Well, there was this lab we were supposed to do to illustrate amorphous versus crystalline solids. This is the assignment:
This laboratory exercise will introduce you to state changes of a substance. You will observe how changing the temperature can alter the phase of a given substance.
Objective: Students will investigate the properties of a crystalline solid.
Karo Syrup (or other brand of corn syrup)
- Pour a quarter size amount of syrup into the palm of your hands. Caution: It will be very sticky and messy.
- Begin rolling the syrup between your palms.
- When you start producing heat in your palms, start observing what happens to the syrup. When you start seeing a drastic change, stop rubbing your hands together.
- What did the syrup look like before you started the lab?
- What state of matter is the syrup considered?
- When heat was added (when you rubbed your hands together), what happened to the syrup?
- What did the syrup look like at the end of the lab?
- What state of matter can you consider the syrup at the end of the lab?
- What happened to the syrup when you stopped rubbing your hands together?
Before you started the lab, the syrup was a very sticky and liquid state. As you applied heat, the liquid of the syrup started to adhere and change into a solid. Although you changed the state it was in, it was still the same material. When you stopped rubbing your hands together, the syrup went from a solid to liquid. This is characteristic of a crystalline solid. Crystalline solids will lose their shape at certain temperatures.
I remember thinking before I did the experiment that it reminded me of one I did in eighth grade with my father. Basically you mix corn starch and water (it’s called “oobleck” - I love that) together in a bowl, and then you stir it up. The more force you put on it, the thicker the mixture gets - it’s a shear-thickening fluid. Because corn starch and corn syrup are related, I was looking forward to see it behave the same way.
But when I did the experiment, nothing happened. I rubbed the stuff between my hands for fifteen minutes and all I had to show for it was a rash on my palms. The only time it thickened was after I finally gave up and put my hands under a stream of cold water to wash it off. I was confused (and slightly disappointed), so I went and opened a chat on the course’s website with a teacher’s assistant I liked, Ms. L, and asked her what I’d done wrong.
She said she’d never heard of the experiment failing like that before, but said she would check it out. So she went and contacted a teacher (I unfortunately don’t remember which it was), and then reported back to ask me if I was absolutely sure I was using corn syrup. I was - it was even Karo brand, like the lab said. She said neither she nor the teacher she’d contacted had any idea what could possibly have happened, but she’d get back to me if she found out anything else. In the meantime, I should just answer the analysis questions like it had worked, and have a good day.
I said, “You have a good day too,” and then stopped and stared at what she’d written. I wondered if I had misunderstood what she’d said, so I said, “Wait,” and then asked, “Should I say what really happened in the analysis questions?”
She answered, “Nah, you obviously know what was supposed to happen, so just answer them like it worked, and you’ll get an A.”
Implying that if I told the truth, I would get a bad grade.
I angsted over this for awhile, then decided that I was being stupid. The teacher had told me to to do it, so I did it. I got 100% on the assignment, and put the matter out of my mind.
It didn’t come up again till about a month later; my dad and I were talking about something, and the subject of lab experiments came up, and I mentioned my last one hadn’t worked. He seemed very interested in this, and so I told him what I was supposed to do and what was supposed to happen.
He said, “Corn syrup?”
“That wouldn’t do anything!”
So the whole story came out. Ten minutes on Google confirmed there was no such experiment - you have to boil corn syrup to make it thicken. Furthermore, corn syrup proved to be an amorphous and not a crystalline solid - in fact, it’s a glass, which I really should’ve known as candy is a classic example of that. I brought the lab outline to a chemistry teacher at my real-life school after my one class there; he said the best he could figure was that the heat from the friction was supposed to evaporate the water in the corn syrup, but that’s no good, because it’s supposed to turn back into a liquid after you stop rubbing your hands together.
We figure the person who wrote it was thinking of my eighth-grade oobleck lab, but whoever it was didn’t bother to check on the details. Oobleck, when thick, is indeed a crystalline solid - but it doesn’t thicken because of a change in temperature; it thickens because it’s a non-Newtonian fluid! And furthermore, phase changes from a liquid to a solid occur with cold, not heat - it’s called “freezing”!
My dad was disappointed in me for falsifying my results, but he seemed to blame Ms. L rather than me for telling me to. He did say, though, that this is how science by consensus happens - and then I realized something. Both the teacher and the TA said they’d never heard of the lab failing before - meaning that every single student who had ever finished the course had lied about their results. (Unless someone said that it failed and those particular faculty members just didn’t hear about it.) My dad reckons most kids didn’t even do the experiment, but just “dry-labbed” it.
So, to sum up:
- The lab was wrong.
- If the lab had been right, it wouldn’t have illustrated the concept it was supposed to be illustrating.
- The student was told to lie about her results, and
- told that if she didn’t, she would get a bad grade.
As my father so aptly put it, it wasn’t a chemistry experiment. It was an ethics test.
Which I failed, of course, but I was so upset with myself and apologized so many times without being asked that my parents decided not to punish me. We’re still deciding who to tell about this, and how, because it looks like it implicates a whole lot of people. We always knew this program had sloppy fact-checking - I was able to raise my algebra II final exam grade from an 88% to a 92% by taking them to task for rotten questions I’d been marked wrong on - but this is just astonishing. Even more concerning is the fact that neither of the science teachers I talked to knew it was BS, when that’s what they’re being paid to teach. I’m worried that if I implicate Ms. L in this it will just turn into a she-said-she-said type of thing, but my mom says I shouldn’t worry about that. I’m also worried they’ll expel me from the program. I’d deserve it, but I’m so behind on credits right now, and I really want to graduate from high school at the same time my brother graduates from elementary, June of next year…