Five For the First

circled 5. Text: Five for the First. Preview image

It’s back to school season! We’ve all begun to reflect on how we want to establish procedures for the year and what tweaks or new ideas need to be included to set up our classes for success. Part of this process is how we begin in the first week. If you are looking for some new ideas to kick off your year, I’ve included five of my favorite ideas in this post. 

A note: I’m choosing to focus this post on activities for the students to do. If you’re looking for demos (also great first week activities, especially when thoughtfully incorporated with student actions to build groundwork for your course) check out some of these ideas on ChemEd Xchange: 

All of the activities below are ones that I have successfully used in my classes during the first two weeks. I’ve outlined them and framed my purpose for including them. I think they all have merit, and my goal is to provide you with a menu of options from which you can pick and choose to meet your needs. I hope you find something helpful!


Syllabus Scavenger Hunt

We all distribute a syllabus, and it is an important document for students to see. I used to spend quite a bit of time going through it in each class. One year I looked out at my students and realized that they were zoned out: polite, but disengaged. I paused, and it dawned on me that I was the 7th teacher to give this same presentation to them that day. I decided to do it differently from that point forward. Now instead of reading it to them, I have them do a syllabus scavenger hunt. This also incorporates my first round of group work which I do a lot of in class. The lesson plan blurb for this activity is below.



Syllabus scavenger hunt (20 min)

→ Teacher will distribute Post-It Notes in different colors to students

→ Using the syllabus, students will respond to these 4 questions on Post-Its (nameless), 

  • My favorite policy in this class is…
  • My least favorite policy in this class is…
  • I have questions about…
  • I need to make sure I tell my adults about…

→ Students will get with a partner who shares their Post-It color and will compare responses, make changes or additions to their thoughts as they wish

→ Students take pictures of Post-Its to remember as necessary, and then post them in 4 areas marked on board

→ Teacher will review the Post-Its and address common themes and questions (this may carry over to next class)

Alternatively, you can make a copy of a virtual Google Form I have used. This may be a good option for absent students.


Why Do We Study Chemistry?

In my first few years of teaching, I often got the question “Why do we have to take this class?” To combat this, I start many of my courses with a lesson on chemistry in society. I have used a variety of sources over the years. A few of my favorites are listed below:

I have students go through/watch the resources I provide, and then work in groups to make lists:

  • applications that you knew
  • applications that surprised you
  • applications that you use daily
  • applications that might apply to your desired career (list career)

We create giant lists on the board after some group discussions, and then I ask a closing question: “What is an area of your life that DOESN’T involve chemistry?” Ultimately, students get to the core of the lesson - it is involved in all areas of their lives.

I find that this lesson really heads off the question of “Why”. Continuing to incorporate phenomena through the year helps to continue to reinforce why it’s so important.


Fact, Law, Hypothesis, Theory, Belief

This is one of my favorite early activities because it serves several purposes: it gets to the core of some important, but often mixed up, scientific terms as well as building science literacy skills and introducing group discussion to come to a conclusion. 

I first start by showing the TED-Ed video What’s the difference between scientific law and theory? and Fact vs. Theory vs. Hypothesis vs. Law… EXPLAINED! by Be Smart (from PBS). After this, I break students into groups and have them work through the prompts from the NASA designed activity.


Figure 1: Fact, Law, Hypothesis digital version - Example Student Work


There are three ways that you can do this activity.

  1. The original activity as created by NASA is linked here. I have used it as is, taken the prompts and cut them into strips and had groups draw from them, or assigned specific prompts by number (evens/odds, in groups of 10, etc). I also have used it as a cut-and-paste activity in my interactive notebooks, which I talked about more in my Scientific Reasoning Interactive Notebook Unit.
  2. During virtual learning, I took many of the prompts (but not all) and turned them into a Google slides drag-and-drop. I like the activity as a sort, but I found that the group collaboration didn’t go as smoothly when students were focused on their individual copy of the Google slide. Make a copy of the Fact, Law, Hypothesis, Theory, Belief Drag and Drop Google slide version.
  3. This activity has been made into a Quizlet set. This year, I plan to do this activity as a Quizlet Live activity. 


Lab Safety

A really important thing to include in the first week is lab safety. I have done this in a lot of ways over the years. I always have students reference the Flinn High School Student Safety Contract, but the way I introduce the initial exploration of the contract varies. Here are some of my ideas to get you thinking about what my work best for you:

  • Have students pick 1-3 rules and create a poster either on Canva or by hand. Post their work in your lab.
  • Chunk the rules by section in groups, and do a jigsaw activity so students teach each other about lab safety.
  • Have a lab safety scavenger hunt with questions that apply to your specific classroom. (Here is a free one from Science for Success on Teachers Pay Teachers (accessed 7/23/23).)
  • Have students create a list of the “essential x” number of rules that they think are most critical for your class.

Then I have students create a map of the critical safety features in our classroom. I talk more about that in my Scientific Reasoning Interactive Notebook. Students get out of the seats and move around to notate a map of the room that I provide. This has really helped increase engagement in my science safety lesson, and also ensures they know what the critical safety equipment items are and where to go if they need them.


Tools of the Chemist

As an introduction to lab glassware, I have students perform an activity I call Tools of the Chemist. In my lab, I set up as many stations as I can with tools that provide measurements. They range in precision from very poor (beaker, Erlenmeyer flask) to very precise (buret, volumetric pipet, digital balance). At each station I have a substance to be measured (volume of colored water, an object to mass, cold water to measure temperature, etc.) Directions are kept very brief, but I walk through how to read glassware (at eye-level, to the bottom of the meniscus) and talk about the difference between glassware that is marked “TD” (to deliver) and “TC” (to contain). Supporting materials are provided to students: 

Students then rotate through the stations. I set a number of stations that must be completed, and sometimes I have mandatory stations for our most-used tools. 

Students fill out a tracker as they go. (I have also previously shared this tracker sheet in my Scientific Reasoning Interactive Notebook.)

If you have absent students who need to make up the activity, I also created a virtual make-up lab: Tools of the Chemist


Periodic Table of Me, Myself and I

This is a free download on Teachers Pay Teachers from AwesomeScience (accessed 7/23/23). I like this activity because it is a get-to-know-you activity that also has students start to explore the periodic table in a way that feels safe. I don’t always do it with every period, but on those odd back-to-school days where some classes are longer than others due to school start-up events this is a great time filler that is fun and also has a chemistry theme.


I hope this helps get some ideas flowing as you start your classes this year. Have a fantastic school year and be sure to check out more ideas on Chemical Education Xchange!