First Day of Chemistry: The Banning of Caffeine and Making Gummy Worms

The first day of school for me has always been daunting for my new students (in AP chemistry, where I know the kids, it’s so much easier). I want my students to know the following:

  • Who is this tiny person who looks like a teenager (that’d be ME, folks)? Where did she come from and why is she teaching us?
  • What does chemistry look like?

      (Rules, expectations, etc., come throughout the week.)

There is definitely “baggage”, or assumptions I hold, behind these two goals for day one. For a great reflection on the impact of assumptions in the classroom, check out Heidi P.’s blog. Learning to explore my assumptions has been really helpful in my practice, and I personally relate to Heidi’s journey she shares.

One of my assumptions here are that students are very curious about who the adults are in their lives that they will spend 5+ hours a week with. They don’t need to know a lot, but something that they can relate to can hopefully go a long way. Also, with social media, I assume that my students hold pre-conceptions about their teachers - that I am there because I was unsuccessful as a chemist, and I had no other options in my life. 

I am also assuming that students come with tons of baggage about chemistry. Most of my students had completed a middle school physical science course, and learned some basics. They hear siblings, peers, and adults in their lives discuss how (a) difficult, (b) memorize-y, (c) boring, or (d) irrelevant chemistry has been. They also hear things about chemistry being a "weeder course" for other science classes (note: my student population is pretty high income with well-educated parents). 

Based on these assumptions, and probably many more that I am not aware of yet, this is what my general chemistry students encounter day one.

What it looks like (from my perspective):

As my students enter the room, they pick up a small card with an element name on it. Their seat is where the matching symbol is found. I’m a big fan of seating charts, so this is a way to randomize it as I start to get to know students (aka learn where they can and maybe should not go).

They also have to practice picking up papers at the pick up station, so they pick up a name tent (aka a piece of paper they fold in half) and fill it out as their warm up, which they will find out soon that they will have every day. On that name tent, they put first and last name, as well as a small picture of something that’s important to them (like a music note, or a car, or a character from a video game).

Then, I show them a few pictures of me - one of my husband and I on our wedding day, a funny one of the two of us on our way to Michigan football game (Go Blue!), and then a picture of me and some girlfriends before going to junior prom. My methods teacher in my master’s program gave the idea to share a picture of yourself in high school, and students are always amused.

That takes about 20 minutes of the 55 I have these students in class. Then, I transition to what they will be doing all year. I tell them that they have heard a lot of things about chemistry, and no, they will NOT memorize the periodic table (muahahahaha...after the mole they tell me they have it memorized anyways). What they WILL be doing is: 

  • Collecting evidence
  • Building models based on that evidence
  • Making future predictions
  • Communicating findings and revise models based on future evidence

Ok, that seems boring, right? Or, “how do you try to get the point across”? Here’s what’s next.

Finally, I share a bit about why I’m there. I share about my background and how I got to teach them. I share about the research I did as an undergraduate student. I tell them about how I’m involved in teaching-land outside of school (ChemEdX! KSTF(link is external)! Conferences!). I want them to know that I’m all in, and a lot of thought and work goes into what they experience (or, at the very least, that nerd conventions do exist outside of Comic Con- just see what happens when hundreds of chemistry teachers get together, like at BCCE). 

Why should they care about all these things? I give them data about two molecules: vitamin B-6 and caffeine. I give the IUPAC names and lots of physical properties. Then, I ask them how long it will be until they can vote - ok, 2-4 years? Great. These two molecules are on the ballot to ban. 

By this point, a few kids know something is fishy, but they don’t really know what it is. Long story short - all of my classes end up banning caffeine (they’re more split on vitamin B-6). 

Finally, in the last third of class, they make gummy worms. I give a brief intro about the molecules and materials, and that they may not eat anything (they taste terrible unless you add sugar, which I don’t provide). I put all items in plastic cups, no goggles or real lab safety training are needed. Then they play. Last 5 minutes of class- develop a model to explain why some materials make great gummy worms, and some are terrible. 

This sounds like a lot, and in some classes, it’s a bit tight, but my students talk about this for ages (and I hear about it from parents). I don’t tell them how the gummy worms are formed. In hindsight, I feel like I should integrate that in better later in the unit, but I like not telling them right away. Why?

  1. I get a great pre-assessment about how to test different variables and make conclusions. Furthermore, I see how they work with others as they are testing variables.
  2. I get a chance to praise students for what they are doing right away - “Good idea to test mik’s ability to get the solution to gel...what’s similar between the calcium solution and the milk solution? What’s different?”
  3. I get a great pre-assessment about what they think about when they think atoms and molecules. The models they make on whiteboards for me to see (and, if time, share with other groups, but that’s dependent on the class size) are so informative. Some really are trying to think about atoms, and some have no clue. 
  4. In real life, chemists (and all scientists) don’t get immediate affirmation on their evidence-based models. This is what I say to my now grumpy students at the end of class - and they’re also hooked.

That’s my very very packed first day of class. 

Best wishes on your school year, no matter where you are in your cycle. 

What do you do to set the tone when you begin a new course? 

By the way, here is a link to the J. Chem. Ed. article that served as inspiration: is external)



Join the conversation.

All comments must abide by the ChemEd X Comment Policy, are subject to review, and may be edited. Please allow one business day for your comment to be posted, if it is accepted.

Comments 8

Dan Meyers's picture
Dan Meyers | Sat, 08/20/2016 - 08:17

I like your first day back process. Our first day is a half day that consists of roughly ten minute classes. I may be incorporating some of your ideas over the course of day 1 and day 2 (53 minutes). Thanks for the inspiration!

Tracy Schloemer's picture
Tracy Schloemer | Sat, 08/20/2016 - 08:46

Awesome! I'd love to hear how it goes, and best wishes on a new year!

Kristina Harkins's picture
Kristina Harkins | Mon, 08/22/2016 - 21:53

Thank you for sharing your ideas. This year will be my first as the teacher of record and I want to hook my students. I am in a similar situation to Dan, where first-day classes are only ~20 minutes long, and I am researching "WOW" factors that will help set the tone in my chemistry courses. My new school is lab/experiment heavy (40-50% of curriculum) and I want my kids to leave after the first day thinking "this is going to be great." So thank you for the inspiration.


Side comment: I noticed that you are a KSTF Senior Fellow. If you had the time/inclination to share, then I would love to know how that program has worked for you/changed your life as a science teacher. I will be applying this fall and I was surprised to stumble across another teacher connected to the organization. Beyond that, I think it would be great to keep in touch and share stories/strategies. I am trying to build up my network.

Tracy Schloemer's picture
Tracy Schloemer | Wed, 08/24/2016 - 10:09

Thanks for your post, Kristina!

Check out the "navigation" right about the title of the article, and click on "Tracy Schloemer's Blogs" and you'll find my writings and info about Knowles in a recent post. Best wishes on your first year- kids are forgiving, and have some grace for yourself too.


Sue Watkins | Thu, 08/25/2016 - 08:44

Tracy--thank you so much for sharing this first-day agenda.  I love the ideas!

However, I am very curious about the title.  Could you explain?  (i.e., the banning of caffeine and B-6?)


Tracy Schloemer's picture
Tracy Schloemer | Thu, 08/25/2016 - 12:54

The title is related to the intermediate activity briefly described regarding the vote. I added pictures above of how I played this. I show them structures, then go through the properties briefly. I make them vote before revealing the common names on the bottom!

samantha bonner | Thu, 09/01/2016 - 09:29

Can you explain this in more detail. I made the solutions and mixed them like the paper and it is cool. I am not sure how you give them the materials and what they play with? Are there others you are adding so sometimes they get the worms and others they don't? I am excited to try this, I just need some more guidance on what you gave them. Thank you so much!