Monday, December 9, 2013

December 9th, 2013

Fresh Air Matters... with Capt. Yaw

I was recently asked how I remember, and apply, many different things. The answer is: I learn. Many people think that 'teaching' is the most important part of any training institution. No, teaching is not actually important at all. Learning is.

In certain instances Teaching and Learning can go together. But, if teaching takes place without any learning, then it is a waste of energy and time. Learning can, and often does, take place without teaching being present. Therefore, the key to knowing things, and being able to do things with that knowledge, lies in being an active learner.

As a lecturer in the UK, I tried hard to ensure that the only thing that would definitely take place in any of my lecture theatres, labs, or workshops, was learning. I try hard to avoid teaching, and harder to ensure that learning is on the menu - all day, everyday. To that end I focus on becoming a 'facilitator of learning'. 

The image of a 'teacher' who stands at the front of the room and pontificates is common. They spout endlessly, expecting you to take notes, to remember word-for-word what they want you to know, and to regurgitate that information, word perfect, in response to an exam question. Such 'teachers' are thrilled if you can remember, tape-recorder like, what they say, and if you do, you will be called a 'good student'. Sorry, that is the biggest lie about life that you have been sold. It is a fault ridden and archaic sham. Time for a blast of compressed air to clear that 'Complete Rubbish Applied Professionally' out of the system. We don't want parrots. We need thinkers who know what they are thinking about! 

A 'facilitator of learning' enables and encourages 'learning to take place'. We must be more interested in the principles of the topic being absorbed, in a useable manner, by the learners than anything else. Facts being learned off by heart, that cannot be applied practically, have no use - and are generally forgotten the day after the exam. Being able to identify ONE drawing of a cloud type (the drawing used in the exam) has zero value. Being able to look at the sky and describe the ever changing dome of atmospheric delights that is above us - and then being able to explain dynamically, and in a language that all can understand, what the causes and effects of such clouds are, is a treasure found in the spirit of learning. If we have learned something, it should come naturally to our mind and mouth, for the rest of our lives, as if walking, breathing or eating. A learned topic is PART of us. It becomes integral to our very being.

I am blessed to be a pilot, where learning is key to survival! Pilots must be one with their machines, they can't afford to recite facts to the controls - they must feel, react, understand and interact with the aircraft, the air - and the planets surface! There is no 'well I got 50% of it right, so I pass'! We would never consider airlines 'acceptable' if they always brought at least 50% of their passengers to destination 'safely'... Now, take that logic to the classroom! 

Who taught you speak? I know that nobody taught you the 'naughty words'. You learned far more than you were taught, and remembered the things that you learned without teaching far more than anything else. Why? It was attractive to your ears. It sounded fun. You were drawn to it. You remember stories and tales more than dry facts...

So, let's try to make chemistry interesting enough for us all to learn, rather than be taught. 

Let me introduce to some really tiny friends of mine. 

I have a group of friends with four arms. Yes, they all have four arms and hands! Can you imagine, they can hold four other hands at once. Amazing, isn't it. It is not often that you see such people. They are very dark in colour. I call them 'Carbon', each of them has the same name, I call each one of them individually C. 

I have another group of friends with only one arm and hand, they are very light - and have an explosive nature. These friends are called 'Hydrogen', or H for short. They hang about in pairs, holding hands, called H2 - Hydrogen gas.

Another group of friends have two arms and hands, and are a breath of fresh air to meet, although they have corrosive personalities, and they love to interact with others, they are called 'Oxygen', or O. Oxygen tend to move around in pairs, holding both hands of each other - when they do that we call them O2 or Oxygen gas. Whenever you see fire, you know they will be around, interacting with whatever they can.

None of these friends like walking around without holding hands. They love to hold hands. Whenever they hold one hand to another, we call it a bond. Some bonds are stronger than others, but they can all be broken - making or breaking a bond involves energy. 

When we put Carbon and Hydrogen together, they have a party, and form chains if they can. When our Carbon friends hold hands with our Hydrogen friends we call them 'Hydrocarbons'! One Carbon can hold four Hydrogen hands - when they do that we call them CH4, or Methane! If two Carbons get together with some Hydrogen, they use one hand each to hold on to them selves and have three Hydrogen's each around them. We call that C2H6 or Ethane! As you can imagine, these Carbons have some crazy parties and create long chains of Carbon, all holding Hydrogen's hands around them - for example C10H22 is called Decane. 

Most people in Ghana purchase a lot of hydrocarbons, the longer chains are found in petrol and diesel for our cars, but the shorter chains are better for cooking with. The preferred one for cooking has three carbons in a chain with eight hydrogen holding on around them. This is called Propane. We purchase it from the gas station in a bottle, compressed into a liquid. That liquid is called LPG (Liquid Propane Gas). Now the real fun begins.

If we set fire to some of these Propane (C3H8) hydrocarbons, in the presence of some of our Oxygen friends, then their is a fight. In that fight a lot of heat is released - and light. We call that release of heat and light together 'a flame' - and it will 'set fire' to the next carbon chain it can until they are no longer available (when we switch off the gas). We can, and do, use it to cook with. But what happens to our friends? Well, Carbon and Hydrogen let go of each other and pal up with Oxygen. Since Carbon has four hands each and oxygen two, they make a team of one Carbon to two Oxygen, called Carbon di-oxide or CO2. The Hydrogen atoms also want to party with the Oxygen and two Hydrogen hold hands with one Oxygen to make 'H2O' - which we also call 'water' - but it is hot, so it comes off as water vapour! 

So, when we light the gas to heat water in the kitchen tomorrow morning, remember what is really happening - and now you have a greater understanding of hydrocarbons and how they burn to produce carbon dioxide and water! Let me know if that was more fun than how you were taught in school - or if you have a better story!

Capt. Yaw is Chief Flying Instructor and Chief Engineer at WAASPS, and lead Pilot with Medicine on the Move, Humanitarian Aviation Logistics ( e-mail

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