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Lemonade without Lemons, and Other Marvels of Chemistry

A class for nonmajors looks at the science’s everyday applications

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Class by class, lecture by lecture, question asked by question answered, an education is built. This is one of a series of visits to one class, on one day, in search of those building blocks at BU.

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Top chefs despise the term “molecular gastronomy” Scott Schaus explains to his students. After all, it ignores the art of their cuisine, so the creative masters naturally prefer descriptors like “avant-garde cooking.”

Schaus (CAS’95) spices his lecture with some linguistic seasoning. Cocina de vanguardia, he says, is the name for such adventurous cooking in the language of Spanish chef Ferran Adria, one of its leading advocates. Then there’s sous vide (French for “under vacuum”), another approach to cooking meats. “This is something that I’ve done in my own kitchen to just cook a chicken breast,” Schaus says, running through the steps. “It’s probably the best chicken breast you’ll ever have.”

No, this is not a culinary class. It’s about chemistry, albeit a little more mouthwatering than usual. Schaus is teaching Chemistry in Culture and Society for the first time this semester before rolling it out again as part of this fall’s BU Hub, the new University-wide general education requirement.

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The course fulfils a goal that this College of Arts & Sciences chemistry professor has harbored: teaching non–chemistry majors (and those chem majors who are interested) the fundamentals of his field—and how everyday life wouldn’t be what it is without them.

To put an exclamation mark on the point, Schaus concludes his class by making lemonade without lemons. Really. As students gather around the lab table to watch, he produces preweighed containers of acids from a shopping bag. “I did bring the sugar,” he says, pulling packets out of his sports coat pocket. He puts all the ingredients in a bottle, shakes, and voilà, produces a liquid that he gives to Ryan Meehan (CAS’19) to sample.

Meehan drinks, gives a wide-eyed smile, and nods approvingly.

Schaus laments that traditional science and chemistry courses brim, by necessity, with math and technical details. Non–chemistry majors, he says, “don’t really have an opportunity to put it in the context of the rest of the world.”

beaker-iconAnd so he tries to fill that gap. In another lecture that discusses plastics, a product of chemistry that everyone uses, Schaus highlights how much plastic is manufactured globally every year (about 350 million tons in a $1 trillion market). He offers another application unfamiliar to those not versed in the periodic table of elements: one element, thorium, could be used to produce nuclear power that’s less radioactive than today’s uranium reactors, which the United States adopted in the 1950s in part because they produced weapons-grade material for the Cold War.

Chemistry major Sarah Teoh (CAS’21) says she enjoys the class precisely because “it’s not just so much of the theory, but real-life applications.… I want to know what I can do with what I’m studying.

“Chemistry’s everywhere,” she says. “It’s like everywhere. Even the chairs you sit on.”

Meihan Zhou (Questrom’18), who studies information systems and operation management at the Questrom School of Business, says Schaus’ course makes for “a better class for a college student, because it doesn’t teach concepts that maybe don’t apply to you in day-to-day life.” Instead, she says, “the class is designed to help students understand the concepts, but also apply them to real life.”

By doing so, Schaus says, he tries to make a point: “There’s a lot of fun in science.

“I think an understanding of that has been taken away in the types of courses that are required as part of the curriculum” he says. “When I was a child growing up, I had probably one of the largest LEGO collections, and I could spend hours building new things. Organic chemistry is essentially the same thing: learning how to build new things.” (He holds up a tiny plastic model of molecular building blocks.)

The class is open to any undergraduate. As for non–chemistry students, rest easy. All that’s needed to take the class, Schaus says, is an understanding of high school chemistry: if you know what CO2 and H20 are, you’ll be fine.


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1 Comments
Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

One Comment on Lemonade without Lemons, and Other Marvels of Chemistry

  • Olla Almajed on 05.11.2018 at 11:27 am

    Very Interesting.

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