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  October 16, 2000

New Class Seeks to Develop Scientific Literacy for Non-Majors

On a recent Friday a fternoon, Jane Knox is helping a group of students to understand the relationship between frequency and wavelength in electromagnetic radiation. On a blackboard, the lecturer in chemistry has drawn a line like a backwards S, tipped on its side. A little more than three meters long, it represents a single radio wave from campus radio station WHUS, which broadcasts at 91.7 megahertz. A constant tide of these big waves, she notes, rolls invisibly and harmlessly through the classroom.

Next, she illustrates how they differ from the incredibly short waves of ultraviolet (UV) light. To do so, she must convert the wavelength of UV-A light, which runs between 320 and 400 nanometers, a distance so small it cannot be seen with the naked eye. She uses a scale in which 320 nanometers is represented as one centimeter.

She challenges the class to guess how long the WHUS wave would be if converted to the same scale. There are a lot of wrinkled brows. The answer? It would stretch from UConn to California and back - six times.

Science in Their Lives
For students versed in the sciences, this concept would be relatively simple. But these students are not science majors. They are enrolled in a new course, Chemistry for an Informed Electorate, Knox introduced this fall.

"The goal is to give students who are not science majors information they can use to more effectively explore areas of chemistry that impact their lives," says Knox, "and to help them learn how to evaluate chemically-related information they come across in the media or in their own exploration."

While the relationship between frequency and wavelength is really more of a physics concept than a chemistry concept, the students need a grounding in these principles in order to understand the importance of the ozone layer that shields the earth from UV radiation. They need to understand that when you increase wavelength, you automatically decrease frequency, and vice versa. This is important, because UV waves, unlike radio waves, are hot stuff. Traveling at unimaginable velocity, when they hit matter they do so with such force they can actually dislodge electrons from molecules. And that can do real damage to living tissue. It can damage food crops and skin, eyes, DNA. If it happens enough, it can cause cancer.

Understanding Ozone
Here's where the chemistry comes in. Ozone and oxygen have unique chemical properties. When light

waves strike ozone and oxygen, high in the earth's atmosphere, the UV photons expend their destructive energy to break apart their molecular bonds. That's how the ozone layer protects earth.

Without understanding this, it would be difficult for Knox's students to effectively participate in the following week's dialogue. On Monday, the class focus will shift from light theory to the real-world implications of the continent-sized hole in the ozone layer above Antarctica, the international response to the crisis, and alternatives to chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), the chemicals blamed for depletion of the ozone.

Everyday Decisions
The ozone layer is just one of the contemporary science-related topics students will explore during the semester-long course, however. Others include global warming, energy, safe drinking water, acid rain, and nuclear fission. Key to the effectiveness of the course, says Knox, is a textbook - Chemistry in Context: Applying Chemistry to Society - specifically designed for such students. Packed with current information and thought-provoking exercises, it was produced by the American Chemical Society. The book's editor-in-chief is Conrad Stanitski, a professor at the University of Central Arkansas, who earned his Ph.D. at UConn.

"Besides the fact that learning science has intellectual value in its own right, our citizens are generally being exposed to more and more scientific information," says Knox, "much of it chemical or chemically-based. People are asked every day to make decisions about the sciences. Without some background to understand and interpret the information they receive from many sources, they are poorly equipped to make those decisions."

Part of Knox's strategy is requiring students to encounter the concepts for themselves. Every student, for instance, must clip articles with chemistry-related content from newspapers and magazines weekly. Students are also required to visit the Environmental Protection Agency's large website and use it as a research tool. One assignment involved finding out about ozone concentrations and air quality standards for their own hometowns.

"I didn't realize how much science-related information regularly appears in newspapers," says Amber Simanauskas, a senior who is majoring in art history. Declaring the class an eye opener, she says that after three weeks her perspective on daily news has already changed.

Gina Potvin, a sophomore, agrees. "This course is about environmental chemistry," she says. "It has really helped me to understand these issues better."

A Learning Opportunity
Although Knox has been thinking about the course for a long time, she only started developing it last year. In addition to helping students who are not science majors, she says there are other objectives.

"I want to convey to the students the excitement and wonder of this subject as an intellectual pursuit," she says. "In the very first class I told them that I hoped to transfer to them some of the fascination and excitement that I, as a chemist, derive from my work.

"To me this course is not just an opportunity to help young people become more informed citizens. It's also a great learning opportunity for me. It's a work in progress. It affords me opportunitie s to collaborate with my colleagues in many disciplines, as I develop the course material. And it brings me in regular contact with bright young people from academic areas outside my own. It's an exciting challenge and I'm enjoying it enormously."

Jim Smith