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The Amateur Geologist: Learning Chemistry for Free
By Richard S. Rodgers - April 6, 2016

When I first started rock collecting - I was doing just that - picking up interesting rocks and adding them to my collection. I was not studying the rocks or trying to classify them. However, as I have moved from simply rock collecting to becoming more of an amateur geologist I have discovered that I need to know a lot of chemistry. From crystalline structures to chemical make-up, everywhere I look, chemistry plays a role. So what is an Amateur geologist to do if they don't have background in chemistry? Simple - study it.

In the old days a whopping ten or twenty years ago, your options would have been limited to plopping down a goodly amount of money to take a course, or simply getting a text book and slogging through in on your own. Nowadays, there are so many more options - and many of them are free!

Just do a quick search for a Chemistry MOOC, and you'll find that chemistry courses are offered, for free, on a variety of platforms such as Coursera and edX. Other schools such as the University of California, Irvine (UCI), offer a complete range of chemistry courses through their Open Chemistry program. This program takes the self-learner from an introductory chemistry course called Preparation to Chemistry all the way up through some graduate level chemistry courses. While you don't get any credit for these courses, you do get a world class education just for taking the trouble to watch some lectures and do some work on your own.

When I finally decided to bite the bullet and hunker down to learn some real chemistry, I first looked at a variety of Chemistry MOOCs. In the end, however, I settled on the Open Chemistry courses from UCI. Several of the MOOCs I looked at where well designed and presented, however, most where one-offs. You could take an introductory course, or a general chemistry course, but there was no unity between the courses, with most being offered by difference colleges. With UCI's Open Chemistry program you have a unified, sequential series of courses that you can take at your own pace, and take as many or as few as you want.

For the purposes of becoming a 'better' amateur geologist, most people, I think, will find that their introductory course and their three-part general chemistry course will be sufficient to meet most of the needs of an amateur geologist. However, if you decide you need, or want to learn even more, they have the courses available - along with a list of what order to take the courses in.

The way the UCI courses work is that on the UCI OpenCourseWare website, you will find an outline of what each course covers, with links to the course videos. Each course is taught by a different instructor. However, the information covered is sequential. The videos are hosted on Youtube, and they are the videos of the actual course lectures given to students at the college - complete with computer glitches, coughing fits, and other problems you might encounter if you were sitting in the lecture hall yourself. What is missing are reading assignments and the like, but you can easily work around that on your own.

For the two courses I mentioned, Chem 1P: Preparation for Chemistry, and the three part series, Chem 1A, 1B, & 1C: General Chemistry, the recommended textbook on the website is listed as Chemistry: Structure and Properties, by Nivaldo J.Tro (9780321834683), which was released in 2014. The two courses mentioned above where all recorded in 2013 or before, so I take the 'suggested' text as just that, suggested, as it was not the actual text in use when the courses were recorded. It appears that Chemistry, 10e, by Raymond Chang (9780077274313) was the actual text used when the Chem 1P lectures were recorded, and Chemical Principles: The Quest for Insight, 5e, by Peter Atkins and Loretta Jones (9781429219556), was used for the General Chemistry courses.

The suggested text, as well as those originally used in the courses, appear to be designed to be used as a supplemental text for students to refer to when stumped by something in the lecture or when they want to go into a topic in more detail, I'd suggest getting any general chemistry text that seems to suit your needs. I happened to get my hands on some very inexpensive copies of Tro's Chemistry: A Molecular Approach, 2e (9780321651785) for use with the General Chemistry courses, and his Introductory Chemistry, 3e (9780136003823) for the Preparations class. By shopping around and getting these older editions (newer editions are available if desired), I got both books, in like new condition, for less than eight dollars, including shipping. By comparison, Tro's Chemistry: Structure and Properties is currently selling for $230+ for a new, hardcover edition, with used copies starting at around $100. I found the two, older, textbooks worked very well with the UCI courses, and I had few problems finding the topics I wanted to look up - and on the few occasions when I could not find the information I wanted in the textbook, I found it online by simply doing an internet search. You can save even more by only getting the Chemistry: A Molecular Approach. The Introductory Chemistry text is geared more toward those you have never had any exposure to the study of chemistry, and it is geared toward ensuring that you have the necessary math skills and general knowledge that you would have gained in a high school Chemistry course. Much of this information is contained in the Chemistry: A Molecular Approach, but in a much abbreviated format for those who only need a quick review of these fundamentals. The only problem that I've found with the Tor books is that some of the answers to the exercises are incorrect. In the past I would have told people to say away from these books at all costs. However, from what I've been able to discover, this seems to be a common problem with modern textbooks, perhaps because publishers are pushing out a new edition of each textbook every year or two so that there is not enough time to probably proofread the books. This is a sad state of affairs, but one that we, the students, seem to be stuck with.

These, and many other chemistry textbooks can be found on websites such as Amazon.com, but I happen to like Better World Books. Like Amazon, there lowest price on used books is around $4 with shipping, but they often run sales throughout the year with discounts ranging from 10-50%, so if you keep an eye out on the books you want you can sometimes get really good bargains from this site.

So when all is said and done, what do I think? Overall, I found the UCI courses that I took Chem 1P, and the General Chem series 1A, 1B, and 1C to be excellent. Yes, the videos are not perfect. There are occasional sound and video quality issues, but nothing too terrible. As well, a list of readings or lecture notes would have been helpful. However, without them I found that I had to work a bit more independently, and as a consequence actually learned more than I might have in another situation. I did find that the 1P course started out on the slow side, but once the course got past the real basics, such as what SI units are and how to do conversion equations, the course picked up. Best of all, because the lectures are recorded, if you want to hear something again, you just rewind. Or if you don't want to sit through an entire lecture at one go (most of them run about 50 minutes), just stop the video and pick up where you left off at a later time. Most important (at least for most students) the courses are FREE! Yes, you will have to do a lot of work on your own, and be your own taskmaster, as you will not have a teacher or deadlines hanging over your head but you will get as much, if not more out of the courses, than what you put in. For those who want to take these courses for credit, these same courses are available through the UCI extension program. Currently, for the 2016 summer term, they are offering Chemistry 1P: Preparation for General Chemistry and Chemistry 1C: General Chemistry via their online program. Both courses are offered for four quarter units. The costs for these courses range from $1084 - 1356, depending upon your status such as if you are a UCI undergraduate student or visiting student. If you are not a UCI student there are also additional fees that seem to range from at least $165 - 265. If you are an international student, plan to shell out another $750 on top of all the other fees! Plus, you have to budget for the cost of making two trips to the school in order to take your midterm and final exams, or pay to have someone proctor your exams. In addition, these courses have set times when you 'must' login and other such annoyances. It is much easier, and cheaper, to take the courses on your own and then, if you ever need the credits, take a CLEP exam or use the knowledge you learned to test into a higher level chemistry course!

If you are like me, just seeking to add to your knowledge toolbox, check out the UCI courses. In addition to these chemistry courses, they also offer a range of physics courses, as well as some earth science courses, as well as a range of other topics if you want to stray away from the geology centered subjects. No matter what, you have nothing to lose except a little time. Happy learning, and best of luck on all your geology related endeavors...

Related Reviews:

Chemical Fundamentals of Geology and Environmental Geoscience, 3e, by Robin Gill.
This introductory chemistry book focuses upon those elements of chemistry that are most relevant to the study of geology and environmental geoscience. It assumes no prior background in chemistry and it is suited for use in the classroom and as a refresher course for more mature students.

Earth Materials: Introduction to Mineralogy and Petrology, by Cornelis Klein and Anthony Philpotts.
This book offers an accessible and fully-illustrated introduction to mineralogy for college students and rock hounds looking for information on how to scientifically identify rocks and minerals.

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