The Stories Scientists Tell
with Christian M. Rojas
Offered in partnership with Barnard College
Thursday, November 15, 2018

Scientists often use models that aren’t completely accurate but are nevertheless extremely useful in guiding research and discovery. This requires selection of an “accurate enough” model that provides insight into the problem at hand without including a burdensome amount of unnecessary detail. (The only fully accurate map of the world, for example, is the world itself, which isn’t so easy to carry in your pocket.) In similar fashion, effective science teachers use “stories” to help convey material in clear, accessible language that helps students understand, remember, and apply scientific concepts. Just like the models scientists use, these stories have their limits, inevitably falling short of comprehensive scientific “truth.” This master class will consider aspects of chemical structure, bonding, and molecular reactivity through molecular “stories” featuring chemical “characters” and through hands-on molecular modeling exercises. As we add connections to memoir, poetry, and song, the adventures of our chemical protagonists become memorable, even as we take care to recognize and make clear to our students the context and limits of the stories we tell. No special chemistry knowledge is required other than a basic appreciation for the fact that nuclei and electrons are the building blocks of atoms and molecules.

Christian M. Rojas is Professor of Chemistry at Barnard College, where he has taught since 1997. A synthetic organic chemist, his research interests involve reactions that introduce nitrogen atoms into three-dimensionally complex molecular structures, particularly carbohydrates. In his teaching, Rojas wants to help students understand a chemist’s fascination with the molecular-scale world, highlighting the organic chemistry of biological processes and making occasional connections to poetry and literature. He received Barnard’s student-selected Emily Gregory Teaching Award in 2013 and edited the book Molecular Rearrangements in Organic Synthesis, published in 2015.