Connecting Chemistry to the Real World

Jared Scott Tesler
At The Shipley School, through contextual teaching and learning, Upper School science teacher and Environmental Sustainability Coordinator Tamar Norquist guides students in understanding and appreciating the significance of science—and social justice—in society and their own lives.
In Norquist’s Standard Chemistry course, students consider not only high-level theoretical perspectives but also real-world applications as they study water quality and the concepts of oxidation-reduction reactions, pH, and solubility.
“Issues of municipal water supply have tons of chemistry in them,” explains Norquist, whose students examine the Flint water crisis, in which more than 100,000 residents of Flint, Michigan, were exposed to elevated lead levels, and the Newark water crisis, in which elevated lead levels were observed in multiple Newark Public Schools in Newark, New Jersey. With a little help from their parents, students determine the company that supplies the water in their homes, pay a visit to said company’s website, and obtain data on the quality of their family’s tap water.
Another unit covers combustion reactions, with a focus on petroleum—from which all plastics are derived—and other fossil fuels. “The carbon dioxide-related problems of climate change are about fossil fuels and the chemical reaction of burning fossil fuels. It’s a chemistry problem,” says Norquist, who also leads the Environmental Club and the Sustainability Committee.
Amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, as her students continue their studies through Shipley’s online learning program, Shipley Learns Online, Norquist notes that such topics have the potential to be even more meaningful: “I think there are moments when learning something in the middle of their homes—where they’re very in touch with reality—can land more deeply in them.”
Whether through class discussions, labs, presentations, or projects, Norquist emphasizes the many ways in which the fundamentals of chemistry directly impact her students and the world around them.
The Shipley School is a private, coeducational day school for pre-kindergarten through 12th grade students, located in Bryn Mawr, PA. Through our commitment to educational excellence, we develop within each student a love of learning and a desire for compassionate participation in the world.