Chemistry’s life lessons

Connor Simpkins ’25

When I enrolled in Honors Chemistry, a notoriously difficult class, I expected lots of homework and late nights. What I didn’t expect was a lesson in the importance of balance.

On a blustery cold day in January, Chemistry teacher Mr. William Leech, along with Chair of the Science Department Dr. Daniel Goduti, called students outside.

“When it comes to gasses, everything is based on relationships.”

Mr. Will Leech

We found our teachers in long white lab coats and brightly-colored, heavyweight protective gloves. Clouds of steam rose from a 12-gauge, 55-gallon steel drum set upon a burner. A blue ice bath sat on the ground next to the drum.

“When it comes to gasses,” Mr. Leech declared, “everything is based on relationships.”

In the demonstration, a small volume of water inside the steel drum was heated to boiling point, then the drum was sealed and placed directly into the ice bath. As the temperature inside the drum cooled, the pressure decreased and the atmospheric pressure on the outside caused the drum to implode.  

What we witnessed in the chemistry demonstration is what happens when there is no counteraction to pressure. 

As I shivered in the cold watching the demonstration, I realized that not only was this a lesson in the relationship between temperature and pressure, it was a perfect analogy to the importance of balance in our own lives. 

Mr. Will Leech teaches one of his chemistry classes, May 8, 2023 – Ian Rosenzweig ’25

Balance is a condition where different elements are equal or in the correct proportions. The steel drum collapsed when the relationship between the pressure inside the drum and outside the drum were no longer in the right proportions, no longer balanced.

 As students, we often feel the most pressure when the relationship between expectations and capacity are not in the right proportions, when what we need to do and what we feel we have the time or desire to do are out of balance.  

The first time I ever thought about balance was in fourth grade. As part of a yearlong project, my class put on a circus. In addition to planning the logistics, budget, and show theme, my classmates and I had to learn actual circus skills.

For months we learned how to juggle, walk a tightrope, perform aerial tricks with the Spanish web, move effortlessly on the walking globe and, of course, ride a unicycle. The unicycle was the biggest challenge; it was weeks before I stopped falling. 

But putting in the work to find the equilibrium between internal and external pressures might just be the key to surviving the pressures of high school.

The concept of balance is easily explainable, as Mr. Leech and Dr. Goduti showed us. And the consequences of not balancing pressures are easily demonstrable, as we all saw with collapsed steel drum. But teaching someone to find balance for themselves is almost impossible. Just like in riding a unicycle, you have to put in the work to figure it out for yourself.

An unexpected life lesson from chemistry class is that if you don’t find the right balance, the pressure can be crushing. But putting in the work to find the equilibrium between internal and external pressures might just be the key to surviving the pressures of high school.