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Science education vs general science knowledge

  1. Jul 15, 2015 #1
    This feels like a strange question but it's something I've often wondered so I was curious about other peoples opinions.

    I'm currently half way through a Chemistry degree and have been doing reasonably well. However I feel that the chemistry knowledge I have is only good for helping me answer exam questions. I hear people with a Chemistry background talking and watch interviews and things like that and they seem to have excellent general knowledge on the subject. Now that I'm typing this I'm struggling to think of how to describe exactly what I mean, but I guess things like knowing the names and properties of all kind of random compounds, always knowing what kind of reaction will occur between different random chemicals, relating chemistry knowledge to household products. Saying that reminded me of this picture which is quite old. I don't know how true the story is, but I wouldn't have a clue about a majority of the list - https://pbs.twimg.com/media/BIFYZ5MCIAEMWRR.jpg

    I feel like all I'm good at is drawing reaction mechanisms, interpreting IR spectra and determining experimental rate equations. Is the general knowledge something that comes with experience? Or should I be educating myself beyond the scope of what my exams and assignments call for? Hopefully it's clear what I mean as it feels like I did a bad job of explaining it.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 15, 2015 #2


    Staff: Mentor

    I would say this is true in physics as well.

    I recall learning CM, GR and QM and then trying to relate that the popular science books at the time and having a very difficult (aka impossible) time doing it. I would ask the profs and they'd try to explain the limitations of the analogies used by the popular science author.

    For chemical compounds, I imagine if you apply your chemical knowledge of say salt (NaCl) then you could infer the properties of say (KCl) if you didn't already know them. As your experience improves then you'd understand how they are the same and how they are different.

    I've seen my family doctor go through this process trying to reason through the symptoms I would describe as to what is really going on..
  4. Jul 15, 2015 #3


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    Gold Member

    Hi smulc,

    I believe I know exactly what you're talking about. I've described it as "conversational knowledge" vs. "procedural knowledge". The former allows me to have intelligent, informal conversations with friends/family (educated/non-educated), colleagues, etc. The latter allows me to rigorously analyze situations whether on the job or in the classroom.

    Something to consider: the first two years of any degree (in the US at least) will be largely foundational, especially in STEM programs. Be patient and things will start to come together at some point. However:
    Yes, always! Homework assignments are generally considered the bare minimum of what needs to completed in order to understand a concept. Work as many problems as you have time for, and try to do them by yourself before asking for help.

    One thing that really helped my "general knowledge" is picking a topic every few days and studying it. For example, I wanted to know more about cycloconverters and how/why they're used. I read wikis, watched YouTube videos and read forums on my spare time for a few days until I felt comfortable that I could help someone with very little education/knowledge understand what they are and how they're used.
  5. Jul 15, 2015 #4
    I wouldn't call this "general" knowledge, rather, "practical, everyday" knowledge. In the case of chemistry, in my experience, it comes from the years of "kids chemistry" that usually precedes seeking a formal education in the subject. Every year there are about a million books published of chemistry experiments and demonstrations that a kid can do at home with products from the grocery, drug, and hardware stores. These range from stuff for first graders to more sophisticated projects for high schoolers. And a certain small percentage of kids get very serious about it. It's my impression that most people who go into chemistry had a childhood steeped in that kind of self-motivated home science.

    Oliver Sacks went into medicine, but his childhood interest in chemistry formed an excellent foundation:

    I think the people you are admiring were probably little kitchen chemists from the get-go. We had a kid like this in my home town, and he was a wealth of information for cool projects. He was certainly conversant with the chemical formulas of common things.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 7, 2017
  6. Jul 16, 2015 #5
    when I was trapped in a certain institution all they did when I told them that I wanted to be an ee was tell me "what do we need that for" then I tried to rebut by saying well don't you need someone to build your tv? "we already got those, what do we need you for!". all they would say was that the 'house' belongs to a dentist and all I could think was that it belongs to the ieee as they touch all aspects of science. guess they understand a toothache but not other science.:confused:
  7. Jul 24, 2015 #6


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    Well your half way ahead of me I know almost nothing about chemical reactions. But yes of course knowledge comes with time the guys doing the interviews will have been doing this for years. Isn't all chemical reactions about the covalent bonds just learn which ones react with each other e.g alkali metals and halogens and remember the further down the table the greater the reaction and your done =) Get yourself a electronegativity Table and you can work out all the reactions.I know that's not all chemistry is but it is a good start right ?
  8. Jul 29, 2015 #7


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    I feel like what you're describing is a difference between entry-level knowledge and decades-long experience. Remember that a degree is not designed to turn you into an expert, degrees give you the knowledge and skills to start a career in that field. You only really start becoming expert during a PhD and that's on some very niche topics. So don't feel bad you don't understand what most professors are saying, it would be worrying if you did as it would imply their knowledge is at a pre-graduate level.
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