Textbooks have their place, of course, but whenever possible, chemistry students at Principia College get out of their seats and into the lab, which in some cases is the great outdoors. For 20 years now, introductory and environmental chemistry classes have been gathering data on local streams and rivers and comparing pollutant levels over time. These classes regularly collect data from the Mississippi River, the creek in Elsah, Mill Creek, Piasa Creek, and sometimes from the Illinois River.
In addition, one of the introductory classes examines the composition of gasoline. After taking samples of the three main grades of gasoline (with octane ratings of 87, 89, and 93), students use gas chromatography to discover how octane levels affect the makeup of gasoline.
Then there’s Instrumental Analysis, a more advanced course. Some days this class resembles the popular TV show CSI: Crime Scene Investigation—without the all-star cast or the blood and gore. In Principia’s forensic lab, students identify the ink used to produce a document in order to determine its age and authenticity. They can also identify the accelerant used to start a fire, which is similar to an arson investigation.
Given all the experiential learning going on in the Chemistry Department, it’s no surprise that students earning a BS in chemistry are expected to conduct independent experimental research. Past senior research projects include isolating eugenol (a natural product from cloves), monitoring the degradation (or fading) of colors in artwork, and working on a way to purify water that could be used in poor countries like Haiti. This last project—by Sarah Peck (C’11)—was inspired by a summertime trip to Haiti, where Sarah worked with volunteers to restore drinkable water. One of the people she worked with was alum Feli Zulhendri (C’07).
It’s worth noting that, as with the other sciences, many chemistry majors take advantage of studying at a liberal arts college to investigate non-scientific subjects as well, graduating with minors, if not second majors, in religion, Asian studies, and so on. Like the compounds they study, Principia’s chemistry majors are an interesting mix!