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In May 2019, our community asked for guidance during the recycling plant fire in North Knoxville. In August 2019, the SOAR Summit for Opioid Addiction and Response brought together statewide leaders and community members to consider compassionate solutions for the cascading effects of addiction. In 2020, COVID-19 and overdue attention to racial inequality again revealed environmental injustices long known but ignored. Each of these instances and many others like them expose vulnerable populations to chemical threats, and at the same time chemicals can be life-saving.  Education that empowers individuals to advocate for themselves, in this case by understanding that difference, is critical.  Each discipline plays an important part in that empowerment.  Here, we hope to increase understanding of a common thread across our communities, chemistry.

What is literacy?

Literacy can be described as possessing the basic skills needed to evaluate circumstances in the world around us in a meaningful way.

So, what is chemical literacy?

Chemical literacy is an awareness that facilitates understanding of our interactions with chemicals.

Any basic substance can be referred to as a chemical, but here we focus on chemicals that are especially important in our lives, such as medicines, cleaning agents, pesticides, and preservatives.  Outcomes of chemical use can be good or bad, for instance, depending on where or how much of the chemical is applied, and we can often influence that outcome ourselves through the choices that we make.

Chemical literacy provides a fundamental understanding of the language, applications, and resources needed to engage in informed decisions involving chemicals in our day-to-day lives.

Scientific terminology can be intimidating and vary considerably, but chemistry happens all around us, in all scientific disciplines; and if we get people comfortable with basic chemical concepts, doors to understanding a wide range of scientific fields will open wide. In this program, chemistry is taught like a language where concepts related to beneficial and harmful chemical interactions are learned relative to real-world applications. This serves as a foundation for new levels of inquiry, when molecules move through and interact in various parts of our world.  The molecule serves as a tracer of sorts, from production and use through target and non-target systems. The molecule’s qualities enlighten its interactions and effects – risks and benefits – along the way.

What is a molecule? A molecule is a group of atoms bonded together.

What are atoms?  Atoms are basic units of chemical elements such as gold, carbon, calcium, or lead.

What is a bond?  A bond is something that joins things together.

How molecules interact in beneficial and harmful ways in our world, in our bodies, and in our environment is influenced by the type of atoms and bonds involved.  For example, calcium needed in bones can be replaced by lead that enters the bloodstream from our environment, and low-income populations are more often exposed in peeling paint and failing leaded water pipes.  This can be harmful when the structure of bones is then compromised, decreasing bone density and increasing fracture risk.  And a molecule (and therefore its effects) might persist longer if it is held together with strong bonds.  Effects of molecules held together with weak bonds might be more fleeting.  Things like UV-light and disinfectants can break bonds and therefore are sometimes used to destroy harmful molecules such as those that make up bacteria and viruses (such as the virus causing COVID-19).  However, bonds in our tissues can be broken at the same time, and this can cause significant harm.

GK12 educators have demystified the scientific method and hypothesis testing.  This has created a curiosity in today’s students and citizens.  However, advances in technology mean educators (and scientists) are challenged to keep up.  So, we will develop our program in partnership with scientists, educators, and community leaders to build on that foundation.  We will use the most thoroughly researched examples to illustrate particularly fascinating and important interactions and to serve as comparisons with less understood interactions where we must make decisions involving uncertainty.  We will deliver significant (but simplified) detail because our level of understanding has advanced (i.e., molecular interactions that influence, e.g., natural resources, health, and hygiene).  People deserve to understand these interactions before they are faced with serious issues involving their use (e.g., opioids and chemotherapy) where they are expected to be engaged.
A series of BE THE MOLECULE modules will be developed, each focusing on a pressing topic, e.g., opioids, chemotherapy, pesticides, immunizations, alcohol, antibiotics, preservatives, fertilizers, fuel, and soap.  However, we’d like to gear our program to your interests and concerns.


LOOK around you, what chemical (e.g., morphine or bleach) or group of chemicals (e.g., opioids or cleaners) would you like to learn more about?  Chemicals can be liquid, solid, or gas, and this question is open-ended.