When you teach an AP chemistry course and your students are still in school until the first or even second week of June, you are faced with a very popular question and educational dilemma: “What are you going to do with your AP students with another month of school left after the AP chemistry exam?”
I have been teaching AP chemistry since 2001 and since then I have done a variety of educational activities with my AP chemistry students after the exam. We have experimented with fun labs like tie-dyeing or ice cream, taken field trips to chemical plants in the Green Bay area, performed science demonstration shows for the physical science students at the high school, created videos on how to complete common chemical lab procedures and created quizzes for NOVA videos. This year, I decided to try something new and do a book study project. I wanted this last month of school for my AP chemistry students to be relaxing, educational, enjoyable and enlightening.
I first got the idea to do a book study project after I talked with one of my fellow AP science teachers about a book that his spouse had just got done reading. The book was called the Disappearing Spoon, written by Sam Kean. I then thought about all the possible scenarios for doing a book study project. Should I have every student read the same book and discuss this one book as an entire class? Should I offer only a few books choices that students could read and then talk about in small same book groups? Should I collect a wide variety of books and make it possible for each student to have their own unique individual book?
What I liked best about the last scenario was that each student would have his or her own book, allowing for student ownership. Each student had a voice and choice in the book that matched their own reading fluency and interest in chemistry or other sciences. I did not want this project to be a burden on the AP students or something they dreaded, especially after working so very hard to prepare all year for the AP exam. I wanted this project to be something that would de-stress my students, yet enrich their minds. If the weather was warm and dry, which in Wisconsin can be a rare occurrence in May, we could read outside enjoying some well deserved fresh air!
Figure 1: Author's March 3, 2019 Twitter post
On March 3rd 2019, I composed a tweet that asked for some science or chemistry book recommendations (see figure 1). At that time I had only read about 12 books that I wanted to use, 7 of which I had already collected. However, I needed 30 books to have one for each student. Frankly, my hope was that I would have a handful of replies that would suggest a few more good books. In the couple of months that followed I would find a way to get them at discount book stores and gather more book suggestions along the way. However, what happened after that initial tweet was something I would never have hypothesized!
The outpouring of help and advice was remarkable. Within one day the #chemtwitter community replied with so many options that I had more book recommendations than I had students in class. With every recommendation reply on Twitter, I added another book to an Amazon wishlist that I had created. I am very thankful for the generosity of others like the author of The Cosmic Machine, Scott Bembenek, who contacted me and was willing to donate a copy of his book. An anonymous donor also came forward to buy some of the books on my Amazon wishlist (see figure 2). I ended up purchasing the books that I still wanted and needed to complete the set of 30 books because, I wanted to read them anyway. I have included a list of books and authors that I currently have and the books I hope to add to the collection in the upcoming years (*see Supporting Information).
Figure 2: Assortment of books available to students
I truly felt blessed each time a new book came into my classroom or in the mail. If I hadn’t read that book already, I would skim read it in preparation for the students reading it. My goal for next year is to read the books that I have not yet fully read. I also hope to add more books because next year I will have about 60 students in AP chemistry. Another wonderful, unintended, positive, consequence of this project was that it aided in my own professional development and collaboration with other teachers, chemists, scientists and authors.
As with all projects, student accountability and consistency is imperative. I created a double entry reading log (*see Supporting Information) that I adapted from a reading log made by Sandra Kristi, Literacy Coach, Hamilton High School 2009. As a daily check, students used this reading log each time they read in class or out of class. The first column was a place to put the pages they read. The second column was a list of five reading prompts to choose from that helped guide the students in finding a specific part of the text to reflect on. The third column had a list of six reflection prompts to choose from in order to write a daily reflection of that specific part of the text they focused on. A sample page of a student reading log is shown in figure 3.
Figure 3: Example student reading log
As a final assessment check for the book project, I made a project rubric that allowed me to uniquely, yet consistently assess each student on how they wanted to do a final summary of their book (*You will find the rubric in the Supporting Information). The five required elements in the rubric are as follows:
- Quality of the notes in the reading log
- The extent they summarized the book
- Explanation of the pros and cons of the book
- Quantity and depth of the science they reflected on in the book
- Overall organization, creativity and neatness of the summary project
Students could choose from a variety of authentic assessments to summarize the book they had chosen listed below. The first three options were most prevalent, but I wanted to allow student choice and voice in the summary so I added the fourth option.
- Write a review similar to those on Goodreads or Amazon and turn in a hard copy. See figure 4 for a example.
- Make a poster to showcase content, characters or science covered in the book.
- Create a video commercial trying to inform and promote the book.
- Devise their own unique project with teacher approval.
Figure 4: Example of an Amazon or Goodreads review written by a student for the Disappearing Spoon
The project ended up being quite on par with what I had hoped and planned from the inception of this book study idea. I gave a brief open-ended survey at the culmination of this project and asked students what they liked or disliked about the project. The following are direct quotes from my students about this project.
“The book I am reading is heavy, but it is nice to have a fairly care-free project to finish out the year after AP testing.”
”The project feels stress-free, relaxing even.”
“I like seeing the chemistry we learn about applied to the real world. I learn best by association, so being able to pair an event with a concept helps me understand the ideas better.”
“My favorite thing about this project is that I got to choose a book that I am interested in. I love sharing what I learned in the book to my friends.”
One personal takeaway is that this project has inspired me to use “Napoleon's Buttons” by Penny Le Couteur and Jay Burreson in my first-year chemistry course. This book lends itself nicely to doing a molecule of the week for an entire semester which typically has 16-18 weeks. The book discusses 17 groups of molecules and how they influenced history. A classroom set of this book would allow students to learn about the real world applications and history of these molecules in their everyday lives on a weekly basis.
Overall, the project was a success from a teacher and student standpoint. I am excited to do this project again next year. With more students next year, the added challenge will be finding and purchasing more books. The added benefit of having more books will be the ability to discuss books which share authors or are a part of series and students will have a variety of choices to match their personal interests and strengths. Of all the projects I have done after the AP chemistry exam, this project was by far the most relaxing and rewarding. It was outstanding to see students engrossed and inspired by their books.
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