“What were the most memorable moments in my science education? Which teachers and mentors had the most impact on my career? As a teacher, what core concepts and skills do I want to share with my students? What do I want my students to remember ten or twenty years from now? How do I best achieve this? These are the questions that have been running through my mind as I prepare to teach a year-long, formal chemistry course at Ideaventions Academy to our inaugural class of students. To approach these questions, I have been reflecting on my own school experience and reading modern trends in education. I am finding that there are no easy answers, but would like to share some of my thoughts with you.
Looking back on my science education, a few awe-inspiring moments immediately come to mind. Standing among hundreds of fluttering monarch butterflies. Tracing the brainwaves of a fish on an oscilloscope. Holding a petri dish full of human cells in my hands for the first time. Watching a cell divide under a confocal microscope. As I write this, I realize that none of these memorable experiences happened in a formal classroom setting.
I loved school - from kindergarten to grade school to graduate school - and I always did well. School was a game that I enjoyed playing and became very good at: attending classes, completing homework assignments, passing tests. But something was missing throughout my many years as a student in science classrooms: the freedom to explore, the thrill of discovery, the "spark" that makes it all worth it. I didn't experience this until I first joined a research lab, through a collaborative program between my high school and a local research institute. Why wait so long? What about those students who aren't fortunate enough to have a research experience? What about those students who become discouraged somewhere along the way?
As we were researching curriculum options for our chemistry course, we were looking for a curriculum that would provide ample opportunity for students to experience these "spark" moments. Chemistry is at the root of so many different disciplines - from geology to biology to materials science. But chemistry is tricky because so much of it relies on understanding the behavior of atoms and electrons, tiny particles that we can hardly see with our most powerful microscopes. We were excited to find a chemistry curriculum designed to bridge this gap, linking the nanoscopic world of atoms with the macroscopic world we experience every day. This curriculum is Active Chemistry by It's About Time.
Here is what we like about Active Chemistry:
- Hands-On Experimentation: Active Chemistry allows students to learn by doing, introducing the experiment before the concept.
- Chapter Challenges: Students use their new chemistry knowledge to complete a real-world challenge, such as creating a video clip with special effects or designing a toy.
- Flexibility: Active Chemistry is a highly modular, spiral curriculum that covers related concepts in different ways throughout the year. We can easily swap out or adapt experiments to meet the interests and skill level of the students.
- Field Trips: We are working on a fascinating field trip to the Library of Congress. In preparation for this field trip, we will be experimenting to determine which factors affect the degradation of paper and how deacidification is key to preservation. We will see first-hand how chemistry, physics and humanities come together in this country’s national library.
- National Chemistry Week: This year’s National Chemistry Week theme is “Chemistry Colors Our World!” Because teaching is one of the best ways to learn, our students will plan and hold a community outreach event to celebrate National Chemistry Week in partnership with the Ideaventions Science Center.
- Language Arts: In addition to practicing technical writing, we will be supplementing the curriculum with a chemistry book club. We will discuss current chemistry events, evaluate articles from ChemMatters, and work our way through "Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood" by Oliver Sacks.
Altogether, our chemistry course will be a fantastic learning adventure for everyone involved! And while I doubt the students will recall electron configurations or redox reactions twenty years from now, I very much hope they will look back fondly on our chemistry explorations and recall a "spark" moment of their own."