Harry Wilson: Too Good To Play For The Textbook Giants

Harry Wilson was far more than a textpert-college chemistry teacher. Despite his different approach towards teaching, his students did at least as well as everyone else on CEGEP finals (junior college in Quebec equivalent to AP and freshman courses), which featured a blend of number-crunching and conceptual questions. But many came out of his courses with more important skills. They learned to design experiments and how to solve problems within a laboratory context.

With only a beaker, a balance and a pipette, find the final volume created by mixing 5.00 ml of absolute ethanol with 5.00 ml of distilled water. 

To the uninitiated, it seems like a trivial problem. But since water slips into the gaps between alcohol molecules, the answer is not 10.00 ml. Even someone realizing that would be tempted to merely pour the liquids into a graduated cylinder, but the result would not be of optimal accuracy. With some thought, most students came up with the following efficient and accurate procedure:

1) Add 5.00 ml of each liquid to a tared beaker on the balance.
2) Record the mass.
3) Withdraw 5.00 ml and record the remaining mass of liquid in the beaker.

By subtracting the remaining mass from the total, the student effectively has the mass of the 5.00 ml. With that mass, all he has to do is calculate the density of the mixture and along with the total mass, he could figure out the volume.

Of course Harry’s methods were controversial. Some teachers saw the great advantage of his labs over cookbook-types, but not all felt comfortable with the approach. He also benefited from an inadvertent selective process. Students had heard that he was more challenging, so insecure or less independent students shied away from taking his courses. But over the years, encouraged by the favorable feedback of a disproportionate number of his students who went on to enjoy successful research careers, not only locally but at places like Cal Tech, Wilson decided to write a textbook. Part of it would be conventional, but the most important section would describe problem-solving labs to communicate ideas like cooling curves (using plain old hot water) and half-lives (using the fact that  phenolphthalein laxative’s pink color at high pH’s breaks down and can be tracked with a spectrophotometer).

But he was shunned repeatedly by publishers. His methods could not be applied to the masses, and given the high cost of producing, marketing and distributing a book, no one was interested. Instead we have the status quo. For his book to have become the norm and replace the common, formula-adhering triteness, which seems to prioritize pretty color pictures over content and inflate prices, there would have to be a revolution in education.

There would have to be better teacher-training in both high school and college; the equivalent of 1% beer-high-school-chemistry courses would have to be trashed so that a greater percentage of freshmen students would be able to work independently and think their way through more challenging labs. These are skills that are not only valuable to chemists but to future engineers and health practitioners for whom college chemistry is a requirement.

But so what if 30% of entering graduate students in chemistry don’t realize that the bubbles in water that had been boiling for over an hour consist of water vapor. It doesn’t seem to matter when the system is proficient at maximizing the number of ill-prepared science students. With that in place, you can have more tuition paid and more mediocre textbooks sold and more jobs for teachers and administrators. Is that the real priority in education? If so, then it would be no different from every other racket.

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