It was a familiar childhood sound. You know that sound? A bin of Lego building blocks. You want that one particular piece. You rake through the pieces with both hands, searching. That noise. It was often heard during my younger years and now filters down from my children’s bedrooms upstairs. But, as someone connected with teaching and learning chemistry, I don’t have to leave that toy (or sound) behind.
Building Chemistry I
Building blocks have been part of multiple past Journal of Chemical Education articles. Two examples immediately come to mind. We used it in the JCE Classroom Activity Putting It All Together: Lab Reports and Legos nearly 15 years ago, to make the point that you should record observations as you make them rather than trusting them to memory and to illustrate the writing needed for lab reports. More recently, fellow XChange contributor Tom Kuntzleman used it for a visually delightful group Lego Periodic Table project, described in Constructing an Annotated Periodic Table Created with Interlocking Building Blocks: A National Chemistry Week Outreach Activity for All Ages. (Both articles available to JCE subscribers.)
The June 2016 issue of JCE adds another to the collection: Interlocking Toy Building Blocks as Hands-On Learning Modules for Blind and Visually Impaired Chemistry Students. (freely available to all as an ACS AuthorChoice article). The authors use the blocks to show trends in periodic table properties, such as relative atomic and cationic radii, ionization energies, and electronegativities. However, their use is more than that, providing a tactile experience for blind and visually impaired students to experience and learn about the trends by touching the models and their Braille labels. The remarks from surveyed students were positive. They included: “Touching the periodic table gives better perception,” “They are easier to grasp and faster to comprehend than Braille periodic table,” and “Building blocks help me pick trends quickly.” The authors even tested it with blindfolded sighted students.
The models can also be used as a visual way to cement periodic table trends with sighted students. The authors used them in a large class using a document camera to display the models. In smaller classes, perhaps students could visit stations with pre-built models to make observations and answer questions related to the trends, or maybe construct the models themselves. Directions for construction are not included with the article, although with some work they could probably be ascertained from studying the multiple color figures. I emailed the corresponding author while writing this article to ask if they are available elsewhere; he confirms there are no other specific instructions to build the modules and that they can be built as shown in the figures (email communication with R.B. Dabke, 2016 Jun 12 and 2016 Jun 14).
The authors recommend purchasing building block kits and baseplates in local stores’ toy sections, but I also suggest you see if there’s a Bricks & Minifigs store near you. Not all U.S. states have locations, but they’re a less expensive way to get Lego bricks and other pieces. There are bulk bins to rummage through to find what you need. You choose a container size and pay a set price for whatever pieces fit into the container.
Building Chemistry II
This issue also had an article with another model building material that looked interesting, described as “plastic nested balls” and “plastic Christmas balls.” From the figures in the article, the balls appear to be a product similar to these acrylic fillable ball ornaments, which are available in different sizes, so they can nest inside each other. The authors of Big Atoms for Small Children: Building Atomic Models from Common Materials To Better Visualize and Conceptualize Atomic Structure (available to JCE subscribers) use them to add a concrete item for elementary-aged students to use when discussing the atom. The balls function to create a 3-D model of an atom, so that a clay nucleus can have a place in the center of a spherical construction and small round pasta or beads can be located outside the nucleus as electrons. Although a simple model to put together, it has a lot of information packed into it. The authors list 11 different points about atoms that it helps to show.
The activity could also be reversed—students could be shown one of the models and answer questions about how it illustrates points that they’ve learned about atoms. For example, where are the protons and neutrons located? How does the number of pasta electrons compare with the number of green protons in the nucleus? Where is the main mass of the atom? They could then construct their own model for an atom of a different element.
The authors summarize the experience of their model, and I think, the Lego models described above: “A knowledge built ‘with one’s own hands’ that works together and cooperates with one’s mind is the basis for the construction of a deep and long-lasting learning.”
Look for Mary Saecker’s post JCE 93.06 June 2016 Issue Highlights for more content from this issue.