Monday, December 3, 2012

BEST Chem Lab Book for Home Use (and more)

So...The kids are rapidly approaching high school age, and you are worried about science.  You can probably handle biology, astronomy, earth science and even physics, but what about chemistry?  Is it possible to provide a student with chemistry labs at home?

It's not hard to teach basic chem.  If you find it too difficult, pick up a used copy of The Teaching Company's Chemistry course, or a new copy at The Great Courses website, a few good (living) books (see booklist at the end of this post), a review book for a topic spine, and do labs.  

OK.  So how do we add a lab?  Glassware is readily available.  A small scale and coffee filters will help.  But how do we get chemicals?  A few are easy.  I got a roll of magnesium ribbon from Amazon (lighting a strip and watching it burn brightly demonstrates activation energy--adding a bit of energy to start an exothermic reaction).  But many other necessary chemicals are simply not legally shipped to home chemistry labs.

The solution (heh!) is simple:  The Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments.  Yeah, yeah...sure, I thought.  Ha!  It's fine if you can get the chemicals.  But look.  Not only does this book tell you where you can buy chemicals, it tells you how you can make the chemicals you can't buy!  And best of all, since a few of these are very simple qualitative recipes, younger siblings can follow the instructions and get a taste of elementary chemistry without doing the harder stoichiometry.  Everybody wins.  Here's an example:

[...long pause.  The problem with really good books is that they sprout legs in this house, and migrate away from my review pile and into some kid's room, book bag (good luck getting that back) or shelf.  Oh, good; I found it.]

"You can produce ammonium acetate by neutralizing clear household ammonia with distilled white vinegar and evaporating to dryness."  The younger kids can then watch the older student use it as he determines the pH of an aqueous salt solution.  And he will gleefully remind his younger sibling,  "If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the precipitate!"  (Yes, there's a t-shirt for that.)

And just a reminder:  You don't have to complete the book.  Do what you can, and that will suffice.  Make sure you follow the safety instructions, and have your students (even the younger ones) document everything they do.  This book has some very heavy-duty experiments for the more dedicated chemistry student, but it also has some of the very basic experiments that most high school students will need.

Here's a quick list of books (gleaned from the old MacBeth's Opinion site):

 The Joy of Chemistry (Warning:  This is a  wonderful new book, with labs included...easy to understand, and uses common and familiar items...but, you might need to take a black marker to the preface and introduction, as the authors compare this book briefly to The Joy of...something else.)

 Stories of the Invisible  Small stuff!

Bright Earth  Find out about the chemistry, history, and language of color!  A wonderful book for young artists.

CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics (reference "must have" for those hoping to study science in college) .

Molecules at an Exhibition : Portraits of Intriguing Materials in Everyday Life by John Emsley  This is such a fun book that the one objectionable chapter is excused (see end of review).  Chemicals are grouped in "galleries" of similar molecules, and the author gives us a neat story of the history of the stuff and its use or effect on the body or the world.  The first gallery includes chocolate, cola, garlic, and selenium.  Other chapters include the metals we need in the body, chemicals in the home, harmful chemicals (including some drugs), plastics, common elements, radioactive elements, and more.  I do wish that the author had included a diagram of the molecules he lists, and he makes the unsupported assertion that the world is overpopulated by humans during a chapter on chemicals and sex.  So skip chapter three, or talk about it, but the rest of the book is fascinating.

The Chemical History of a Candle by Michael Faraday was written as a series of lectures by the famous scientist himself.  The science is clear, and you can follow the experiments along with Faraday.

 The Mystery of the Periodic Table How did it ever come to be?

The Periodic Kingdom by P. W. Atkins follows CM's suggestion for science of a literary character.  The periodic table of elements is treated as a geographical place, with each element being a different country, similar to the countries surrounding it, but with subtle differences.  This is an excellent introduction to the elements.
Camelot Chemistry Primer is the best work/text for chemistry I have seen.  It is literary and fun, but includes the mathematical chemistry that a serious science student needs.  This book will help quantify all of the qualitative information he has learned through years of nature study.

Life's Matrix: A Biography of Water by Philip Ball tells us all about water, from the moment of creation (Big Bang) to the present.  Water, a common molecule, is unique!  Use this book for biology, too.

Mendeleyev's Dream : The Quest For the Elements by Paul Strathern (history of the periodic table of elements) .

The 13th Element : The Sordid Tale of Murder, Fire, and Phosphorus by John Emsley (real life drama about phosphorus--engaging!) .

The Chemical Tree: A History of Chemistry by William Brock (history of this science in a quick 744 pages) .

Chemical Magic by Leonard Ford (old-fashioned demonstration book--dove-tails nicely with history of chemistry, but some of the experiments are dangerous!)

Radioactive Substances by Marie Curie (Madame Curie's thesis; great for physics and chemistry students)    

Update:  The wonderfully trustworthy Karen Richards adds Caveman Chemistry to the list of books.  Thanks Karen!

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