An Interview with Laurie Sorge: Prepping for Chemistry and Linking Math and Science

Aug 30, 2011 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy
Eastern New Mexico University
Portales, New Mexico

1)   Laurie, how long have you been teaching science and chemistry?

I received a BS in Chemistry in 1977 and a MS and PhD in Biochemistry from the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry in 1982. I started tutoring high school chemistry students while in college and taught chemistry to college nursing students while in graduate school. I have had an eclectic career in part due to having three daughters in two years (including twins) during a post-doctoral fellowship at UNC Chapel Hill. I have worked on insulin receptors on breast cancer cells in rats, studied Rous sarcoma virus, an avian (chicken) sarcoma virus and model oncovirus, and worked on Gerbera daisy breeding and cloning at NCState.

For 4 years I worked on an NIH funded grant with the Research Triangle Science and Mathematics Partnership whose goal was to develop a database of 800 scientists and connect them with classroom teachers to bring “hands on science” to the classroom. We also helped scientists understand the math level of the students with whom they would be working. I have taught high school chemistry and worked as a volunteer scientist in local elementary schools on projects such as CHUMS (Community Helpers Understanding Math and Science).

Throughout my entire career, I have tutored high school and college students in chemistry and math.  As result of this one-on-one working with students in both subjects, I became very interested in tracking down and understanding exactly where students “go wrong” when they seem unable to grasp chemistry. My experience has shown that these difficulties often result from the fact that American students are not taught how to use “math as a tool for science”.

A period of time recovering from cancer gave me the opportunity to pull these observations together and write Prep for Success in Chemistry, a Bridge Between Math and Science in order to help as many students as possible get that extra boost to their skills that will increase their enjoyment and understanding of chemistry.

 2)      I took chemistry many years ago, and enjoyed it, but don’t remember much- any ideas as to what occurred?

Well, I would presume that your life’s work has not been one of the fields discussed in question number 8. However, if you have:

·         Worried about your NaCl intake and blood pressure

·         Been horrified by the kilowatt hours you used in July

·         Debated between 10-10-10 or slow release fertilizer

·         Worried about the run off of your fertilizer in pond and streams

·         Switched to stainless steel for your water container because of Bisphenol A (PBA)     dangers

·         Reviewed your blood chemistries with your doctor

·         Considered adding solar panels to your roof

·         Contemplated the rise in price of the precious metals Au and Ag

·         Wondered what made sterling silver “sterling”

·         Thought about buying a hybrid car

·         Had your well tested for contaminants

·         Taken extra measures to dispose of computer refuse because of lead and other metals

·         Made an opinion about genetically modified foods

·         Told your kids to NEVER mix chlorine and ammonia!

·         Been curious about nanotechnology

then, you might be using chemistry more than you thought!

 3)      I do remember some basic concepts- the mole etc. What are some of the concepts that high school students have trouble with?

Prep for Success in Chemistry, a Bridge Between Math and Science is not a chemistry book per se. This book addresses the fact that a majority of high school, community college and even college students do not have the math skills they need to be successful in chemistry AND they have no idea what those skills are or how to obtain them.  This will be discussed further in the next few questions. Although most of the book is devoted to math skills needed in chemistry, two chapters deal specifically with chemistry concepts that “trip students up”

If you asked ten chemistry students at the end of the year to explain what a mole is, probably nine out of ten would not be able to do so. Yet 75% of the calculations students make in chemistry involve moles in some way, so it is a very key concept.

The chapter called “What is a Mole and Who is Avogadro?” is designed to explain a mole in 5 different ways with lots of examples and practice problems. An easy to use “Mole Road Map” was designed to help visual learners to see the “big picture” for doing calculations. I have had other chemistry tutors call it “spot on” for helping students to understand the concept and for helping them to teach it.

The other chapter in the book that actually deals with chemistry is “Geometry for Chemistry” which demonstrates, in one concise place, all the ways chemists try to depict 3 dimensional molecules on 2 dimensional paper. Students who head into a chemistry course having completed these chapters will be in very good shape and will find themselves returning to both of these chapters time and again during their chemistry course.

4)      Some students bemoan the math aspect of chemistry- how can your book help and how much math is actually involved?

Prep for Success in Chemistry, a Bridge between Math and Science addresses the fact that many students taking a beginning chemistry course are not prepared in the necessary scientific math skills. Top math students, those taking calculus in high school, rarely have difficulty with chemistry. However, average or even good math students (and their parents) are often shocked to realize they are not able to make the transition from algebra to the use of math in physical sciences. This is often first evident when students take high school chemistry and find they do not have the particular skills to be successful in chemistry. This unexpected early difficulty often leads students to reject considering science as a field of study in college or careers in medicine, engineering, or environmental sciences.

Not only are students lacking the math skills, but they do not know where to go to learn them! Chemistry teachers have a lot of chemistry to teach and do not have time to go back and review math skills that will be used from the beginning. As students move from theoretical math classes to using math in science, all of a sudden graphs have real life axes of pressure or potential energy and slopes actually show density or speed. The unknown quantity is no longer x and equations that looked familiar in algebra now contain words like grams, moles or mm of Hg and contain complex fractions.

Each student is then left to try to “reinvent the wheel” and figure out what they were expected to know before they began chemistry. Prior to chemistry, students are not generally exposed to the huge range of scale that scientist deal with from the size of an atom to Avogadro’s famous number 6.02 x 1023. They need to be very familiar with scientific notation, making calculations with exponents and using their scientific calculators.

5)      What are some of the basic math concepts that may need refreshing>?

Prep for Success in Chemistry, a Bridge between Math and Science is meant to proceed at your own pace. Students will find chapters they can breeze through and other areas where they will need to do all the example problems in order to master the material. The book covers the following topics:

·         Algebra for Chemistry

·         Using Units

·         Unit Conversions

·         Scientific Notation

·         Significant Figures

·         Scientific Calculators for Chemistry

·         Temperature Scales

·         pH and logarithms

·         Scientific Graphing

·         Direct and inverse proportions

·         Using Excel in Chemistry

·         What is a mole and who is Avogadro?

·         Calculations with moles

·         Geometry for Chemistry


6)      How would your book help college students or freshmen who have to take a few science electives?

This book is geared for beginning level chemistry at the high school and college level.

Recently published from Darton College, GA (March 2, 2011): Dr. Galina Soboleva recognized the root cause of students’ failure in chemistry – algebra! “Even when students do well in algebra classes, they are not necessarily successful in chemistry because they accept algebra and chemistry separately and do not see the connection between the two subjects”. Dr. Soboleva developed a program of “Algebraic Chemistry”, resulting in significantly higher performance/grades and self-confidence in chemistry within just one semester.

Anne Marie Helmenstine, Ph.D  writes about the “Top Reasons Why Students Fail Chemistry” at  She cites “Insufficient Math Preparation” as the number two reason for failing chemistry (following “Procrastination”). She states, “Don’t go into chemistry until you understand the basics of algebra. Geometry helps too. You will need to be able to perform unit conversions. Expect to work chemistry problems on a daily basis. Don’t rely too much on a calculator. Chemistry and physics use math as an essential tool”.

Prep for Success in Chemistry, a Bridge between Math and Science provides this information all in one place in an easily accessible style. Ideally a student will work through this workbook before taking chemistry, but it will also prove valuable for students to keep with them during the course. No one can remember all the details of using the scientific calculator correctly and a quick review will often solve the problem

7)      Why chemistry? Why do you feel it important?

Chemistry is often called the “Central Science” because an understanding of chemistry is crucial to so many disciplines. Chemistry, especially a first course in high school and college, is a gateway for an enormous number of careers and poor performance or dislike of this initial course is an early detour for many students.

8). I realize chemistry is critical for the medical fields- what other fields is it crucial- pharmacy? What others

As the “Central Science” chemistry is involved in careers as diverse as:  all engineering, oceanography, astronomy, physics, law (patent and environmental), teaching, geology, meteorology, space exploration, metallurgy, agrochemistry, forensics, all energy fields (including renewables), government policy, ceramics, plastic and paper industries, technical writing, environmental science, toxicology and many others. Of course as you mentioned, anyone involved in the entire area of medicine or biology must have significant chemistry knowledge including researcher, physician, physician assistant, nurse, dentist, hygienist, medical technologist, emergency personnel, physical therapist and pharmacist.

 9)      What have I neglected to ask?

     Many “chemistry help books” are filled with pages of text and equations that leave students discourages and glassy eyed. A great deal of attention was paid to the “user friendliness” of this book including easy to read fonts and many graphics and visual examples to help students identify key concepts and common mistakes. The book is unintimidating with example problems worked out “by hand” and plenty of room to work out practice problems.

Chemistry “Street Smarts” such as what temperature is the threshold of pain, how many atoms would fit across a human hair or why do Americans have ounces and fluid ounces helps keep the subject matter relevant. Students will find this an easy to use combination of text book and workbook; “a bridge between math and science”. They can proceed at their own pace throughout the book and keep it handy to refer too over and over again.

Chemistry takes a sustained effort; it is a course that builds on itself the entire year.  Students who fall behind at the beginning of the course are likely to struggle the entire year. Student attention spans seem to have decreased and they are used to getting bits of information provided to them via the internet. They may quickly “google” what are STP conditions, how do I find pH with my calculator or what is the molecular weight of calcium chloride. While that may be useful in some circumstances, there is no substitute for a student struggling to learn a new subject to have all the basics provided in one place, in a form with which he or she becomes familiar.  Prep for Success in Chemistry, a Bridge between Math and Science gives students a single, concise place to learn and practice the skills they need for chemistry.

10)   What is the exact name of your book and where is it available?

Prep for Success in Chemistry, a Bridge between Math and Science  by Laurie K. Sorge

It is available at, and

11)   Do you have a web site?

The web site is

The web site includes the Tables of Contents, a sample lesson and a description of the next book in the series: Prep for Success in Chemistry, Understand the Periodic Table.

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