What pursuing my passion for Chemistry has taught me about learning

The following stories all have one thing in common — the focus on learning, in various aspects. This is my learning journey from the stage in which the environment dictated my learning process to the stage in which I created my very own learning models:

Even as a small kid I was always fascinated by the surrounding world. I was spending my summer holidays with my grandparents, surrounded by lots of exciting things to get my hands on and explore. I was absorbing knowledge by observing everything happening around me. I was also experimenting quite a bit. Be it making my soap or perfume, “delivering” wasps from the nests I would find in the attic or making my very own miniature loom, I’ve literally tried everything.

At this stage, though, most things were coming from the environment. I was making “perfume” by boiling flowers I was picking in the forest with my girl cousins — as all my cousins around my age were girls. Same goes for the loom and many other activities. I was floating randomly with my learning, not thinking too much about the direction I was heading.

Few years fast forward, in 5th grade I stumbled upon a small book with Fun Science activities. That was the moment that changed the course of my life. After reading about alchemists, gold, mirrors in a test tube, growing corals in a jar, explosions and many other exciting adventures, I decided this is the direction of my journey for the years to come. I wouldn’t just randomly explore any longer, but act towards reaching a particular goal.

Of course, for that, I also needed resources — and my very own lab. And as having your secret lab wasn’t an easy task to achieve as a young boy in a small town in Romania back then, I always had to think outside the box and improvise. I would use anything from jars to syringes and graphite electrodes from dismantled batteries to build my contraptions. I even built my voltmeter using simple materials. But I soon realised that I can not do everything on my own, no matter how creative I’d be. So I started enlisting others in my quest team — my father built me a DC supply, Dana, the pharmacist became my new best friend (and chemicals “dealer”), my neighbor, Adina was providing me with syringes and so on. I realised how important resource persons are — even more important than material resources! So smoothly and steadily I was already shaping my environment, rather than just adapting to it.

By the time I got to the 8th grade, my Chemistry teacher, Ms. Babilon (who had been my form tutor since grade 5 and who catered for my passion for her subject) encouraged me to participate in the Chemistry competitions organized every year. This was yet another pivotal moment in my life — as her willingness to spend time with me outside the regular contact time, teach me new things and go above and beyond helped me advance from one level to the other. Eventually, I reached the national level and won the first prize at the National Chemistry Olympiad. She has helped me set up a plan and stick to it!

Following the success at the Chemistry Olympiad, I received a scholarship from the International Computer High School of Bucharest — the deal was simple: they would provide me with all the resources I’d need, I’d continue working hard to climb higher up the ladder for the Olympiads. During my high school period, my focus was on rhythm — consistent, hard work, following the learning plan I set for myself. I was putting 6–8 hours of work towards achieving that one goal and the results did not delay to show up.

For the university, I just pursued the Chemistry track — given all the knowledge I had gained throughout high school preparing for the Olympiads, during the university I could spend my time shaping my learning process further. One key thing I took from my university years is the use of models — in Chemistry, no universal model can explain everything. Instead, we work with various models and adapt them as needed. Slowly but surely, I transferred the same approach to my learning process — trying different methods and strategies, looking at other models, I started picking and choosing and customizing.

Now I am working on polishing a new metaphor for my learning process — stay tuned :)

So, how do you approach your learning? Do you just learn what others tell you? Or do you direct your learning process? What model do you use? I would be happy to hear your opinions!

You can also read my blog article comparing learning with a chemical reaction.