The Right Chemistry

Is there a way to engage those who struggle with chemistry and help them do well?
— M., Utah



When asked to name their hardest class in high school, people often list pre-calculus math, physics or English Language Arts, but I always answered chemistry! For most of us, chemistry was taught on a very theoretical level and concentrated on concepts foreign to everyday thinking: enthalpy, stoichiometry, orbitals, and so on.

I believe that the current movement toward using phenomena to teach science, connecting science to big ideas and learning more about the nature of science is a big step toward making chemistry more accessible and enjoyable for students. Science is more meaningful when we link real-life observations to scientific explanations. So, answering a question like, “How does soap work?” leads to a terrific discussion about an everyday (we hope!) event and the knowledge we need to explain it. We can even push that explanation further through the questions and investigations that arise from considering a bar of soap.

To make chemistry more engaging, get students to ask the questions and find the phenomena that they want to explore.

Hope this helps!


Photo credit: Lower Columbia College via Flickr

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  1. Harry Keller
    Posted July 20, 2018 at 9:54 am | Permalink

    How can you increase engagement and success in learning chemistry? This question is so broad that there must be multiple answers. I see two primary stumbling blocks: arcane (to the student) concepts and difficult math.

    Even such an apparently obvious idea as conservation of mass will be counterintuitive unless presented in everyday ways. Atoms are like Legos. You can put them together in different ways and then rearrange them, but you still have the same number of bricks at all times.

    Be sure that students understand the difference between heat and temperature. Many get lost in that maze. How long does it take to heat a big pot of water compared with a small teapot to the same temperature?

    How many students understand that electron orbitals have to do with resonance, a wave reinforcing itself on each trip around the nucleus? It’s why you can have those integer orbital numbers. They aren’t just made up. Have you done a demonstration of sound resonance? It will knock their socks off.

    How many of your students have tasted vinegar and baking soda (before mixing, of course)? Have them classify those tastes. What about table salt? How can it be that two very dissimilar tastes combine to create yet another taste? BTW, bases are not bitter.

    Then, you run into the brick wall of pH. Math!! Logarithms!! No. It’s really about powers of ten. Show the famous Eames video. Relate size and concentration. BTW, pH does not just go from 0 to 14. It’s open-ended.

    You must somehow get your mind out of those chemistry textbooks with all of the arcane language and errors. You do not have to discuss soap unless you are very comfortable with it. While bringing in household chemistry can help, it can also hurt. Students can make incorrect connections without a strong foundation.

    Most of all, have class discussions in place of lectures. Provide online resources that have students doing real experiments and making hands-on measurements. Discuss those. Choose your in-class experiments with care so that they aren’t just verification labs or technique labs but are real investigations into stuff students don’t already know (or have been told).

  2. Pat Cunningham
    Posted July 23, 2018 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

    Now I haven’t taught “regular” chem in a few years; my assignments are to pre-AP and AP chem. However, I find in all three that the secret is to structure activities, particularly labs, that allow students a hands-on experience that leads them to discover something before they see it in lecture or have to solve a problem with it. For example, early in the year we use a combination of density of gas lab and Boyle’s law with multiple gases to show that even though gas density varies, gas compressibility is identical if one starts Boyle’s law work at the same temperature and pressure. They learn this through their own work, then proceed through the old film “Gases and How They Combine” to an understanding of the law of combining volumes and Avogadro’s hypothesis. That helps them “prove” the existence of atoms, something up to then they had to take “on faith.”

  3. Harry E. Keller
    Posted July 23, 2018 at 6:48 pm | Permalink

    Pat’s remarks are right on target. Do NOT lecture about a concept and follow it with a lab demonstrating it. That’s the old way. It makes the lab next to worthless. Reverse the order. Then, don’t lecture at all afterward. Instead, lead a discussion about what was found. Interject the bits that glue the entire subject together as necessary if the students do not come up with them by themselves.

    Do not forget to ask students to make predictions before the lab. This simple step invests them more in what they are doing. Those predictions don’t have to be correct. It’s better in some ways if they are not.

    Do not substitute animated simulations for real experiments. If going online, seek out labs with real experiments and, even better, also with hands-on measurements. It makes all the difference.

  4. Kathleen M. Vandiver
    Posted July 23, 2018 at 11:47 pm | Permalink

    I felt compelled to write because of comment from Harry Keller, ” Atoms are like Legos. You can put them together in different ways and then rearrange them, but you still have the same number of bricks at all times.”

    Using LEGO bricks in standard CPK Chemistry colors, I have created lessons to teach abstract concepts in concrete ways. The shapes of the molecules are similar to space-filling models’ overall shape. These lessons are available online here and include chemical reactions biology, chemistry and earth science.

    The objective was not to teach bond angles, orbitals, and the like, but to get across some basics— that atoms can cling together in predictable shapes and that these atoms make up all matter.

    The modeling instructions have been created on laminated mats, with the exact size and shape pictured on the mat. When a molecule is built and placed on top its picture this action provides instant gratification, an enjoyable kinesthetic experience, as well as memorable visual… teaches through multiple methods.

    Reactants are pictured on one side of the mat (example: hydrocarbon fuel and oxygen molecules) and a team of two students builds this together. When the teacher gives the signal, all the teams turn over the mat (ignition in the engine!) and then they rearrange the same bricks (atoms) into the products that are pictured here. Often the students feel like they have discovered this atom rearrangement concept themselves! 🙂 With complete combustion, the products are CO2 and H2O and this little lesson helps kids make the connection why CO2 levels are rising.

    There are lessons that show chemistry definitions by physically- modeling some examples of elements, compounds, mixtures. Also illustrations for Chemical Reactions, Photosynthesis, Air Pollution, Ocean Acidification are presented.
    This diversity of lessons helps to meet many Middle School NGSS including the crosscutting concepts: ‘use of models’ and ‘the atomic nature of matter.’ High School chemistry teachers also tell me they use these lessons and like them. These teachers find the lessons useful to prompt a HS class discussion on details that have been omitted or simplified with the models as it creates a critical thinking exercise.

    Thanks for reading! ‘Hats off’ to teachers everywhere who keep on asking … how can I teach this better. Lots of good suggestions in this column.

  5. Harry Keller
    Posted July 24, 2018 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

    I love Kathleen M. Vandiver’s post. It’s also clear that Lego chemistry can help students really understand some rather abstract concepts. They are manipulating using their own fingers after all.

    This is a great use of Legos, better than just following the dots to make another Lego thing.

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