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from The Textbook Letter, September-October 1997

Reviewing a high-school book in chemistry

Introductory Chemistry: A Foundation
1996. 672 pages + appendix. ISBN of the student's edition: 0-669-39761-X.
McDougal Littell Inc., P.O. Box 1667, Evanston, Illinois 60204.

Editor's Introduction -- This book was issued originally by D.C. Heath and Company but is sold now by McDougal Littell. McDougal Littell is a division of Houghton Mifflin Company, which acquired Heath in October of 1995. McDougal Littell's catalogue shows that the book exists in two versions. One of these has only 19 chapters and ignores organic chemistry. The other has 21 chapters, including chapters about organic chemistry and biochemistry. Here we review the long version.
This Clean, Focused Book
Is the Best That I've Seen

Max G. Rodel

Introductory Chemistry: A Foundation is an exceptionally clean, uncluttered text that keeps its focus strictly on chemistry. Here you will find crisp writing that is highly instructive, speaks intelligibly to high-school students, is never condescending, and is free of the phony, politically correct diversions that pervade so many schoolbooks. Here too you will find graphic design that is rational and skillful -- not the barrage of confusing images, interruptive sidebars and meaningless marginalia that make a lot of schoolbooks look like video games or television commercials.

The preface asserts that "The goal of this book is to make chemistry interesting, accessible, and understandable to the beginning student." In my view, that is exactly what Introductory Chemistry does.

If you open Introductory Chemistry to almost any page, you will be hooked quickly. Look at the beginning of Chapter 7, "Reactions in Aqueous Solutions," for instance. The introduction points out that reactions in aqueous media include virtually all the reactions which keep us alive. Then we find a section about the driving forces that make such reactions go -- the forces that make reactants "want" to form products. The most common of these driving forces, the writers say, are the formation of a solid, the formation of water, the formation of a gas, and the transferring of electrons -- if any of these can occur when chemicals are brought together, a reaction is likely to occur.

(When I read that, I noticed that it would also be an easy, intelligible way to introduce the concept of entropy, which is a more fundamental way of explaining why reactions "want" to happen!)

After learning about those four driving forces, the student is led through an easy but focused exercise in which he determines why solutions of potassium chloride and silver nitrate react. This is introductory chemistry at its most elegant.

The Book's Structure

A typical high-school chemistry book has around 25 chapters, but Introductory Chemistry has 21. The first two provide the customary introductions to science and to some aspects of measurement. Then come chapters titled "Matter and Energy," "Chemical Foundations: Elements, Atoms, and Ions," "Nomenclature," "Chemical Reactions: An Introduction," "Reactions in Aqueous Solutions," "Classifying Chemical Reactions," "Chemical Composition," "Chemical Quantities," "Modern Atomic Theory," "Chemical Bonding," "Gases," "Liquids and Solids," "Solutions," "Equilibrium," "Acids and Bases," "Oxidation-Reduction Reactions and Electrochemistry," "Radioactivity and Nuclear Energy," "Organic Chemistry" and "Biochemistry."

Each chapter comprises a succession of numbered sections, and each section begins with a statement of its "Aim." Within the chapter's text, important rules and processes are highlighted, and key terms are printed in boldface. The chapter concludes with a summary that reinforces important concepts, followed by several sets of questions and problems. After every two or three chapters, there is an extra set of exercises titled "Cumulative Review."

Chemical reactions are treated extensively in the early and middle chapters of the book, while more abstract matters are deferred. The rationale for this arrangement is given in the preface:

In a course in which many students encounter chemistry for the first time, it seems especially important that we present the chemical nature of matter before we discuss the theoretical intricacies of atoms and orbitals. Reactions are inherently interesting to students and can help us draw them to chemistry. In particular, reactions can form the basis for fascinating classroom demonstrations and laboratory experiments.

Another salient aspect of Introductory Chemistry is its emphasis on the development of problem-solving skills. Throughout, the student is instructed in how to attack a problem by reducing it to its conceptual essence, devising a way to solve it, carrying out the solution, and then judging whether the final answer makes sense. As a part of this instruction, important rules and principles are presented in yellow-shaded boxes (with titles such as "How to Write and Balance Equations," "Steps for Determining the Empirical Formula of a Compound" and "Steps for Calculating the Masses of Reactants and Products in Chemical Reactions"). Many worked examples of calculations are provided, and most are followed by self-check exercises.

I am happy to see that the writers have not been carried away by the current craze for "relevance" in science books. They teach about links between chemistry and real life, but they do this in a reasonable way, in some 30 sidebar articles headlined "Chemistry in Focus." These are the only sidebars in the book. Typically, each occupies half a page. The topics include optical coatings, "The Chemistry of Teeth," rocket fuels, cathode-ray tubes, artificial sweetening agents, fireworks, modern ways of making inks, "Firewalking: Magic or Science?" and the physics of popcorn. The article on firewalking explains why people can ostensibly walk on hot coals without suffering injury. At a time when some other textbooks are deliberately promoting belief in supernatural hooey, and are hiding the scientific explanations of superstitions held by backward peoples, Introductory Chemistry shows the truth.

The restrained, sparing use of sidebars is consistent with another laudable feature of this book: The writers don't make forced diversions into the realm of fashionable social fancies. There are no goofy discussions of how chemicals will strengthen our egalitarian social fabric, elevate the underclass, create racial harmony, and prove that Christopher Columbus was a really nasty fellow. Likewise, there are no half-baked passages about "environmental concerns," and no attempts to suggest that chemicals are sinister agents of the new world order.

There is laudable restraint, too, in the use of artwork. The illustrations are functional and rational, presented because they depict reactions or other chemical phenomena, help students to understand lessons, or demonstrate valid visual connections between chemistry and the everyday world. Introductory Chemistry doesn't deal in glitz or cuteness, and it doesn't have any photograph of a furry, pointy-nosed mammal to illustrate what a "mole" is!

The book's last two chapters constitute a rather intense little course in organic and biological chemistry. For high-school teachers who prefer to exclude organic chemistry from their introductory curriculum, there is a shorter version of Introductory Chemistry which omits those last two chapters but is otherwise identical to the book that I have described in this review. The ISBN of the shorter version is 0-669-39759-8.

Reading this focused textbook has been a pleasure. It stands head-and-shoulders above the other high-school chemistry texts that I have reviewed for The Textbook Letter.

Excellent Appearance,
Unacceptable Content

Narcinda R. Lerner

At first glance, this book appears very promising. Unlike most high-school texts, it isn't cluttered with meaningless illustrations. Practically all the illustrations, including the pictures of scientists who made important discoveries, are directly related to material covered in the book's text.

Regrettably, however, the book doesn't meet the expectations aroused by its clean format. Its most notable fault is that, because of a deliberate choice made by the writers, the arrangement of topics is unsatisfactory. The writers state in their preface, "We continue to emphasize chemical reactions early in the book, leaving the more abstract material on orbitals for later chapters" -- and that is true. Even the simplest presentation of electron configurations is delayed until chapter 11, so the student has no foundation for understanding valence or the properties of the elements.

The ten earlier chapters cover binary compounds, polyatomic compounds, ions and a selection of reactions, but the student -- because he has not learned anything about the concept of valence -- cannot understand why certain elements form certain classes of compounds but not others. And the student must memorize the properties of elements, rather than inferring them from the elements' atomic numbers or from their positions in the periodic table.

Material to Be Memorized

Remarks made in the preface indicate that users of earlier versions of Introductory Chemistry had difficulty with the late introduction of atomic orbitals -- "To make the text [of this 1996 version] more flexible," the writers say, "the material on ions and elements was moved from Chapter 5 to Chapter 4. This arrangement allows for a smoother transition from Chapter 4 to Chapter 11 for instructors who prefer to cover all of atomic structure early in the course." Yes, but if the writers had also introduced orbitals in chapter 4, then chapters 5 through 10 could have served as something more than material for rote memorization.

The writers' tendency to treat science as something to be memorized is shown in other ways also, as when physical quantities are introduced without adequate definition. Temperature, for example, is introduced in chapter 2, but it is not explained. Instead, the passage focuses on how to convert from one temperature scale to another: The student learns that water boils at 212º F and 100º C, but not how temperatures are measured. A student may infer that temperature can be measured by the expansion of a liquid in a tube, because there are illustrations of thermometers in vessels of ice water and boiling water, but the writers give no help. On the other hand, they devote six pages to temperature-scale conversions, as if these were difficult, subtle matters.

Temperature appears again in chapter 3, where the writers say: "Energy is a familiar term. . . . A common definition of energy is the capacity to do work. One way we use energy is to change the temperature of a substance." There is no explanation of any of that. The writers -- leaving the student with the false impression that a change in temperature must require work -- rush ahead to define the calorie, to announce that the SI unit of energy is the joule, and to tell that 1 cal = 4.184 J.

The discussion of pressure, in chapter 13, is slightly better. Pressure is defined operationally, by reference to the height of a mercury column, and there is an illustration showing just what is being measured. Yet the writers somehow omit the fundamental idea that pressure is force per unit area. Even when they introduce various units for measuring pressure, they do not explain that a pascal is 1 newton per square meter, nor do they furnish any physical interpretation of the term "pounds per square inch, abbreviated psi" (page 374). Explaining those things would have done much to show what pressure really is, but the writers appear to be interested only in teaching the student how to plug numbers into conversion formulas.

Despite a promise (in the preface) that the book will emphasize chemical reactions, the chapter about organic chemistry (chapter 20) is devoted almost completely to the nomenclature of organic compounds, with very little material about reactions. In fact, the part titled "Aromatic Hydrocarbons" is given exclusively to the naming of aromatics, with not a word about how any aromatics behave. The chapter on biochemistry introduces some major categories of compounds, such as amino acids, proteins, nucleic acids, sugars, starches and lipids, and it mentions some functional phenomena -- e.g., sulfide linkages in proteins, and the replication of DNA. Yet the chapter fails to mention the key phenomenon of optical isomerism.

In the rest of the book, organic chemistry is ignored -- and this makes it difficult for the writers to handle certain topics in any coherent way. For example, it is almost impossible to discuss solvents and solubility without referring to organic compounds, because most of our familiar solvents, other than water, are organics -- and indeed, water is the only solvent discussed in this book. Even ethanol, which is used extensively as a solvent, is considered only as a solute. (The book's index has an entry which says "Ethanol, as a solvent, 439," but no reference to ethanol as a solvent can be found on page 439, or anywhere else.) There is a mentioning of the rule that "like dissolves like" (page 442), but the rule makes little sense because the writers don't cite any specific examples of solvents other than water.

In summary, this book fails to measure up to expectations awakened by its clean, neat format. The initial impression that one obtains is that the writers really intend to teach chemistry, but then one finds that they present chemistry as material to be memorized rather than understood. I do not recommend Introductory Chemistry as a high-school text.


Max Rodel is a consulting environmental chemist and a registered environmental assessor in the State of California. His chief professional interest is the chemistry of natural aquatic systems, including the fates of pollutants. He lives and works in Mill Valley.

Narcinda R. Lerner is a research chemist. She works at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Ames Research Center (at Moffett Field, California). Her professional interests include polymer chemistry and the origin of organic materials in meteorites.

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