Nomenclature - A Project Based Learning Experience

Nomenclature Unit preview image with cricles and "A Project Based Learning Experience

As a chemistry teacher of ten years there is one unit I used to enjoy but as time has gone on it now feels like a huge task....the unit on the nomenclature of ionic and covalent compounds. Currently, in the state of Michigan, it's not a specific state standard that aligns with the Next Generation Science Standards so it has become “extra” content; good to know if students go on to pursue chemistry in college but not an inhibitor to learning future chemistry if they miss the content. 

With the curriculum that we currently use, this unit could last anywhere from five to seven weeks. Last year, I started this unit in January and I didn't get out of it until April! (That includes Spring Break and State Testing.) In the last year I have been thinking about how to break up this unit so it's more engaging for myself as an educator and for my students trying to navigate chemistry. This is where I turned to my teacher fellowship, Knowles Teacher Initiative and a workshop facilitated by some of my colleagues on project-based learning, PBL. Project Based Learning is a way to teach content that is motivating and engaging to students - that does not limit students to only learning content, but also learning skills! After attending their 3-day workshop in which I sat down and learned about the elements of a PBL WHILE planning - I was able to enact the lesson this past Spring. Here is what I did to construct the unit and the thoughts behind it.  

The Thinking Involved

The first thing I had to think about was the content students needed to learn in this unit, along with learning objectives. With a unit on nomenclature they had to know about the different types of elements, their properties, the charges they could form, and the names of the different ionic and covalent compounds that can form. I then had to think about a project or culmination to anchor the entire unit around - and that's when I thought about those TV commercials about household products made of  certain materials or chemicals that are life savers. I then had to try and connect the idea of a product from a commercial to my chemistry students and how they would end up in the middle of this. I tried to think of something that I was more familiar with and maybe a need and so I focused specifically on products that increase alertness and awakeness like energy drinks or caffeinated beverages. It made me think about the different chemicals found in those drinks and how students would have to know the names and the properties of the different elements that are found in these compounds that are in these products. I still was lacking the need for my chemistry students and in seeing other examples from the workshop I decided to fabricate a company with the family name - Stetzenmeyer & Co - and my Project based unit had come to life. I crafted a cool logo for this fictitious company  and  this allowed me to create the “Entry Document”(see figure 1) which is the first document you give to students to pique their interest, get them thinking about content that they need to look up and research (the content you teach), and build their purpose for what is going to happen in this unit. 


See the Supporting Information for sample student information sheet and PBL Planning Guide. (Log into your ChemEd X account to access. Don't have an account? Register here for free!) 


The PBL Unit

Figure 1: Project Student Pages (available in the Supporting Information - Log into your ChemEd X account to access. Don't have an account? Register here for free!) 



Now that I had a vision, I had to organize materials that would hook students and help them understand the project. This hook would then inspire students to come up with a plan: a plan for learning content, a plan for working together, and a plan for their product. 

What was the project? I decided that for this unit students would have to create a commercial that was very similar to those “As seen on TV” commercials, between 2 - 4 minutes in length,  showcasing a new product that would help relieve the problem of exhaustion among students and adults. This product would be unique and unlike any other, and the commercial would express that and explain what type of substances are found within their product and the names and properties of those substances. Over the unit students would have to learn about elements, compounds, and their properties in order to use this information for their project. The best commercials as selected by the company would then make it onto a high school "Shark Tank"- like event hosted by teachers in which they would get to pitch their product, live, in-person.  

To launch this unit, I had students looking at examples of “As Seen On TV” commercials and reflecting on things that stick out within the commercial and why the products were made to sound useful. Then I had students read the entry document crafted by Stetzenmeyer & Co - calling on the chemistry classes to devise a digital mock-up of a product that would help save the world from exhaustion (see figure 1). By the next day I curated teams of 3-5 students (based on an interest form) and we had Project Teams!

After the launch, but before getting right into work, we had to do a bit of team building to make sure we learned how to work together in teams. Students read and drafted team contracts and made agreements on how they would work together in that unit. Students also had to identify their strengths and what roles they would be able to assume during this unit. To assess their teamwork their first goal was to create a team logo (see figure 2). This logo would serve as the beginning of their Project work and connected to the overall project. Students had to create a logo that represented each member of the team and also connect to their work for this project. By the end of the week students had to practice presenting by sharing their logo and talking about its creation and what it means. This impromptu presentation helped serve as skill building for future work in presenting.  


Bullet list of "how to work as a team on your logo"

Figure 2: List of roles 


Throughout this first week as students were learning to work together and designing their logo, students also had to think about what they needed to know in order to create this product. We called that the “Need to Knows” list (see figure 3). Students would revisit the entry Dock and circle and underline terms and phrases that they could not Define and that was added to our Need to Knows. Without explaining to students, I had crafted and planted these Need to Knows to align with the content that I would normally teach: NOMENCLATURE. By the end of the week we had crafted a really concrete “Need to Knows” list which gave me a chance to organize materials that students could learn from, in addition to giving students the task of researching Energy Products that are already out there to inspire them for their own product. 

Figure 3: Example Knows/Need To Knows List 



At the start of week 2, I started to plant a bit of urgency in the work we were doing by telling students they had to prepare a presentation for our CEO - Ty Stetzenmeyer (my father-in-law). Like in any big company, project teams need to present their findings and their draft work thus far. For teams that already had an idea of what they wanted to create they focused solely on the chemistry and organization of their presentation that week. For teams who were still in the beginning stages of an idea they spent a bit of time researching and coming up with Unique Ideas until they finally landed on something. For the presentation to the CEO  (my father in law) -  they had to create a slide that had their product, what makes it more unique than the energy products that are out there, some chemistry that's involved, and their plan for FDA approval. They had to craft a one to two minute presentation.   

By this time students had been assigned roles (facilitator, technologist, organizer/presenter, and note taker). So students were kept busy and productive. Not every role was doing the same thing at all times. We needed to figure out a way for them to learn the chemistry but also have time to work on their presentation.. so I pulled the note takers into  the back lab benches in which I set up a TV and an Apple TV to project a slideshow for them to take notes on some beginning chemistry content. They then had to report back to their team to get the notes and help inspire them on the chemistry that needed to be included in their presentations that week. To hold the note taker and teams accountable for gaining that knowledge I also orchestrated a Google form knowledge check to help me catch misconceptions and make sure students understood the notes that they were receiving. 

By the end of the week I had organized a virtual meeting with my father-in-law, the CEO, to meet with each team's presenter to hear about their project idea and to give some positive words and feedback. Students had to record the feedback that they received from these meetings that would propel them into continuing their work on their project. The most common feedback that my father-in-law / CEO gave related to the chemical safety of the product and how it was more unique than similar products already in the marketplace. Of course these were two items that I had prompted him to ask and comment about while we met the night before in our planning meeting. I was grateful to my father-in-law for taking the time out of his vacation to meet with each of the teams to hear their project and to give them helpful feedback. Teams were in a state of urgency for making sure that they had completed their presentation and it made sense because they weren't just presenting to me they were presenting to the CEO. It's funny how students take things seriously when they are presenting to people outside of school! The feedback from these presentations help prepare students for their final product and their commercial by making sure they address what makes their product more unique which is the key characteristic of any “as seen on TV” commercial. See some sample presentation slides in figure 4.

Figure 4: Example Presentations to CEO Stetzenmeyer



By week 3 students had gained a little bit of chemistry knowledge from the week before and had a path to continue on to finalize what their product would look like and how they could sell it in a commercial. In week 3 I had to address any gaps in the Need to Know chemistry content while helping them navigate their project.  

First I wanted to check their knowledge again with another Google form to see if they picked up on important content. A practice “compensation review” was included in this Google form. In this compensation review they would pretend they had to pay the other members of their team for their work on the project. They had to divide $100 between their other members and justify the amounts. This is a good process check to make sure that everyone is working equally and a wake-up call if there are team members who are not pulling their weight. It is also good feedback for me to kind of check in with some students who may not be working equitably. After that was complete I had students vote on a project manager - based on two things, somebody that they would trust to organize their group, and the student who received the most money from the compensation review in the Google form. I gave students time to then continue working on their project and I met with the newly appointed project managers. I started sharing certain documents only with the project managers so I didn't have to check 30 students' work. For example I shared a product proposal template document for teams to complete so they knew that they were covering all aspects of their project and had a plan for their product.  

Additionally this week I had to pull note takers again to begin teaching them about nomenclature. I kept it strictly to simple ionic nomenclature so as to not overwhelm the teams with content.  I did the cycle again of having the note takers share the notes and teach their team about that content and then checking their knowledge with a Google form check. To expedite the learning of other Need to Knows in addition to the content that students need for this unit I hosted what's known as a “Workshop.” This Workshop was for all students so I didn't pull specific team members. I crafted some notes on things that came up in their Need to Knows and directly taught them the content that was needed to know. I did that all in the span of one and a half class periods. After this I checked students' knowledge with another Google form and a set of worksheets to make sure that they picked up the important aspects of the workshop.

The rest of the time in this unit would be for students to practice the chemistry with other formative assessments and work, in addition to working on their product proposals and commercials.   By the end of the week I had many students asking to go throughout the school building to record parts of their video as well as students continuing to check their chemistry knowledge and drafting what their product would look like.


In this final week of the project students were finalizing their proposals, coming up with scripts for their commercials, and then recording video. Most of the week involved me checking in with each team - but I also wanted to make sure they found value in peer evaluation so I hosted what I called an “idea germinator” in which I paired up teams to quickly present their ideas and their commercials and get feedback from each other.  

The timing was perfect for hosting a viewing party on the last half day before spring break. With the videos all being between 2 and 4 minutes, I was able to show eight during each half hour class period (our half day schedule). I was able to view every video by the end of that half day.

I may be personally biased in saying this but I think students did such an amazing job with their commercials. I think the skills that we had worked and built upon  throughout the four weeks had been illustrated in each commercial, and students had learned a lot about the nomenclature and properties of elements and compounds! Students performed fairly well on the summative assessment averaging upwards of an 85 to a 90% on a five question quiz. It was also funny that the questions that students normally get wrong on any given school year were the same questions that were common mistakes on this quiz. To me that means that curating this PBL unit as a replacement served very well and is much more fun in the process! 


Some Final Reflections

After this unit came to a close I had some time to reflect on the process of creating a lot of materials from scratch to deliver a very engaging unit.

I first want to thank the workshop facilitators through Knowles Teacher Initiative - Sarah DiMaria, Sheila Orr & Carlee Madis, for doing an amazing job in delivering the major key aspects of  Project Based Learning WHILE intentional crafting of time for us to work on creating a unit. I highly recommend attending their workshop in the future if you have the time! I don't think I'd be able to carry it out if I did not have them as accountability buddies. There were times leading up to the week in which I wanted to launch this that I had randomly reached out to Sarah as a thought partner or as someone to ask questions about what to do. That level of support is what eradicated my fear and anxiety in trying something new. I have been teaching the same curriculum for the last 7 years (and I love it!) Sometimes it's nice to shake things up and try something new and it takes a lot of time and effort to do that when teaching is already a difficult career.  

Secondly there were many times during the 4 week project in which my level of excitement had reached a new level of high. I loved creating the logo and getting my father-in-law involved. I was satisfying to provide a sense of urgency to my students and see them rise to the occasion. I enjoyed seeing a new purpose in using chemistry to create a product or a project. It was helpful for me to see my students Involving family members and other peers and staff members in this project and working so hard for a purpose. I'm unsure if another unit can top this but it gets me excited for the rest of the school year! Check out the planning guide for my nomenclature in figure 5. You can also find it in the Supporting Information.

Figure 5: Planning Guide for PBL (available in the Supporting Information - Log into your ChemEd X account to access. Don't have an account? Register here for free!) 


The introductory pages can be modified to include the teacher's own logo and name. The instructor must determine the specific content that they wish to include based upon their unique curriculum.


Knowles Teacher Initiative and workshop facilitators - Sarah DiMaria, Sheila Orr & Carlee Madis