Senior in his element in chemistry independent study

Koers’ subjects include wintergreen and caffeine

Andrew de las Alas , Reporter

To many students, high school provides a time to branch out and focus on what they want to do in the future. Athletics, academics and clubs are all some ways students find their own niche. 

Senior Alex Koers plays guitar in jazz band, serves as the head of the lighting crew for theater and is a member of the speech and debate team. But this wide variety of extracurriculars is not what’s pushing Koers to the future. Instead it’s chemistry. But not just any chemistry class. 

Koers is enrolled in an independent study in which he conducts his own chemistry experiments, with his focus on organic chemistry. His two main projects of first semester involved creating wintergreen from its base chemicals and isolating caffeine. 

How did he choose these topics? Koers said, “I like the smell of wintergreen and the caffeine was just interesting, along with the educational value of researching the topics.” The independent study model allows a degree of independence in educational material, as the name implies. “I set all my own curriculum,” said the senior, son of math teacher Mrs. Christine Koers.

Koers took chemistry as a sophomore and AP chemistry as a junior. He planned on taking IB chemistry, but it was not offered this year. Koers said he wanted to continue his education in chemistry and had heard about another student, senior Blake Lowe, enrolling in an independent course. “I just heard him mentioning it and that put the idea in my head,” said Koers.

He said he wanted to design his labs and that he teaches himself through textbooks. Koers said, “I get to go more in depth on a few small topics rather a smaller view on many large topics.” 

Koers’ caffeine lab helped him study distillation, which is a major component of organic chemistry. He said in what he called “non-sciency terms:” First he boils the coffee like normal, takes the coffee from a water-based solvent, uses an organic compound to extract the caffeine, boils it again and than purifies the caffeine powder with alcohol. 

While Koers was able to show off his caffeine at Open House, he said the technique was not perfected until about the second week of December. “My first  30 attempts did not work, because initially I was using an incorrect chemical. Once I switched it out, it started working. I found out I wasn’t recrystallizing the caffeine right.”

These kinds of moments are what help define the independent study process. After finally making a breakthrough, it can feel like a truly momentous occasion from the work you personally put in to your project. “Seeing the caffeine recrystallize was beautiful,” said Koers.The independent study model is for students who are passionate about some specific topic or wish to go deeper into a subject when higher level classes are not offered. According to science teacher and department chair Dr. Aarti Brooks, such a course provides “an opportunity for students to expand their knowledge base, skills and critical thinking.”

For any students interested in having an independent study of their own, they should talk to their teacher or the department chair of the subject they wish to study. Students are expected to have some form of a proposal about their topic and how they plan to study it. A teacher can help mentor, but the project is mainly in the hands of the student. 

Mrs. Vicki Roessler serves as Koers’ mentor for his independent study. She spoke highly of his skills and independence. “He’s very creative and (the study) really shows how the scientific process works,” said Roessler. She said that her input is limited to a few tips on chemical combinations and renting equipment from Purdue. But for the most part, “he’s pretty self-motivated.” 

Concerning grades, Koers said he didn’t necessarily have a final that would look similar to other traditional classes and what those students completed in December, but instead wrote an in-depth lab report. Roessler said, “As long as he’s working, writing or researching or not playing games or sleeping, he gets an A.” 

Roessler said the independent study model “really helped deepen his knowledge: it takes a certain amount of character, someone with a specific interest and creativity, to come up with testable ideas.” 

Koers’ passion for chemistry is one he hopes to take Wabash College, but in the meantime, his independent study will help expand upon his knowledge. Koers said, “If you’re interested or really passionate about a topic, I would definitely recommend the independent study. Also, chemistry is cool.”