March 2016 | Editorial
Keeping it Real
By Emily Bones
I made it through my first semester back in the classroom. And boy, did it go quickly! I took some time to think about what went well and what I could do better over the semester break. And of course, I concluded that if I only had more time, I could do so much more. Sound familiar?
One thing I want to do better is to make clearer connections to chemistry in the real world. The scope and sequence my school follows has a lot of the theoretical topics in the first semester — naming compounds, electron configuration, Lewis structures, etc. But it was hard to connect electron organization to the real world. I rationalized it as introducing the basics so students could later revisit the topics with applications.
In contrast, I started this semester by promising my students that what they learned last semester wasn’t going away, it would just make a lot more sense. The first unit was about gas laws, which of course incorporated stoichiometry. I was able to create a lot of problems for them to solve that incorporated real-life scenarios: fertilizers, airbags (see a similar lesson), and composition of the atmosphere. I even brought in some dry ice and we confirmed its identity by calculating its molar mass (see the original activity I modified). But it still seemed like a forced connection.
Looking for a different approach, I found an article from ChemMatters (which AACT members receive as a member benefit). It was an article from 2002, and I initially thought, “no way, I can’t use something that’s almost 15 years old.” But I read it and thought it was perfect. It was a story about a woman flying in a hot air balloon, and it explained all of the chemistry behind how a hot air balloon flies. I assigned the article to my kids and created a Google form to ask them questions so they would think about what they were reading. They loved it. In the Google form, I tried to mimic Jenelle Ball’s strategies for the chemistry close read. They loved the exercise, and based on their feedback and positive reactions, I’m going to spend time training them how to carry out a real close read exercise. Jenelle mentioned in her article that her students responded positively to the activity, and now I have supporting evidence that kids do want to read about chemistry.
Once my students mastered gas laws, I introduced solutions. I opened the unit with what I thought was going to be a simple question: How does table salt dissolve? I had kids draw what they thought happens on the molecular level. I live near the beach, so saltwater is not a foreign concept to them. But not one student out of the 75 I teach got it right. For days, I had students draw Lewis structures, rearrange molecular models, and revise their drawings.
After I was certain that they all understood, I threw the curve ball at them. Does this drawing represent the ocean? That’s next week’s topic, and I’m excited to see where it goes. And once they’re ready for solubility rules, I’m going to have them read an article about the Flint water crisis. The question they’ll have to answer: How is adding phosphate to the water supply going to help fix the problem?
First semester felt dry and boring at times. Now that I have their day-to-day lives tied into the lesson, my students seem more eager to learn. I have one student who used to come to class and put his head on his desk each day. But now, as we progress through the saltwater conundrum, he’s continually engaged in figuring out what an electrolyte is, and trying to relate salt’s solubility to how the electrolytes in Gatorade work. Real life is the hook my kids need to stay motivated.
In this issue of Chemistry Solutions, teachers share their experiences with real-world applications. Boring math problems can be made interesting using real-life examples, guest speakers can make kids realize science happens outside of a classroom, items purchased from the grocery store can work wonders as chemicals in a chemistry lab, and even national standards initiatives such as NGSS and CCSS are pushing for more real-life connections. To help support math skills, a teacher shares a dimensional analysis website he created. And an experienced teacher shares his advice on how to retain a passion for teaching chemistry.
With each issue of Chemistry Solutions that we prepare, I always take something away that I want to use in my classroom immediately. What’s your favorite article so far? Tell us in the comments section. And I hope in this issue you find something inspiring to use. Whether that’s the case or not, remember: relating the topics in the classroom to the real world makes the material a tiny bit more interesting for the kids … and maybe even for you as well!