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What do you “do with ‘em” after the Advanced Placement exam? About 20 years ago, I began organizing projects with my AP students in which they visit fifth-graders in a nearby elementary school to do hands-on science activities and demonstrations. It requires some planning and coordination, but the benefits for my students, as well as for the fifth-graders themselves, are enormous.

This project requires approximately 7-10 (50-minute) class periods in total, two of which take place at the elementary school. Preparation includes: class discussions, lab activity practice, written preparation of both lesson plans and elementary student evaluations, and a final evaluation for the high school students. While the project was originally designed for use by my students after completing the AP Chemistry exam, it is well suited for students enrolled in any chemistry class, as well as for ChemClub members.

© BluIz60/Bigstock.com

It took me several years to develop this project, and quite a bit of trial and error. As a beginning AP Chemistry teacher, I found myself with almost a month of class time between the AP exam in early May and the end of the second semester. I tried classroom experimental design lab projects for a few years. These provided a good learning experience for students; however, I wanted my students to undertake a broader, more challenging and fun project that contributed to our community.

Getting started

I called our nearest elementary school, briefly explained that I wanted to work with their science program, and asked to speak to their second- through fifth-grade science teachers. Prior to our meeting, I checked out the California Elementary Science Content Standards sections on “Physical Sciences” and “Investigation and Experimentation” to identify the elementary science expectations. (More recently, in September 2013, California adopted the Next Generation Science Standards for California Public Schools, Kindergarten through Grade Twelve).

In our meetings, we discussed the teachers’ needs, study topics, and school/class schedules. I discovered that most of the teachers felt inadequately prepared to teach physical science. The teachers told me that science concepts were becoming increasingly prominent in national, state, and district standards. In California, fifth-grade students are tested in science, so teachers welcome our help. We generally agree that the opportunity for high school and elementary students to work together provides an excellent learning experience for all.

As I visited their classrooms, each teacher provided brief information about their students’ knowledge of chemical concepts related to the topics they were studying. To prepare activity kits for each table, my students needed to know the number of working groups and how many students would be at each group table, as well as the accessibility to water and electricity.

After two years of working with various grade levels, we recognized that helping early elementary school students understand chemical concepts can be extremely difficult. It became clear that the fifth-grade lessons were the most successful. After the first year, a wonderful fifth-grade teacher volunteered to assume the “lead” on this project. We maintain contact via email, and each year we coordinate our schedules and plan for my students to visit each fifth-grade classroom.

Helping students plan

Each year, we begin by discussing the project details (Appendix A) and listening to the elementary teachers’ suggestions for applying specific chemistry topics to their current curriculum, as well as the Elementary Science Content Standards, which focus on structure and properties of matter and energy.

I allow students to choose their own groups, and prepare a student sign-up sheet based on the numbers of AP students and fifth-grade classrooms. Each group chooses one of the suggested topics and begins brainstorming applicable concepts and age-appropriate hands-on activities to address the main tasks outlined in the project assignment:

  1. What chemistry topic will you address and teach?
  2. How will you introduce the topic and grab the students’ attention?
  3. What do the students already know about the chemical concepts you plan to teach?How will you discover their misconceptions?
  4. How will the students be actively involved? (Plan for two classroom visits) What materials will you need each day?
  5. How will students see the real-world connection to chemistry as part of their daily lives?
  6. How will you check for their understanding and dispel any misconceptions?
  7. Write a brief outline/script for each day, including connections to standards and time needed.

My students also brainstorm ways to grab the attention of fifth-graders and assess their background knowledge of chemistry topics and their application to the “real world.” Students learn how to use inquiry strategies to teach chemical concepts through hands-on activities while validating the importance of using data to make decisions. It is valuable for them to share strategies to uncover, address, and dispel student misconceptions.

Acs safety bookA major challenge for this project is preparing lessons appropriate for fifth-graders. Groups practice their chosen activities in the high school lab, and determine the materials needed and time required. Some students have found practicing with an elementary-age sibling or cousin extremely valuable. As they finalize their activities and scripts, I meet frequently with each group to trouble-shoot, ask questions, and offer suggestions.

We also review basic safety instructions from the ACS Safety in the Elementary Science Classroom and discuss how they will address safety during their planned activities. Groups doing wet-lab activities add goggles, hand-wipes, clean-up towels, and buckets to their materials lists.

I continually gather elementary-level chemistry activities from elementary workshops at national conferences, newspapers, the NSTA Science Teacher, and other sources. My students find terrific ideas on the Internet as well. Several years ago, my students helped organize these materials into chemical concept-specific binders. For example, they sorted activities into appropriate topic binders such as: acid-base, crystals, spectroscopy, gas laws, chemical and physical changes, colligative properties, and states of matter. Over the years, other students have added new activities to the binders as well. Some excellent resources for this project include:

Over time, I’ve used special gifted funds to purchase unbreakable thermometers, graduated cylinders, well plates, and beakers. In fact, this project would likely qualify for an ACS-Hach High School Chemistry Classroom Grant.

Classroom visits and preparation

On the day of our first visit, AP students arrive early to my classroom and load supplies onto laboratory carts. Elementary desk webThen we walk six blocks to our nearby elementary school, bringing along the carts of chemistry activities and goggles. To allow time for introductions and materials set-up, we arrive 15 minutes before classes began. Each time, we are met by eager fifth-grade students and their teachers — all anticipating a morning of chemistry.

Students quickly connect! Asking the young students what they know about everyday chemistry brings an immediate show of hands. Then the fun begins! Some examples of our results:

© morganlstudios/Bigstock.com

  • An entire class of 30 elementary students lined up on the playground as the electronic magnetic spectrum. Sandwich boards provided colors in the visible range as students danced in wave-like motions to demonstrate their respective energies. Other students constructed paper towel insert spectroscopes for data collection.
  • Students made photosensitive paper on Day 1, and then used it to produce images of leaves, flowers, and patterns on Day 2. Students took their work home sandwiched between dark papers in zipped baggies.
  • Students experienced many demonstrations supporting that matter is composed of particles, including food coloring dispersing in a petri dish of milk; a hardboiled egg being sucked into a soda bottle; and the implosion of a soda can. Amid the oohs and ahhs, AP students asked the elementary students to draw pictures of matter at the particulate level.
  • Students picked flowers to make acid/base indicator solutions. They tested foods and cleaners and charted their data.
  • Students made, tested, and compared properties of different polymers and were delighted to take their products home.

We have found considerable value in making a second visit to each classroom, because it provides time for my AP students to reflect and revise lesson plans based on outcomes from the first visit, including teachers’ feedback. It is optimal to have two or three days between class visits.

In order to initiate reflection, student groups complete a written project evaluation form (Appendix B). Then they share and discuss what worked and what needs to be modified for the next visit. They also review their elementary student evaluations to assess student understanding and identify misconceptions about chemical concepts. I visit with each group to discuss what they learned during their visit, and what revisions are necessary for their second visit. Based on the outcome, students complete their lesson plan for the second visit.

Often students find that elementary students have many questions about the lab activities — but even more about middle school, high school, and even college. I reassure my students that it is important to allow time for these discussions. This may be the first time that many elementary students have the opportunity to safely and comfortably talk to high school students about their excitement and fear of moving on to higher grades. After six or seven years, some of these former elementary students have entered my chemistry class with expectations of revisiting their own elementary teachers and classrooms at the end of the year!

During the second visit, bonds made during our initial visit are immediately evident, as the high school students are greeted by many excited hellos, hugs, and questions. Some chemistry students address new topics on the second day, while other groups continue extensions of the same concept with different activities.

As my students finish cleanup, I wander through the classroom, picking up impressions of their experience: We then spend a final class meeting sharing about our experience, and students complete final project evaluations, highlighting the project’s successes and areas for improvement.

Basic logistics

Standard preparations included:

  • Early coordination with elementary school schedules.
  • Student permission forms and administrative approval for off-campus field trips.
  • Permission for student absences from other high school classes during the time of the field trip.
  • Teacher substitute/release time may be required if your own teaching schedule will be affected by the field trip.


Success kids webThe elementary students’ evaluations have delighted my students. Common reactions include: “They understand! They are excited about chemistry! They want to know all about high school and college and studying chemistry!” Elementary teachers take photos and AP students post collages on my classroom bulletin board. To the delight of my students, these teachers also send manila envelopes filled with their students’ colorful thank-you notes. A few years after our visit, many of these elementary students populate my own high school chemistry classes, where they may find themselves in the old photos.

© dolgachov/Bigstock.com

This project has become one of the highlights of the AP Chemistry year. The fifth-grade teachers welcome our return each year. I am delighted when my students recognize that when you teach, you learn from your students and reap the rewards of communicating the excitement of chemistry.