Analytical Chemistry: Complex Science with Practical Applications

Posted: February 16, 2017

How much calcium is actually present in a calcium supplement? What kind of food coloring is in powdered drink mix? What pigments make spinach green and how much is contained in a single leaf? These are some of the questions 15 juniors and seniors have addressed in analytical chemistry, a new yearlong science elective developed and taught by science teacher Aly Dowey. The project-based course is unique for a high school science curriculum, and it’s giving Blair students excellent exposure to what Ms. Dowey describes as “a specific branch of chemistry that is integral to the entire discipline” through its focus on analytical techniques, science writing and practical applications of research.

Analytical chemistry deals with the qualitative and quantitative analysis of matter—that is, whether or not a substance is present and how much of it is contained in a sample. Such analysis is crucial to every kind of scientific research and is used to solve problems in a host of industries. Ms. Dowey, a graduate of Bates College with a BS in chemistry, delved deeply into analytical chemistry for her undergraduate thesis and as a two-year research lab assistant to Thomas Wenzel, PhD, and she is enthusiastic about sharing her expertise in the lab and classroom this year.

“We’re working on labs that demonstrate the practical applications of science and show students what they can do in science for the rest of their lives, if they wish,” she said. “Their research and analysis is also teaching them to become critical thinkers as they constantly ask themselves ‘what is the purpose of my research?’ and ‘do my results make sense?’.”

Throughout the fall and winter, students in Ms. Dowey’s class have honed their scientific research skills through extensive lab work: they have learned to separate mixtures using a variety of techniques; they have isolated chemical compounds; and they have analyzed those compounds for structure and volume. As they have documented their findings, students have also become adept at lab and science writing, which has different requirements than humanities writing in terms of structure, voice and style.

Class members are now applying their analytical chemistry skills—and learning new ones—in semester-long projects of their own design that will culminate in detailed papers and poster presentations. They are using the Internet to research established procedures then building on these methods to perform their analyses. At Blair’s spring science fair, students will present their findings on such topics as the amount of vitamin C in different kinds of fruit; the presence of different elements in drinking water around campus; and the amount of ibuprofen in name-brand versus generic tablets.

Carter Albers ’18 and his lab partner, Chinonso Chima-Anyanka ’17, are working to determine the amount of caffeine in different types of coffee and tea. “We hope to enlighten others on their caffeine intake and help people determine which beverage they should choose when more or less caffeine is desired,” Carter said. He is especially enjoying the substantial lab time in analytical chemistry. “The best part of a science class is learning a concept and then visualizing it by completing a lab,” he continued. “Analytical chemistry labs have allowed us to take a further look into average, everyday mixtures, like tea or Kool Aid. It’s been a great learning opportunity.”

Maddie Peterson ’17 is also enjoying the “abundant” lab opportunities: her group is working on the ibuprofen analysis, comparing the amount of the drug in various pain-killers to their market price. “This was an interesting topic for me because I am a student athlete and, consequently, use painkillers occasionally,” she said. “It's important for athletes—as well as the Blair community—to be knowledgeable about the anti-inflammatories they are purchasing and to know if the more-expensive painkillers are more effective than the off-brand ones.”

Later in the semester, the class will spend a day at East Stroudsburg University observing college laboratory work and perhaps trying out different and even more sophisticated analytical tools and procedures. “Our field trip will be a great way to further expose the class to the enormity and complexity of scientific research,” Ms. Dowey noted. “I’m excited that students researching topics that matter to them, using techniques that are even new to me. We’re learning together and using all the resources available to us.”

Last Updated: February 23, 2017