Category Archives: College


On Saturday morning my alarm went off at 7 am, just like every Saturday. I rolled off the couch where I sleep now and changed into jeans and a T-shirt. Everyone else was still asleep so there was no need to use the bathroom to change. I pulled a sweatshirt over my T, grabbed my large bag full of reusable shopping bags, and walked half a mile to the church where I get food.

I plopped my bag down at the end of the line of bags, boxes, and small 2-wheeled carts and joined the group of milling folks waiting for numbers to get handed out.

“Whoa, nice, is that a Call of Duty bag?” someone said, peering down the stairs at my bag. It wasn’t, it said something else on it.

“Nope,” I said, just as my new acquaintance realized it for himself.

“Oh man. I thought it was a Call of Duty bag,” he said.

We then proceeded to discuss video games, role playing games, and of course zombie apocalypses. It was a brief but rousing conversation.

“I had no idea you were a nerd,” he said after a bit.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean I’ve seen you around and all, but…I just…I  would never have thought you were a nerd.”

“Oh?” I asked, wondering if it was just because I’m quite obviously female-shaped, and conventionally attractive to boot. “Why’s that?”

“I don’t know. I just never would have thought it.”

“We never know anything about anyone until we start talking to them,” I said.

We continued to discuss nerd-related topics before the conversation turned to our current situations. He essentially asked me in a less rude way what I was doing at a food bank if I was so clearly intelligent. I told him about my double-major at our local community college in chemistry and physics and my intention to become a chemical engineer after I transfer and complete my second bachelor’s before returning the inquiry.

My companion expressed a discomfort with his situation. He told me that he was between jobs at the moment, and that it was difficult for him to find work because he never graduated from high school. After hearing more about his work experience and lifestyle, I recommended a local company with a culture that seemed particularly suited to his needs. He looked them up online with his smartphone and started to get very excited.

By this time it was 8 am. The person with the number distributor device under his arm called out that he was ready to distribute numbers. Everyone moved to stand next to their boxes and bags and carts and tubs, and walked past the distributor one by one to take a paper number. Mine was 327. I glanced up at the lit display to see that the starting number that week was 295. Excellent.

As numbers are not called until 8:30 am, folks tend to settle in on benches or drift across the street to the park. I was in the second group, where I drifted back into close proximity with my conversation partner from earlier. He was looking forlorn again and told me that he didn’t think he could do the job at the company I had recommended. Turns out he’s practically illiterate. My mind went immediately to the seminar I recently attended about learning disabilities.

“If you struggle with reading, that could be the entire reason school was so hard for you that you dropped out,” I told him. His friend who was standing with us nodded.

“What do you mean?”

“Learning disabilities come in all shapes and sizes. If your struggle with reading was preventing you from learning, well, of course school was hard.”

“Oh I’m not disabled,” he said, and his friend frowned and looked like he was struggling to figure out what to say.

“The definition of ‘learning disability’ is just anything that makes learning more difficult,” I said, “it’s really a very loose thing.” His friend nodded. We waited while unknown thoughts crossed his face.

“It does seem to hinder me,” he said with a sad sigh.

He went on to say something that I can’t remember clearly, but portrayed a self-image of a lack of intelligence. His friend looked like he wanted to face-palm.

“You seem pretty smart to me,” I said, and his friend nodded.

“I do?”

“Yeah. That much is clear just talking to you. There is actually a high correlation of learning disabilities with intelligence.”


“Yeah. See, people fall on a bell curve,” I said, drawing one in the air with my hands and following it up with appropriate gestures. “Most people fall somewhere in the middle, then on either end we’ve got people with less intelligence and more intelligence. Our school system is designed to meet the needs of the people in the middle of this bell curve. It makes sense that folks who fall to either side – no matter which side it is – would struggle with that system and therefore meet our loose definition of what it takes to have a learning disability.”

He stared at me, dumbfounded.

“See?” his friend said, “I told you you were smart.”

“If you’ve had trouble reading, of course you’ve had trouble learning. Our public school system is based on the presumption of literacy. The thing is, there are programs out there just for this. Our local community college offers reading classes and they’ve got a disabilities services office that can help you figure out exactly what is going on so you can address it and move on with that information.”

“I…need some time to think…” he said. His friend and I nodded and stayed put while he walked away.

“I keep telling him he’s smart,” his friend said. “He has what it takes. He just doesn’t have the confidence,”

I nodded, thinking again about the seminar I had just attended and how lack of self-confidence seems to be a commonality among folks with learning disabilities, especially in people who don’t know that they have one. The disability students I tutor are often clearly lacking in confidence, sometimes to the point where it seems to be its own disability. Some of them have even consciously identified it as an obstacle they intend to overcome.

I wandered back across the street to check the numbers. The sign had been updated to say 300, but no one had gone in yet. Excellent. I was even closer to the start of the line.

When I came back across the street, I found my new friend sitting on a bench. I was going to give him space but he waved me over. When I sat down, I saw tears forming in his lower eyelids.

“I never thought I could…This is so…Wow,” he said, unable to articulate  his feelings.

“Do you feel overwhelmed?” I asked.


“Hope can do that to you.”

He laughed and sniffed, and we sat in silence for a moment.

“You really think I can do this?”

“Yes,” I said, noting inside my head that he had been able to look things up online without ever having had any help for his reading troubles. “Have you ever wondered if you’re dyslexic?”

“All the doctors I saw just thought I was making things up,” he said, looking at his feet. My heart sank.

“Well, like I said, the people at that office I was telling you about offer extensive evaluation services. They can help you figure out exactly what’s going on. You might have to enroll as a student though, I’m not sure.”

“What kinds of things do they have?” he asked.

As we talked, our conversation meandered between opportunities, services, observations of those around us, and some really intense introspection on his part. His comments sometimes betrayed what appeared to me to be a very strong intellect and awakened critical thinking skills. I took care to point it out to him whenever this happened and let him know that it’s not something other people find easy to do, as I have learned in my tutor training that it is very important to encourage this kind of confidence in people. He was surprised each time.

“What’s the catch?” he finally asked me. “Every time I think there’s an opportunity there’s some kind of catch. What’s the catch to everything you’re saying?”

“The catch is that you have to decide for yourself whether you’re going to embrace all this, and if you do, you have to put in a very large amount of work, time, and effort.”

“Hard work I can do,” he said with fierce determination. “I am going to contact that office and see what I can do. This is how I can get my life on track.”

Learning Disabilities

It’s a new school year, and with it comes new changes. I am now working on campus as a math and chemistry tutor while attending my own courses. After working for about 2 weeks as a drop-in tutor, I was promoted to a tutoring position wherein I work one-on-one with students with disabilities. I discovered early on that the only clear difference between my assigned students and those in the drop-in tutoring center was an extra dose of self-doubt.

Last week, my employer sent me to a seminar about learning disabilities. There was a panel of 7 experts, each of them from a completely different background. There was a neuroscientist, a psychologist, one of my own campus’s guidance counselors, and so on. They even managed to get the person in charge of our local system of services for K-12 disabled students on the panel. After an intense session, here are a few of the main points I gleaned:

  • Learning Disabilities are Not an Indication of Intelligence Level

While it is entirely possible for a student to struggle due to a lower intelligence level, a learning disability operates independently of intelligence. In fact, many students with learning disabilities are at the top of their class, graduating from high school with 4.0 GPAs, and the evidence suggests that there is a high correlation between learning disabilities and very bright students. It was clear that the panelists viewed learning disabilities as any sort of difference which causes more struggle with learning than a given student’s peers encounter. Our school system is designed to support the common student. Very bright students fall outside this bell curve. It makes sense, then, that some of them learn so differently that they technically meet the definition of having a learning disability.

  • Chronic Depression is Common in Students with Un-Diagnosed Learning Disabilities

Students who struggle more than their peers and don’t know why face a unique set of challenges. Their self-worth is called in to question. The constant nagging of, “why can’t I do this like everyone else can?” can prompt chronic depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and a host of other related thoughts, feelings, and symptoms. This is part of why diagnosis is so very important.

  • Late Detection is Quite Common

The term “disability” is laden with stigma, and behavioral differences which are symptomatic of learning disabilities are not easily recognized for what they are by people who are not trained in these matters. As such, it is not uncommon for families seek to control their children and/or cover up the disability rather than seek help. An example one of the panelists gave of such behavior maintenance involved imagining a child with ADD/ADHD, or perhaps mild autism. The parent of this child might view related behaviors (such as becoming absorbed by video games or not sitting still at the dinner table) as problematic and provide a system of punishments and rewards to correct it. This is behavior management, but does not provide the support and treatment a student with ADD/ADHD needs to thrive in schools that are designed for a particular type of student. Diagnosis is important in order to provide that support.

Students with learning disabilities who make it out of high school without discovering the disability are sometimes diagnosed in college, if they can overcome the social stigmas attached to the phrase “disability” in order to seek out their campus’s resources. In California, typical college and university campuses are equipped with evaluation and accommodation services. If you are a student reading this and you are struggling in any way with your courses, I suggest you seek out such services on your own campus. The worst thing that can happen is that they cannot help you, in which case you are just back where you started. No harm done.

Chemistry Games!

There are only a few weeks left in the semester, which means it’s time to create chemistry games for my students to play at our last meeting.

This trivia game is meant to be played in small groups. I will ask the class whether they want to play with cell phones and Google, or without. If they want to play with, then we’ll arrange the groups so that each one has someone with a phone with internet. There are fifteen questions, so they will only get about 5-6 minutes to complete as many of them as they can. When the timer goes off, scores get tallied, and the winning group gets a prize. The answers, the trivia handout linked above, and other chemistry games and resources can be found on the “Chemistry Games and Resources” tab above.

There will also be a chemical equation balancing relay race. Each team will line up behind a line. One person from each team will run to the front of the room, take the top page from face down in their team’s stack, flip it over, balance the equation, and run back to tag in the next team member. I will stand behind the desk to check answers. If the first person got it wrong, the second person must solve the first equation correctly, and must tag in a third person to solve the next equation in the stack. The first team to get through their whole stack wins a prize.

The class has also decided to hold a potluck that last week, so there may not be time for more games. Eating and studying will finish out the hour. I’m so proud of my students. They’ve all worked really hard, and it’s paid off.

Balancing Chemical Equations: Simple Example

I have a lot of people asking for help with balancing chemical equations. Below is my personal method, with a simple example. Click here for a PDF of a redox example.

Feel free to use this material in any way you find valuable. It would be great if you cite in any handouts, and if you use the printer-friendly 2-page PDF version, it’s already on the page for you.


  1. Make a table that shows how many of each element there are on each side of the equation.
  2. Identify an atom that is both out of balance and located in only one molecule on the left, and only one molecule on the right. (If no such atom exists, try to find one that is only in one molecule on one side, even if it is in more than one on the other side.) Start by adding coefficients that balance this atom on both sides. Cross off and update the numbers in your table to reflect the new totals for each atom.
  3. If that was not enough to balance the equation, proceed to the next atom that is in the fewest number of molecules, and repeat Step 2. Continue to do this until all atoms are balanced.
  4. Double-check by re-adding the totals for each atom to ensure that your answer is correct.


___KI(aq) + ___Pb(NO3)2(aq) ___ PbI2(ppt) + ___ KNO3(aq)

Step 1:













*NO3 (nitrate) can be listed as one unit here because it does not separate. If nitrogen or oxygen appeared separated in the product, or if nitrate was present in the product in addition to oxygen or nitrogen appearing in some other part of this product, then this would not work. NO3 is the same on both sides, so we are able to treat it like a single unit for the sake of balancing this equation.

Step 2:

Iodine and nitrate are the only things out of balance here. Iodine is only in one molecule on the left and only in one molecule on the right. The same is true of nitrate. This means it doesn’t matter which one we start with. Let’s try starting with iodine, chosen arbitrarily:

_2_KI(aq) + ___Pb(NO3)2(aq) ___ PbI2(ppt) + ___ KNO3(aq)

2    1



2    1









At first glance, this might seem wrong because the potassium (K) is no longer balanced. Take a look at what else is not balanced: nitrate. Nitrate and potassium happen to be in the same molecule on the right, so the next step is to choose a coefficient for that molecule that balances both potassium and nitrate if possible. Luckily, it is!

Step 3:

_2_KI(aq) + ___Pb(NO3)2(aq) ___ PbI2(ppt) + _2_ KNO3(aq)

2    1


1    2

2    1








1    2

This looks balanced now, according to our accounting table. The last step is to double-check to make sure it is right.

Step 4: To check your work, translate the formula into an equation for each element or molecule.

_2_KI(aq) + ___Pb(NO3)2(aq) ___ PbI2(ppt) + _2_ KNO3(aq)


(2 X 1) + 0 0 + (2 X 1)
Therefore, potassium is correct.


(2 X 1) + 0 (1 X 2) + 0
Therefore, potassium is correct.


0 + (1 X 1) (1 X 1) + 0
Therefore, potassium is correct.


0 + (1 X 2) 0 + (2 X 1)
Therefore, potassium is correct.

FINAL ANSWER: 2KI(aq) + Pb(NO3)2(aq) PbI2(ppt) + 2KNO3(aq)

Feel free to use the printer-friendly 2-page PDF of this material in any capacity you find valuable.

Stoichiometry Game

One of my very favorite parts of my life right now is the small study group I lead for an hour every Tuesday afternoon. I get 1.5 units of college credit for keeping 15 introductory chemistry students on task. I assign groups, encourage group work skills, and help them figure out how to use basic study tools to figure out answers when they get stuck. Every now and then I throw in something fancy to shake things up a little, and this was one of those weeks!

“Stoichiometry” is a fancy word for “the study of the amounts of substances in a reaction.” How much hydrogen and oxygen do you need to make water? Well, the formula is H2O so you need two hydrogen atoms for each oxygen atom. That’s stoichiometry. Simple stuff, fancy word. It’s simple in principle, but just like math, it can layer on top of itself and become more complicated. Then again, in my opinion, stoichiometry is just a fancy word for ratio maths applied to chemical notation.

Typically, my students know to go to the front of the room, sign in, and then find their assigned seat. This week we did something completely different. I put the sign-in sheet by the door and asked them as they came in to sign in, put their things down, and come back out. As they did, I let them each select an index card. Each one was green, yellow, or red, and had “6.022 X 1023 = 1 mole” written on one side. Chemists use moles of atoms in stoichiometry calculations in order to allow easy use of macroscopic measurements in calculations. For more information, check out Khan Academy’s video “Avogadro’s Number and Moles.” It’s 9:43 in length.

“Okay, everyone,” I said when they had gathered. “I am an artist. I make miniature sculptures out of index cards. They are small, so I sell them in bulk. In fact, I sell them by the mole! Each one of you represents my inventory. That card in your hand represents an entire MOLE of index cards! My first client wants a type of sculpture that needs one red index card, two green index cards, and one yellow index card per sculpture. Get in groups of one red, two green, and one yellow so we can see how many moles of sculptures I can make!”

The students moved around until they had made as many complete groups as they could.

“How many complete groups do we have?” I asked.

“Two,” several voices chimed in.

“How many sculptures does that mean I can make with my current inventory?”

“Two moles of sculptures!” someone said.

“YES! Exactly! And what do we have left over?”

“Green and red,” came the forlorn voices of the leftover students.

“What does that mean in terms of what limited how many batches of sculptures I could sell from my inventory?”

Blank stares all around.

“Which thing did I run out of first, and therefore meant I could not make more sculptures?”

“Yellow!” They all asserted together.

“Yes! That means yellow, if this was a chemical reaction, would be my limiting reagent.”

Noises of sudden understanding permeated about two-thirds of the group.

We ran the same drill five or six more times with different mole ratios, and each time more of the students visibly or vocally had that lovely “Ah-ha!” moment I was hoping for. Later on in the classroom, the game served as a reference point for helping students understand the concepts in their assigned work. A three-minute game reinforced all the concepts they will be directly working with for the next month, and directly or indirectly working with for as long as they study chemistry. This was one of the best ideas I have had in a classroom capacity. I find that this success, while relatively tiny in the grand scheme of things, serves to fuel my desire to become a chemistry professor.

Here is a PDF I made with instructions for running this game. Feel free to use it in any capacity you find valuable!

Snippets from the Week

Any names presented have been changed.

A Morning in Line

This particular food distribution location is my favorite one. I intend to write a post in the future about the full extent of why, but one of the reasons is that folks there are pleasantly social. This distribution location doesn’t use lines in the traditional sense. Instead, they use a “take a number” system. The result is that folks actually talk to one another. With the freedom to move about a pretty church courtyard from group to group, it almost feels like a family reunion full of folks you’ve only ever met in passing.

Ages of patrons waiting for food ranged from 20s to way too old for estimation. Most folks looked well over 40. Many of them had long-wrinkled skin and used wheel chairs or other mobility assistance devices. Several of them asked my name, and I began making new friends.

As usual, I managed to be using the restroom during the morning prayer. I wouldn’t call myself an atheist per se, but I also do not have a desire to pray to a God I don’t believe in. Silently refraining from joining the group prayer prior to food distribution earned me nasty looks from other patrons on my first few visits. Conversely, the folks running “God’s Pantry” took no apparent offense to my discrete abstinence from prayer.

I emerged from the restroom with freshly washed hands clutching my numbered ticket. I asked one of my new acquaintances if I had missed anything important during announcements. He told me that there was a registered nurse there that day, and directed me to her.

I asked the nurse about some concerning symptoms I had. She urged me to see a doctor at my earliest convenience. I thanked her, and went back to waiting my turn.

An Afternoon in Class

My calculus teacher wrote the number of students who received each letter grade on our first test on the white board:

  • 6 – A
  • 6 – B
  • 12 – C
  • 5 – D
  • 4 – F

“What a lovely bell curve,” I thought to myself as I awaited my exam. The teacher walked about, placing each one face down on the desks. Finally it was my turn.

I stared at the back of my test, then flipped it over as if I was ripping off a bandage. My heart danced a little with joy at what I saw.

“What did you get?” asked my study buddy from the desk behind me.

I showed him the big “96% Nice Job!” across the top of my page. He grinned. His score was a 97%. High-fives were had.

An Evening in the Store

I am a superstar at the retail store where work. I’ve got the brain of a problem-solving engineer and the heart of a compassionate teacher. The combination makes me perfect for any employer who wants proactive employees.

I can do anything on the sales floor except work in the coffee shop, including all the things with special training, which means I often don’t get my assigned tasks completely done. My bosses are okay with that, though; they know I am putting out fires.

On this particular evening, the line at the returns desk became wondrously long, so I hopped back there to help out. My last customers consisted of a couple who had come to return their coffee maker because the latch button which allows the coffee to be poured from the carafe had broken off. Their receipt had not expired, but we were out of stock on that model.

It took some convincing as they had their heart set on that exact model, but I walked the couple back to the coffee display to see if we could find something similar that they liked. We couldn’t, but I got an idea, and I pulled out my walkie.

“Nancy, do you copy, Nancy?”

“Go for Nancy,” my manager responded.

“I have some folks with me who would like to return a coffee maker, but we are out of stock on the model they want. It’s just a small piece on the carafe that’s broken, though. Is it okay if we just switch it out for the display model’s carafe?”

“Is theirs still in good enough condition that our display will look nice?”

“I think so. It shouldn’t be too hard to glue this piece back on for display.”

“Yeah, that’s fine. Go ahead and do it.”

I peeled the sticker off the display carafe, and handed it to the customers in return for their old one. They left after expressing their happiness. In the break room, I used a cleanser which contained hydrogen peroxide to dissolve the coffee scent from the inside of the pot. It worked remarkably well, although there was still just enough of a hint of it that I hoped it might help drive more sales. When the outside was clean, I put the sticker from the original display model on it. It shined beautifully.

A Night in the Emergency Room

“I’d like you to stay on a clear liquid diet for the next 24 hours or so,” the ER doctor said to me.

I couldn’t decide whether to laugh or cry.

“I can’t really do that, but I’ll try,” I said.

“Clear liquids are things you can see through,” the doctor explained. He must have thought I had not read the papers the nurse had handed me. “So, things like Jell-O, and…” I interrupted during his pause.

“No, you don’t understand. I live off of food bank food. I don’t get a choice. I will do my best, and I’ll try to be gentler with the food I eat, but there’s no way for me to get my hands on clear liquids other than water. They don’t give us Jell-O at the food bank.”

“Oh…okay…” the doctor said, then went about discharging me. Long story short, suffice it to say that the CT scans show I did not have a concussion or internal bleeding, and the blood work was negative for everything, which is a fantastic combination. I know that “Obamacare” has hurt a lot of people in the middle class and probably could have been implemented better, but if it wasn’t for our current healthcare system, I would never have been able to afford a brain scan when nausea and other problematic symptoms followed a head injury.