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When I won the 2017 James Bryant Conant Award in High School Chemistry Teaching from the American Chemical Society, I was asked to give a presentation at the ACS Spring National Meeting during the Chemistry Teacher Day program.

The editors of the Award’s new sponsors — the Journal of Chemical Education (JCE) and Chemical Education Xchange (ChemEdX) — introduced me by sharing some images, anecdotes, and words of praise from former colleagues and students. I wasn’t prepared for the emotional impact of that, and was rather overwhelmed. Then I recalled some advice a wonderful colleague, Erica Jacobsen, past Precollege Editor for JCE, once shared with me just before a big presentation many years ago: “Only you have walked this exact path, so just share your heart.”

Erica’s advice has been helpful to me at different stages of my career. I get a great deal of satisfaction from sharing insights I’ve gained with my colleagues — including a deep appreciation for the impact of modeling instruction for students, which I’ll discuss a little later in this article.

But first, I want to explain a little about the path I’ve taken — the journey that led me to continually learn about and incorporate new and promising approaches in the classroom.

The Beginning

I actually never intended to be a teacher. My journey started 28 years ago, when some students at our church’s school told the principal that they knew I could teach them chemistry, which is what they needed to graduate that year. At that time, I was a respiratory therapist, and only helped the students with their homework when they came to my house for youth group. Those students convinced me to take a risk, and because of them, I found myself back in college the following semester pursuing a degree in chemistry.

Since earning my BA in Chemistry, I have always taught in private schools, teaching in many different locations from Connecticut to South Carolina. My first department head encouraged me to attend conferences and interact with and learn from other teachers — and I took the advice to heart.

The process of continual learning has enriched my approach to teaching in various ways. For example, long ago I started doing more micro-scale laboratories and putting small activities within the lecture part of my course. I did so to engage my students and help them “see” what I was talking about in class. Later, after attending an engaging scientific literacy workshop, I began incorporating more median-based statistical analysis into my labs, which has helped my students on several fronts. They can compare their data with that of classmates, often finding that though they do not have the “accepted” value, they are not far off from others who used similar procedures.

In fact, for my first 18 years of teaching, I was constantly adding new activities and approaches to increase student understanding and engagement. But then I came to a place where I started wondering if I had outgrown the classroom. I started asking myself questions – Was I really making a difference in student’s lives? Am I bored with teaching? Should I consider a different career with my chemistry degree? But the reality was that I loved working with students who wanted to learn, and also enjoyed working with other teachers.

The BIG Changes

For a few years, I had been reading about teachers who had found various forms of modeling instruction to be advantageous in their classrooms. It sounded appealing; I already often used models, and thought I could easily implement modeling instruction into my current teaching practice. I attended a two-week summer workshop sponsored by the Indiana Department of Education on modeling instruction for the chemistry classroom.

The workshop helped me better understand what modeling instruction was and how it worked. It’s hands-on and involves guided-inquiry, two strategies that I also frequently used. What’s more, in classrooms where modeling instruction is used, students first make observations or collect experimental data to use as evidence on which they can build models that they can then use to answer questions and make predictions. When their current model breaks down, they change or redesign their model to “fit” their new observations and data.

Because of this workshop, year 20 of my teaching career felt like being a first-year teacher all over again. It was challenging, but also energizing. I only used three of my previous labs, and reorganized the entire order of when I taught particular concepts within my course. I had finally found what I had been looking for: a deeper way to more fully engage all of the students in my classroom in their own learning experience.

Eight years later, I continue to use this approach. My students are now working in small, collaborative learning groups almost all the time. In these groups, they share information with each other about homework problems and laboratory data, and then put that information on 24" x 32" white-boards to share with the entire class during our “Board Meetings.” At these meetings, the learning groups come together and share what they’ve learned, how they arrived at their answers, or how they’ve presented their findings in diagrams.

During these meetings, I encourage students to ask/answer questions; my role is that of a guide or facilitator, and I get to spend time with those who need help in smaller settings. During the time that I have been using this type of instruction, I have seen greater engagement and deeper learning among a broader group of students.

How is Modeling Instruction Different?

What I am really doing through modeling instruction is giving students the opportunity to walk in the footprints of the scientists who came before them, using different tools. I start with matter in its simplest form and work through atoms, compounds, reactions, etc. In fact, I now use images of footprints to track the “walk” we are taking throughout the year, so that the students can see their progress as they are learning chemistry. I have shared this concept through a ChemEdX blog post, another favorite platform for sharing with other chemistry teachers.

The website of the American Modeling Teachers Association (AMTA).

Teaching in a chronological manner makes a lot of sense to me and has helped facilitate students’ development of lab skills. Since my chemistry students studied physics in their previous science class, they are used to thinking about all of the forces and objects in their macro-world. However, it is not simple for them to immediately transition to the micro- and nano-worlds of particles that they cannot see. If they can make graphs and look at relationships, then many of them can make connections to small particles, too. Here’s the order in which I present the various units in my classroom. I follow the sequence proposed by the American Modeling Teachers Association:

  1. Physical Properties of Matter
  2. Energy—Particles in Motion
  3. Energy and States of Matter
  4. Describing Substances
  5. Counting Particles Too Small to See
  6. Particles with Internal Structure
  7. Chemical Reactions: Particles and Energy
  8. Introduction to Stoichiometry
  9. Further Applications of Stoichiometry
  10. Models of the Atom (revisited)
  11. Bonding and the Periodic Table
  12. A Particle Model of Thermal Energy
  13. Chemical Equilibrium
  14. Acids and Bases

In transitioning to Modeling Instruction, one of my biggest challenges has been changing the timing of when I taught about subatomic particles, which I had always introduced at the start of my course. Now, I do not use the word “electron” until unit six, since they were not discovered until the late 1800s, and protons and neutrons are not introduced until unit ten, corresponding to the early 1900s.

This order of instruction may sound odd to anyone who teaches chemistry in a traditional manner. In fact, during the first year I used modeling instruction, I had to remind myself of this by listing on my desk the various terms that I could not use.

If a student asks about electrons early in the year, I simply ask them what electrons are. They will usually define them as they were taught in middle school, and then I ask, “How do you know that, and what evidence do you have?” They will say something like this: “Mr./Mrs. Smith told me, and I do not have any evidence.” I tell them that consequently, it’s fine for them to reference the idea of electrons — but that I will not actually use that word until we have evidence for them, just as we have been doing all year. I finally get to electrons just before the end of the first semester, when we do the Sticky Tape Activity that I learned about during my modeling workshop from the American Modeling Teachers Association (AMTA).

A Modeling Instruction Activity: Sticky Tape

This activity is derived from the modeling instruction materials for chemistry that I use in my classroom with permission from AMTA. This activity was developed by Robert Morse, a physics modeler, in 1992 and was first used in physics classrooms when studying electrostatics. Chemistry modelers borrowed the activity when they were looking for ways to talk, using evidence, about the subatomic particles inside the atom. 1

I also use a PowerPoint presentation as a student follow-up lecture component after students share their evidence and discoveries about charged particles. I found that if I did not present solid connections, some students remained confused about what evidence they really had for charged particles. At the conclusion of this discussion is where the students meet JJ Thomson — and the word “electron.”

This activity is just one of the many examples in my life where I have learned from others and then adapted the materials to “fit” my students and my classroom. Through implementing modeling instruction activities like this one, I have found that students are less intimidated by the content, and also have a greater understanding of and appreciation for chemistry. Most importantly, students are more engaged in my classroom and help each other to learn through the difficult times. As we all know, working in teams is not simple, and some students do not accept it as easily as others; however, I have found that even those who prefer to work alone will come around to “groups of three” pretty readily. That is progress in my world!

Check out the AMTA website for more information about modeling instruction, or consider attending a workshop next summer. In the meantime, if you have more questions, I encourage you to start a discussion about modeling instruction on our AACT Discussion Board. I wish you the very best as you begin another year of exploring the particle world with your students!


1. Robert A. Morse, “Teaching About Electrostatics: An AAPT/PTRA-plus Workshop Manual,” Appendix A, American Association of Physics Teachers, 1992.