Elementary Education

As I’m now on the other side of my final paper for Recurring Issues in Higher Education, I’m hoping to get back into a regular posting schedule. My goal is one substantial post per week, starting now with one of the culprits for my slow scholastic progress: the eminently dilatory Periodic Table of Videos. Leave now if you’ve work to do and poor impulse control.

Chemistry was my weakest science in high school, and after grade eleven I really only bothered with it when I had to slog through the rudimentary organic chemistry unit in OAC Biology. I was reacquainted with it much more gently and palatably during Astronomy in First Year when we studied fusion in stellar cores and supernovae, and I think I took to it more readily then because the reactions seemed simpler (at least, the expectations were lower—this was Astronomy for Arts Students, alas) and more exciting, and we really just had to collect the lore of the knowledge, with no pesky calculations. Moles die in outer-space, obviously.

I haven’t really had occasion to think deeply about chemistry since then, so when Geoff dumped the Period Table of Videos on me, my resistance to dilettantism here was at low ebb. The project is an on-going production of videos, produced by a team from the University of Nottingham chemistry faculty, with discussion of each element in turn. As an Open Educational Resource, these are pretty Web 1.0 (with ultimate production being in the hands of the provider institution), but updated videos frequently have the team referring to comments and emailed suggestions, so there’s definitely some give and take.

Here are some reasons why 118 shortish videos are worth your time:

  • Martyn Poliakoff, CBE, is sovereignly, unaffectedly, transcendentally a scientist of the old guard: before Michael Crichton made them rock stars, before cartoons made them smocked evil geniuses, there was Dr. Poliakoff, a nerd’s nerd, and impossibly charming for it.
  • Elements are neat! Until we can manipulate subatomic particles with ease and dull aplomb, it ought to be exciting to people to know that there are a set of at least 118 fundamental materials to be had, each of which has a unique assortment of properties (with some predictable patterns that were codified into the Periodic Table of Elements long before many of them were discovered; please go and see how cool the Periodic Table is).  Do you like to play with blocks and Lego?  Do you like to experiment with ingredients in the kitchen?  Even if you think you hate chemistry, you’ll dig this.
  • The pace is up to you and the intensity is low. When I first saw the website, I clicked on the elements I remembered learning about to see if the Nottingham crowd knew the same cool things about them that Mr. Sickinger taught us in 2000.  1  I quickly became addicted to looking up my “old acquaintances” and was pleasantly surprised to discover how many I remembered.  If chemistry had been taught like this, with the constituent citizenry first introduced and entertained (an honest impossibility given Mr. Sickinger’s curricular requirements and time-constraints), I’d’ve done much better.

If you’ve retained your love of, fascination with, or tolerance for chemistry as a body of knowledge, go play with the Periodic Table of Videos.  If you’re indifferent or hostile after your high school experience, as I was, watch the Carl Sagan excerpt from his televised Cosmos series, below, and then re-read this paragraph (as necessary).

My favourite element videos at the time of this writing are Gallium (Ga), Caesium (Cs), Phosphorous (P), and Xenon (Xe).  Go find your own, and check back regularly, since they’re updating videos all the time.

Danny from 2017: These folks are quieter now, but they still update occasionally, usually with chemistry as current events, rather than as changes to existing element videos.  Brady Haran, the filmmaker who started this, has expanded to other topics at Nottingham University and beyond.


In recovering this article from the original Philomathy blog, I’ve lost whatever it was that I linked to “please go and see how cool the Periodic Table is,” so I’ve given you an anachronistic nudge to Hank Green’s Crash Course Chemistry video on the topic.  Seemed like a safe bet.

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