The Physical Chemistry of Materials, colloquially known as P. Chem, is a new course being offered at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy (IMSA) for the 2023–2024 school year. Current IMSA students have a vague idea about what P. Chem is — an interdisciplinary course that combines math, physics, and chemistry, with a heavier emphasis on math and chemistry — but many are still in the blue. The Acronym interviewed Dr. Joseph Golab, science faculty and future instructor of the class, to answer some questions and clear any misconceptions about the course.
What is Physical Chemistry?
In the words of Dr. Golab, physical chemistry involves physics, math, and the chemistry of a material. He said that physical chemistry is important in chemical engineering, and chemists use it to understand how materials react. He also described its relationship with material science and prompted one exploratory question of the course: if you know the properties of a material, could you make the material?
What Content is Covered in Physical Chemistry?
Dr. Golab stated the three pillars of P. Chem are kinetics, thermodynamics, and quantum mechanics. Kinetics and thermodynamics are critical to understanding the formation and subsequent creation of materials. For example, plastics are a revolutionary result of physical chemistry studies and functionality can be tuned using appropriate catalysts. Scientists model the materials they are trying to create using the mathematics of quantum mechanics, as programmed in software. Dr. Golab also emphasized that this is a lab and computer-based course. So, for students vehemently against downloading Logger Pro or using sophisticated computational chemistry programs, this course might not be the best for you.
Dr. Golab received his Ph.D. in Physical Chemistry from Texas A&M University, with a specialty in theory (one of the first from A&M with that skill). He also has a wealth of experience in the subject. Earlier in his career, he worked alongside chemical engineers and physicists to model different materials and plastics in the petrochemical industry. When Dr. Golab came to IMSA, he saw that Dr. Peter Dong, an instructor of physics, had a computer science course that dabbled a little bit into physical chemistry, but none of the advanced chemistry courses went into P. Chem. Dr. Golab introduced this course to exercise some of his skills and introduce IMSA students to different facets of chemistry beyond Organic and Advanced Chemistry.
How Will Physical Chemistry Differ from Other Chemistry Courses at IMSA?
Math. Math is essential for P. Chem, and there is no way around it. There will be a lot of applied math, including derivatives and integrals, so Dr. Golab encourages students interested in applying math to take the course.
Physical Chemistry requires a strong background in chemistry, math, and physics. Do you have a prediction of how difficult the learning curve will be?
Dr. Golab emphasized that there would be no significant disadvantage to not taking any of the recommended courses in the syllabus. Every topic will start at the Advanced Chemistry class level, so students who haven’t taken the recommended courses will not be at a disadvantage compared to other students who have.
What do you want students to take away from the course?
P. Chem is an introductory course to the world of theoretical chemistry. Dr. Golab wants students to learn the basic principles of physical chemistry like they would in an introductory college course. He also wants students to appreciate the different materials in our world and the science behind them.
Is there any advice you have for students interested in taking P. Chem?
Dr. Golab wanted students to know to “Prepare for a course with a lot of applied math, physics, and chemistry. Expect at least three hours of homework per class. Make sure you are taking the course because you think you will enjoy it. But, above all, get ready to have a lot of fun!”