Gifts for Geeks

chemists who say ni t-shirt

Think Monty Python and the Holy Grail

Smart kids tend to love the esoteric, and nothing quite fulfills this tendency better than an obscure academic t-shirt design.  The best-known model of this fashion(?) is perhaps the character Sheldon on the TV series The Big Bang Theory.  He is rarely seen on the show in anything other than a t-shirt.  Sheldon’s shirts feature designs ranging from a periodic tables to the double helix model of DNA.  He also sports designs from various comic book super heroes (Superman, The Flash, The Green Lantern) or obscure internet video series (TableTop, The Guild).


When I was teaching I used to receive a small catalog called the Journal of Academic T-Shirts.  It was filled with all sorts of designs from music, history and science.  It was always a hit when I passed it around in my science classes, and I occasionally ordered something for myself.

When it comes to geek chic, the more obscure the better, as just about anyone can come up with a Periodic Table shirt.  But, where can you or the ChemClub students buy such products?  Here are a few ideas.

Ah - The element of surprise t-shirtZazzle has a number of cool shirts on a page titled, “Chemistry Geek Gifts” , from  ‘Never Forget’ (the Sliderule) to Maxwell’s Equation.  There is also a shirt for ‘the element of surprise’ which features Ah! In the format of a chemical element.

The Think Geek site has a number of shirts and other novelty items, including a Periodic Table shower curtain and a Rutherford-Bohr model atom necklace pendant.

Shirt Woot! has a number of Schodinger’s Cat based shirts and tons of other esoterica. And finally, perhaps the best site of all, Café Press, which listed 288,000 results for a search on ‘science gifts.’ My favorite was one that said “Correlation ≠Causation”. Truer words have never been, well, spoken.

A Measure of Confusion

Typical timber frame joints

Typical timber frame joints

We had a visitor from New Zealand stay with us this summer.  While he was here he took a course on building in the Timber Frame construction style.  This involved heavy beams, mortise and tenon joints and lots of measuring.   His biggest frustration was the measuring. As he is from a metric nation, he had a very hard time with our system using inches and feet.  He had a hard time imagining what a 1/16 of an inch was and if 3/8 inch was bigger or smaller than 7/16.  With some work, he was able to finish the work and they came out great.

Students in school will be facing a similar challenge, but perhaps in reverse, as they will once again be meeting the metric system in their science classes.  In some ways the U.S. Customary system of weights and measures is much worse than any other countries.  We are stuck with a Frankenstein’s monster of measurements that involves a mishmash of systems from many different sources. We buy gasoline by the gallon, but soda by the liter.  Athletes play football on a 100-yard field, but they run the 100 meter dash in track and field.  We measure in fractions of an inch, until things get very small and then we use decimal measures, such as thousandths of an inch.ChemMatters Cover - Dec. 2014

This is the topic of an article I wrote for the December 2014 issue of ChemMatters magazine. ChemMatters is an award-winning magazine for high school chemistry, which aims to explain how chemistry works in our everyday lives. Each issue includes a Teacher’s Guide containing background information, follow-up hands-on activities, classroom demonstrations, and other resources to facilitate student comprehension.

In my article “A Measure of Confusion” I follow some the issues surrounding our current system of measures, including the loss of a NASA spacecraft that crashed instead of landing on mars. This was due to an incorrect conversion from English to metric units.

By the way, if you join the new American Association of Chemistry Teachers (AACT), you will receive a one-year subscription to ChemMatters as part of your membership.  And there is nothing confusion about that!


Protected: Secrets of Chemistry – The December Resource Packet for 2014-2015

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Chemistry Apps for Students

ChemClub can be a great opportunity for some informal learning about basic chemistry concepts, but they have to be fun, engaging and appropriate.

A recent ACS Newsletter featured an article that offered 24 free chemistry apps for iPads that are appropriate for chemistry students. The list was compiled by Christopher Pappas of and it includes a wide range of subject matter and levels.  While some are more appropriate for a university level, there are many that high school chem students will enjoy.

Atom Builder Screen Shot


For example there is Atom-Builder, a game designed to teach students the skills they need to count protons, neutrons, and electrons in an atom. In another app called Chemistry Formulas Practice, students learn the skill of naming compounds and writing formulas.



Nova Elements Screenshot

One of my personal favorites is NOVA Elements.  This is part of the educational support materials that were developed for the two-hour NOVA program, “Hunting the Elements.” Using this app you can explore and interactive periodic table, play a game with the host of the Nova program or watch “Hunting the Elements”.  ACS worked with NOVA in the development of some of the support materials for the show.

Beyond the apps listed in the ACS Newsletter, there are a number of interesting items for both iOS and Android based platforms.

Elements 4D

A new app called Elements 4D is amazing.  Technology often amazes me, but doesn’t often surprise me.  Elements 4D did both.  Print out paper cubes and fold them into shape.  Each face is printed with an element name, at. no. and at. wt.  But when you hold the paper cube in front of the smart device camera, it changes into a transparent cube with a representation of the element inside! There is also basic information about the element in text below the image.  Take two cubes and hold them together in front of the camera and if they can react, they will, and the programs shows the product. Making the paper cubes would be a great club activity.

A search for Chemistry Apps on Google Play generated a dozen hits.  Among these was Chemistry Helper, which the site describes as “A simple app designed as a quick reference for chemistry students. Includes a periodic table with links to wikipedia, a tool to calculate molecular masses of compounds (with a button at the top to perform simple grams/moles calculations, calculate mass percents and do stoichiometry.” Plus lots of other functions.

Complete Chemistry




Complete Chemistry includes tutorials, problem solvers, quizzes, formulas and a chemical dictionary.  It received great reviews as an effective tool to help students learn chemistry.




ChemPro: Chemistry Tutor is aimed at AP Students or General Chem students.  It is linked to video lessons and has an array of flash cards to help student learn important basic information.  Students can try various experiments with no danger of broken test tubes or expensive reagents.

Virtual lab


And finally, there is Chemist: Virtual Chem Lab, which (for $4.99) allows you to do a variety of virtual experiments on your smart tablet. Students can try various experiments with no danger of broken test tubes or expensive reagents.



Students seem to be drawn to technology, especially when it is fun and interesting.  Check out these apps to see if they might have a place in your next ChemClub activity.

What are your favorite apps to use?

Happy Mole Day!

Avi juggling BeansMilli with a Lollipop