Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Chemistry professor speaks at regional conference

Bill Mattson, a Randolph College chemistry professor, will present a speech about creative problem solving for a regional chemistry teachers’ conference this week, drawing on ideas he and his students have explored in chemistry classes and research at Randolph.

Bill Mattson talks with Emily Rist ’14 about a modified high-heeled
shoe she invented for one of his classes. Inventing solutions is one
form of creative problem solving he plans to speak about Friday.
The Middle Atlantic Association of Liberal Arts Chemistry Teachers (MAALACT) will begin its annual meeting on Friday, Sept. 28. Mattson will be the plenary speaker that night. His speech is titled “Creative Problem Solving in Chemical Research,” with its main focus being on the creativity he challenges his students to use when they approach problems.

Creative problem solving is featured prominently in Mattson’s courses at Randolph College. For example, his seminar course for first-year students challenges students to solve a problem that bothers them. They start with a “bug list” that names problems that irritate them. “From such a list they often get an idea for an invention—a requirement for the course,” Mattson said.

In his chemistry courses, he challenges students to think about applications that chemistry has outside of the laboratory. “One of the ways one gets ideas is to observe a property that can be applied to something useful,” he said. Mattson’s speech will include an example of this creative process from a class where he placed a marshmallow in a vacuum. In the airless environment, the marshmallow expanded for some time, only to reverse and collapse. Mattson and his students then brainstormed applications for that observation.

They concluded that using a vacuum chamber could help produce polystyrene—a plastic used in products such as egg cartons and disposable cutlery—while using less of a polluting chemical, or to shell peanuts more quickly.

Although his audience this weekend is a group of chemistry teachers who would have interest in the specific chemical applications, Mattson said his speech will mostly emphasize the importance of creative problem solving. “It can certainly apply to people and groups who aren’t chemists,” he said.