In the winter of 2015-16, Ford Motor Company teamed up with AACT on a novel idea for chemical education: a series of thematically-unified lessons highlighting the chemistry involved in the production and operation of automobiles.

Ten secondary school chemistry teachers from across the nation were recruited to work on this project, alongside two Ford engineers and AACT staff. From February to June 2016, each teacher created two teaching resources, leveraging America’s love affair with cars to teach important chemical principles. Each resource was reviewed by at least three other participating teachers, who provided helpful feedback.

As the lead teacher in this project, my role was to encourage creativity and to provide suggestions to make the teaching resources relevant, easy to use, and accessible to students of varying levels. Throughout the project, I learned much about the art of teaching … and about the "Chemistry of Cars!"

A thematic approach to teaching chemistry has numerous benefits. The "Chemistry of Cars" lessons integrate many different units of study such as stoichiometry, chemical energetics, molecular structures, and intermolecular attractions. By integrating these various topics, students learn that chemistry is not a series of unrelated topics to master for a unit test, but rather a unified science that seeks to understand the world on a molecular level and apply this understanding to improve human lives.

"Chemistry of Cars" teaching resources

In total, 19 resources are provided in "The Chemistry of Cars." Some of the resources highlight the materials that go into making a car, such as plastics and glass, as well as various fluids, such as gasoline, motor oil, and antifreeze. Other resources focus on the workings of key components, such as batteries, catalytic converters, and airbags. Still others focus on the environmental challenges inherent in 20th century automotive technology and visions of what 21st century automotive technology may look like, including fuel cells, biofuels, and other strategies for reducing CO2 emissions. These resources are summarized in Table 1.

  • Cool Science: Building and Testing a Model Radiator
  • Battery Basics
  • How Far Can We Go? 
  • The Importance of Motor Oil Viscosity in Optimal Car Functioning
  • Structural Isomers
  • How Fuel Cells Work
  • Fractional Distillation of Crude Oil
  • Biofuels of the Future
  • Give your Car Some Bounce
  • The Hot and Cold of It All
  • Fuel Line Antifreeze 
  • The Right Polymer for the Job
  • The Power of Polymers
  • Not Breaking Up is Hard to Do: The Properties of Glass
  • Mechanisms and Properties of Airbags 
  • Redesigning a Car for the Environment
  • Exploring Automotive Corrosion
  • Engineering a Vehicle: The Pros and Cons of Carbon Fiber Technology
Table 1. Chemistry of Cars Resources

Each "Chemistry of Cars" lesson follows the 5E model: Engage, Explore, Explain, Elaborate, Evaluate. In addition to providing instructions and worksheets for students, each lesson has a Notes to the Teacher section that discusses strategies for successful classroom implementation (including safety guidelines). Many of the lessons include video and photographic support, enhancing accessibility for students for whom text-based instruction is a challenge. Numerous links to websites are provided to support the teacher and student in finding relevant extensions to learning.

Each lesson is designed to stand alone. However, many of the resources submitted by teachers provide synergistic connections, as shown in Table 2. For example, Structural Isomers (Roxanne Spencer) discusses the molecular basis for varying boiling points of hydrocarbon isomers, while Fractional Distillation of Crude Oil (Lee Rucinski) offers a practical application of boiling point variations. The calculation of CO2 emissions from fossil fuels in Redesigning a Car for the Environment! (Sherri Rukes) provides context for How Fuel Cells Work (Laura Murphy) and Engineering a Vehicle: The Pros and Cons of Carbon Fiber Technology (DeEtta Andersen).

Chemistry of cars figure 2

Table 2. Resource Connections

Download the PDF of Table 2.

Next Generation Science Standards

The Chemistry of Cars lessons are well integrated with NGSS standards, as shown in Table 3. The lessons place students in the role of problem-solvers, encouraging them to collect data and then present evidence-based conclusions. Students who engage in these lessons will strengthen their evaluative and communication skills in addition to gaining conceptual knowledge through the investigation of topics immediately relevant to their own lives.

Next Generation Science Standard Highlighted in Lesson...
Science and Engineering Practices
Developing and Using Models
Planning and Carrying Out Investigations
Using Mathematics and Computational Thinking
Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions
Engaging in Argument from EvidenceObtaining, evaluating, and communicating information
All lessons
Disciplinary Core Ideas
PS1.A: Structure and Properties of Matter
#1-4, 6, 8, 9, 15, 19
PS1.B: Chemical Reactions #10-18
PS3.B: Conservation of Energy and Energy Transfer
PS3.D: Energy in Chemical Processes
#7, 8, 10, 13
Engineering, Technology, and Science Standards
ETS1.A: Defining and Delimiting an Engineering Problem
ETS1.C: Optimizing the Design Solution
#5, 7, 10, 15, 17, 19
ETS2.B: The Effects of Engineering Technology and Science on Society and the Natural World #10, 14
Table 3. Next Generation Science Standards Incorporated into Chemistry of Cars Resources

Concluding thoughts

I hope that readers of these resources will find them to be engaging, thought-provoking, and student-friendly. The ten teachers involved in this project spent many hours creating resources as examples that may spur further creative work. Although the authors of these resources would be gratified to learn that other chemistry teachers have adopted their lessons for classroom use, they would be even more gratified to learn that teachers have been inspired to create additional lessons centered on "The Chemistry of Cars."