Posted in Education, Physical Chemistry, reading science, Science Education, working problems

How to Teach Yourself

How do you teach yourself a new skill? How do you learn a tough subject? (like pchem?) I’m glad you asked. Here are my tips and tricks specifically focused on pchem survival (but applicable to life in general).


1. Don’t be afraid! (and that’s an order!)

Thousands have been down this road and they were in your shoes back then. You may have to shore up some mathematical deficiencies and look up some vocabulary, but these tasks are obvious to you as you go along. None of this affects your value as a person. But do you have the drive to re-learn what you have forgotten and dig into what you don’t know yet? Decide now! This is not a technical question. It is a heart question. Your answer to this question will determine your future as a productive team member after graduation.

2. Do the tutorials.

Every book has example problems in the text. Every coding site has tutorials. Even Excel has example data sets in its help files to show you “how it is done”. Do the tutorials.

3. Read the text with a pencil NOT a highlighter.

Write in your book margins. Rework math proofs in your problems notebook. Unless the material goes in your eyes, rattles around in your brain, filters down your arm, and out through your pencil, then you haven’t comprehended the material. Highlighting is nothing but self-deceptive Arts and Crafts.

4. Keep a problems notebook.

Do all your problems in a composition book. It is bound and sturdy. It will last much longer than a spiral notebook. Thirty years from now, you can be amazed at how bad-a$$ you were in college when you look at the math problems you did!

AND you can use it to shame your college-aged kids when they complain that their college prof won’t just upload the homework concepts directly into their brain-chip.


If you would just use UNITS on your numbers you would catch 99% of your errors. I can’t scream this loudly enough! Units, units, UNITS! Use them, or fail. It’s on you.

“But they take up space. They take time. Whaa Whaa Whaaaa” Look at the photo uploaded with this post. There is NO way to catch all the powers of 10 that jump around in that problem without using units.

6. Pro-tip: Be Disciplined

“The scheduled task gets done”, said my father.

If your homework time is not scheduled, then it will not get done. If you are not using the phrase, “I can’t, I have PHCEM homework to do.” Then you are not learning pchem.

If you want to learn piano or guitar and you don’t schedule practice time, then I don’t want to hear you play. It is the same with sports. If you don’t schedule practices, then I’m not buying a ticket to your game.

Put LEARNING on the calendar, not just TESTING.

—Here endeth the lesson.

Posted in Education, Physical Chemistry, Science Education

Same Behavior, Same Results

T-minus one week and counting…

first class day

We start up the semester at Sam Houston State University one week from today. So I thought I would address the students at SHSU in general and the Physical Chemistry students in particular.

What are YOU going to do differently this year to ensure you improve performance, retain knowledge, and cultivate character?

Even the 4.0 student can improve in these areas. Begin by writing out your goal. It might look like:

  1. Make straight A’s this semester.
  2. Not get behind in my classes, job, club officer position, and family commitments.
  3. REALLY learn the material so that I can draw on my knowledge in future classes and jobs.

Whatever the goal is, do not forget to do this next important step.

Think back to last year. Identify what kept you from achieving this goal last year. Be specific. Was it a habit? a video game? a TV show? a friend who dominated your time? a student organization?

Now, change it. If this activity, person, or situation pulled you off your path to success, then either change it or change your path. You cannot follow two paths.

You cannot do everything.

Now, is the time to plan. If you are a chemistry major, especially, now is the time to commit yourself to hard work, problem sets, reading the text, and a smaller social agenda.

In the future, you will be hired based upon your chemistry abilities, not how many activities you were in. Be the best, most knowledgeable graduate you can be, no matter what your major.

It starts today.

Posted in Education, Physical Chemistry, Science Education, Spectroscopy

What is pchem?

Pchem is short for Physical Chemistry. It is hated by all. It is SO bad (the audience asks, “How bad is it?”), that it has it’s own bumper sticker!
Why is pchem so mistreated?
Like a scientific tax accountant, a P-chemist worries about the energetic balance sheet, the gains and losses of energy, the ratio of usable to unusable energy. We pull the thread through all states of matter – liquid, solid, gas, plasma, elastic, plastic, glass, etc.
My favorite subsection of pchem is symmetry and spectroscopy. Spectroscopy is the study of light interacting with matter. And symmetry is used to decipher these interactions. There is no better example of the mathematical beauty of our universe than the unexpected explanatory power of group theory as it applies to absorption and emission of light.
Fireworks, hair dye, crayons, ink, glow sticks, lightning bugs, and all the rest can be understood through pchem – specifically my field of spectroscopy.
There is much more to pchem. If you have made it this far, then you are truly curious. Therefore, I give you the table of contents to a typical pchem textbook. (You will have to “Look Inside” at the Amazon site to view the TOC.)
And, I ask you to share and subscribe to this blog. Comment below with suggestions for posts.
Posted in Science Education

Failure is Your Friend

“Mother Nature is a tough old bird” my undergraduate research advisor Dr Joe Lagowski was fond of saying. The only way to find the limits of nature is to try experiments that fail.


Sometimes it is the technology that fails. We recently purchased a 3D printer so we can print new measurement devices developed in our lab. As the failures mount and our recycled ABS plastic bin fills we are learning the precision limits of our Makerbot and ABS filament.

Sometimes it’s the people who fail. As we work through the patent process we find that some do not share our passion for the product of our efforts. Motivations vary, but we press on to the goal because to do otherwise would be worse than failure.

But on some rare occasions an actual limit of nature is found. These are the victories in failure. When the technological tools are working well and the people are qualified and alert a verified failure is a great result. To quote Lagowski once more, “No is an answer, too.”

Have you ever had a Successful Failure in science? Comment on it.