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from The Textbook Letter, July-August 1999

Reviewing a high-school book in chemistry

Chemistry: Concepts and Applications
2000. 889 pages. ISBN of the student's edition: 0-02-828209-4.
Glencoe/McGraw-Hill, 8787 Orion Place, Columbus, Ohio 43240.
(Glencoe/McGraw-Hill is a division of the McGraw-Hill Companies.)

"interNET" Gimcracks in an Old, Dumb Book

Max G. Rodel

About one year ago I carried out the chore of reviewing the 1997 version of Glencoe's book Chemistry: Concepts and Applications -- a chore that left me disgusted and discouraged. Glencoe's dumbed-down and incoherent book, full of muddled material that had no instructional value at all, was so bad that it resisted narrative description. I settled for writing a review that, for the most part, was simply a listing of the book's defects and failings [see note 1, below].

The 1997 Chemistry: Concepts and Applications didn't have any preface or foreword that might have provided clues to the book's purpose or intended audience, so I was compelled to guess. I guessed that Chemistry: Concepts and Applications was intended to look as if it might be suitable for poor students who needed to complete a "science" requirement -- and I judged that, even in that context, it would be only marginally useful. Such students couldn't be expected to extract much science from its shallow text, nor could they be expected to contend with its baffling aberrations: Unrelated topics were juxtaposed and conflated with each other, related items were separated and disconnected from each other, enigmatic pictures defied the reader to figure them out, and the book's pages were spattered with politically correct nonsense that often had nothing to do with chemistry.

Now Glencoe has produced another version of Chemistry: Concepts and Applications, dated in 2000.

Almost nothing has been corrected. When I made a page-for-page comparison of this 2000 book with the 1997 book, I found no changes at all in the main text, the illustrations or the so-called laboratory activities. Glencoe has reprinted even the most ridiculous items that appeared in the 1997 -- the bizarre "MiniLab" that conflates a metal-alloying process with alchemy(!), the nonsensical "explanation" of the term noble gases, the utterly incomprehensible "Metabolic Map" that seems to have come from an advanced textbook of biochemistry, and (of course) the mysterious, uncaptioned illustrations that have no evident relevance to anything. Readers who want to know more about the content of the 2000 version of Chemistry: Concepts and Applications should read my review of the 1997 version.

The few revisions that I have noticed in the 2000 version are peripheral and have little or no significance:

That Web site is a mishmash. Let me describe to you what I saw when I visited it. At http://www.glencoe.com/sec/science I found a menu that offered nine items, including "Find Your Book Here," "Vocabulary Puzzlemaker," "Quizzes," "In the News," "State Resources" and "Teacher Forum." (Most of the items were meant for use by teachers, not students.) When I clicked on "Find Your Book Here" I got a menu that mixed the titles of some books, such as Glencoe Science, with the names of school subjects, such as "Biology" and "Chemistry." I clicked on "Chemistry," and I got a menu that showed pictures of the covers of two Glencoe books: Chemistry: Concepts and Applications and Merrill Chemistry [note 2]. The picture denoting Chemistry: Concepts and Applications was obsolete. It showed the 1997 version, not the 2000 version. When I clicked on it, a new menu offered me "Web Links," "Teacher Forum" and "Demonstration Update." I clicked on "Web Links" -- which, I assumed, would take me to the sites where the student was supposed to "find out more" about topics mentioned in Chemistry: Concepts and Applications.

The "Web Links" section was large and offered a list of links for each chapter in the book. The relevance and worth of the links varied considerably. A few of them took me to Web pages that might have been useful to a beginning student, but most of the links led to esoteric pages that had little or no practical value. Indeed, some of the links were clearly useless, and some were genuinely ridiculous. For example: In the list of links that allegedly pertained to chapter 1 of Chemistry: Concepts and Applications, the first link led to a chemistry page sponsored by Yahoo! -- a gigantic page which presented a welter of sublinks to other pages, and which had no evident utility to a student who was just beginning to read Glencoe's book. The second link led to a page on the American Chemical Society's Web site, and I again saw a flock of sublinks. The ACS's site was certainly legitimate, but the items on the displayed page lacked any discernible relevance to the material in chapter 1 of Chemistry: Concepts and Applications.

I surveyed Glencoe's lists of links for some other chapters, too. The list for chapter 4 led off with:

Taits [sic] Periodic Table of Elements

This site features an interactive periodic table with information on the different groups and all the elements. Visit this site to learn more about a specific group of elements, like the Noble Gases.

That one made me wish that Glencoe's writers had taken their own advice. If they had, they might know what the term noble gases means.

The list for chapter 10 included a link for "Reading Phase Diagrams" and another link called "What Are Liquid Crystals?" But when I retrieved my copy of Chemistry: Concepts and Applications and checked its pages, I found that the book said nothing about phase diagrams, and it dismissed liquid crystals in one incomprehensible paragraph (on page 345). Obviously, Glencoe's writers had deemed those topics to be unimportant. So why was Glencoe's Web site telling the student to go and read about those topics in cyberspace? [note 3]

It is my opinion that if a given parcel of information is useful and important, then the student should be able to find it in the textbook that he is using -- and if it isn't useful and important, then he shouldn't be led to waste his time by trying to find it on the Web.

A hastily contrived bunch of Web links is not a substitute for a logical, coherent, carefully written presentation of scientific principles, and surfing the Web is not a substitute for using a logical, coherent, carefully written textbook. It certainly isn't a way to learn chemistry. Surfing the Web can be entertaining (just as browsing through an encyclopedia can be entertaining), and it can be hugely helpful to an experienced researcher who knows his subject and knows what he is seeking, but it can't do much for a beginner who needs guidance and focus. Glencoe's "interNET CONNECTION" notes and lists of links may look cool, but they will, at best, serve to impel the student toward formless, purposeless browsing. At worst, they will bewilder him, discourage him, and confirm what he already has begun to suspect after trying to read Chemistry: Concepts and Applications -- that chemistry is an incomprehensible mess of big words and mysteries.

I said earlier that some of the Glencoe links were genuinely ridiculous. None was more ridiculous than this one, in the list for chapter 19 -- "NDB, The Nucleic Acid Database, Department of Chemistry, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey." When I followed the NDB link and pored through the NDB site, I had to laugh at the thought of presenting such abstruse material to the students at whom Glencoe's book is aimed. Remember -- Chemistry: Concepts and Applications is so badly dumbed-down that it doesn't even have a respectable explanation of the term pH.

Taken as a whole, Glencoe's "interNET CONNECTION" stuff looked a lot like a sham. I imagined Glencoe's editors saying: "Hey, it's cool to mention the Internet, so let's put some Internet gimcracks into this dumb chemistry book, let's spell Internet in some weird way, and let's whip up some batches of links to impress the impressionable."

The "AUTHORS" page in Chemistry: Concepts and Applications lists three persons. All three should feel deeply embarrassed.

Notes

  1. Editor's note: Two reviews of the 1997 version appeared in TTL for July-August 1998, under these headlines: "This Pleasant but Odd Book Shows Too Many Omissions" and "This Weak, Silly Book Is Suitable for No One." [return to text]

  2. Editor's note: For a review of the 1998 version of Glencoe's Merrill Chemistry, see "This 'New' Book Is a Leftover from 1993" in TTL for November-December 1998. [return to text]

  3. My readers must bear in mind that I examined Glencoe's site, and surveyed its lists of links, only once. On the day when I visited the site, I noticed that many of the listed links were "broken" -- they weren't functioning, so I got no response when I clicked on them. During the time since my visit, Glencoe may have altered the structure of the site, may have fixed the broken links, or may have updated the link lists. [return to text]


Max Rodel is a consulting environmental chemist affiliated with Environmental Science Associates, in San Francisco. His principal professional interest is the chemistry of natural aquatic systems, including the fates of pollutants. He lives in Mill Valley, California, and he regularly reviews science textbooks for The Textbook Letter.

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