though the fictitious fish kill near Riverwood is used as the subject of a case study that extends through the entire book, the writers have been highly selective in deciding what to say about events that have occurred in the real world. In the index there is no entry for Bhopal, Times Beach, Love Canal or Minamata Bay, and students learn nothing about (for example) the chemistry of methyl mercury or the dioxins. I get the impression that the American Chemical Society, with its strong ties to the chemical industry, wants to focus on up-beat solutions and not on down-beat problems.

The greenhouse effect, however, does get a real play in ChemCom, and on page 410 the writers correctly say that without some greenhouse gases in our atmosphere, we would freeze to death. So the greenhouse effect is not all bad. The question now is: How much is too much?

There is a great deal of interesting information in ChemCom, and these writers should be congratulated for doing a fine job of presentation. However, ChemCom is neither a chemistry text nor a science text; it is, as the preface informs us, a book about socio-technological issues. As such, it can't serve as the basis for a real course in chemistry, and it can't replace a traditional chemistry textbook. The objective of a high-school education is to train minds. Students should not be left with the idea that science is just a bunch of formulas pulled from the air, or that chemistry is just a matter of learning about technology and risk-benefit analyses.

This Book Is Still Good but Still Flawed

William J. Bennetta

The third edition of ChemCom, dated in 1998, differs from the second edition in some important ways, and it shows some real improvements. Yet the book's essential content and organization and pedagogic tactics remain the same, and the principal observations that I reported when I reviewed the second edition are applicable to this third edition as well:

A Delight to Read

Like its precursor, the new ChemCom is divided into eight units that revolve around eight topics: water, metals, petroleum, food, nuclear chemistry, the atmosphere, human physiology and health, and the chemical industry. The unit about nuclear chemistry has been expanded and revised to create a new chapter, so the book now has 43 chapters instead of 42. Otherwise, the sequence of chapters remains the same, and most of the chapters have the same titles that they had before.

As an experience in reading, ChemCom is a delight. The skillful writing is complemented by good, helpful illustrations. The graphic design is clean and uncluttered, with none of the irrelevant sidebars, gaudy-but-worthless pictures, and inane insets that jam the pages of so many books nowadays. And there is no multi-culti mumbo jumbo, either -- no articles claiming that the concept of molarity was invented by a bunch of savages in Patagonia, or that the ancient Chinese obtained aluminum from bauxite by magic.

Two of the three serious defects that I found in the second edition have been rectified. In the second edition, there was a loopy section about "world hunger," including an excursion into fake economics and an effort to convince students that there is plenty of food for everyone on Earth; that section has been removed. And a feature article about one Portia Bass, an analytical chemist, has been well revised; it no longer equates folk medicine or herbal quackery with the science of chemistry.

ChemCom still is seriously defective, however, in its depictions of the chemical-process industries. The unit entitled "The Chemical Industry: Promise and Challenge" has been overhauled, but it still paints rosy, unrealistic pictures of the process industries, and it still evades issues which should be examined in any book that (according to its preface) seeks to introduce students to "the fascinating range of chemistry and the daily impact that it has on their community and the world."

Without doubt, it is good for students to learn about the large-scale production and commercial importance of fertilizers; but the students should also learn what the runoff from fertilized fields does to aquatic ecosystems. Without doubt, it is good for students to know that some producers and users of industrial chemicals have learned to change waste materials into useful commodities; but students should also know that some other producers and users have taken to sending their wastes abroad, for dumping in backward countries. As far as I can tell, the ChemCom unit on "The Chemical Industry" says nothing about such things. The teacher who uses ChemCom in the classroom will have to provide some balance here -- perhaps by using information obtained from an attorney general, from a local office of the federal Environmental Protection Agency, or from a private organization such as the Environmental Defense Fund.


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 has directed summer programs for high-school chemistry teachers.

William J. Bennetta is a professional editor, a fellow of the California Academy of Sciences, the president of The Textbook League, and the editor of The Textbook Letter. He writes frequently about the propagation of quackery, false "science" and false "history" in schoolbooks.

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