Why learn about Chemical Reactions?

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Without chemical reactions, nothing on Earth would exist. In fact, nothing in the entire universe would exist. Everything from the complicated actions that occur in our bodies to the processes that form our atmosphere involve countless chemical reactions. Studying chemical reactions allow us to understand and explain how the natural world functions. They allow you to breathe, turn the food you eat into fuel, make fireworks explode, and so much more.

With an understanding of chemical reactions, you will be able to make informed decisions in your environment. The process of human breathing and burning fuel are the same chemical reaction, whereby organic material is burned in the presence of oxygen to produce energy. This process is called combustion. Knowing about combustions could ultimately save your life one day, if say, an unexpected fire occurred. Most people would try to combat the fire directly. But you, knowing the basics of combustions reactions can critically think of ways to remove the oxygen from the environment. This allows for more avenues for dealing with situations.

Reactions in nature are more simple than people generally think, and can be applied in innovative ways.  To gain an appreciation for chemical reactions, one needs to realize that reactions occur in isolated, simple steps. For example, water can be formed from the reaction of hydrogen and oxygen gas. That’s it. Its as simple as pouring milk into a bowl of grains to give cereal. But after discovering this simple reaction in nature, scientists harnessed its use for creating rocket fuel, as this reaction was discovered to produced tons of energy. Without understanding this specific way that water is produced, we could have never made it to the moon.

While chemical reactions are a beautiful topic to learn, studies have shown that students go into this topic with some misconceptions (Stavridou & Solomonidou, 2007). There tends to be confusion between the differences of physical and chemical change. A physical change, like boiling water, involves the change of a molecule’s state from one phase (water) to another (vapour). A chemical reaction involves the rearrangement of atoms in molecules to form different molecules.

This misconception is mostly due to the varying life experiences that each student brings to the classroom . The construction of the chemical reaction concept needs to nurtured intimately so students can critically think about these natural processes. This role falls onto the teacher. Does it make sense that chemical reactions are taught mostly using textbooks and dry lectures? Just as chemical reactions are alive and all around us, we need to learn them in this manner. Whether it’s doing an experiment or watching something spectacular occur in your daily life, chemical reactions are inescapable. The fact that we can organize these events using simple language, symbols, and a little bit of math is so beautiful.

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Lastly, it’s your social responsibly to be educated about chemical reactions. We know that the ozone layer is made up in the atmosphere from the reaction of atmospheric oxygen and solar radiation. The ozone layer protects the earth from high levels of UV radiation from the sun. But when this ozone layer is depleted, holes start forming in the atmosphere where high levels of UV radiation penetrates the Earth and causes damage to the environment. This depletion was discovered in the 1980’s by many groups of scientists.  And the cause of these holes? The chemical reaction of compounds called CFC’s (chlorofluoro carbons) with the ozone layer. CFC’s were used in refrigerants and aerosol propellants, but after their harmful properties were discovered, they were banned worldwide. Understanding chemical reactions allow you to think critically of the things you use in your daily life and how it could potentially impact the environment.

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When you realize that physical changes are just the movement of molecules, and chemical changes are the transformation of molecules, you have essentially solved how everything in the world works. The only thing you have left to learn is how many of these almost infinite processes you’re willing to fit in your brain.

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