Helping Students Make Connections by Reading and Analyzing "Chemistry's Core Ideas"

screen shot of Atkins article

This year in IB Chemistry with my Year 1 students, I have tried something a bit different. I've long felt that the biggest difference in achievement at the higher levels is making connections between the topics we study. Take something as simple as drawing the Lewis structure of water:


How many connections can be made between all of the topics? For example, electronegativity trends (related to periodic properties) can explain the polar bonds between hydrogen and oxygen. VSEPR shapes and hybridization can explain the predicted angle of 109.5 and the actual angle of 104.5 due to heightened repulsion of the two lone pairs. This, of course, can relate to the discussion about whether one Lewis structure is preferred over another. Water can act as both an acid and a base, andhis thus amphiprotic. When water accepts a proton, it forms a coordinate (aka dative) bond with the hydrogen ion to form hydronium. (Obvious connections to acid-base chemistry here). Water also participates in its own equilibrium, the auto-ionization of water - thus influencing the meaning of the term "neutral pH." Manipulating this equilibrium's temperature can help students understand why neutral does not automatically mean 7.0 . Water is the main solvent we use for making solutions - which leads to many more connections, such as water's role in single-replacement reactions, which can lead to a discussion of redox. I'm sure I have missed many, many more connections that can be made with just a simple water molecule to our entire IB Chemistry curriculum.

To give my students a bit more guidance with this process of seeing the "big picture" and making connections, I am using an article from Dr. Peter Atkins*, "Chemistry's Core Ideas." The article can be found without a paywall HERE in the August 2010 edition of Chemistry in New Zealand. Dr. Atkins has written a full book highlighting these ideas. I reviewed the book in a Pick published on ChemEd X.* But I wanted something simpler and more accessible to my students, hence my use of the article.

So here's how I have made it work thus far: During our first week of IB Chemistry class, I had the students read the article, without much prompting. No guiding questions. Just "Read the article and be ready to discuss next class" as my only directions. During that next class, I gave about 5 minutes for the table groups to engage in discussion of the article. I still didn't prompt their discussion - hoping to gather some data of my own about which groups would be good at this form of academic free-flow, and which groups would need more guidance in the future.

Students then selected a partner and set to work completing a Google Slides Presentation, as a group. You can find the template in the supporting information at the conclusion of this post. 

My expectation is that students work to consider the details of the 8 core ideas as they complete Section 1. While completing Section 2, I hope they begin to see how our IB curriculum will fit into these 8 core ideas. This first round of discussion followed by group editing of their documents took about 30 minutes. Most groups were finished, but a few needed to put in some time on their own. The slowest part in the beginning was finding syllabus subtopics related to the content, as they were not yet familiar with the structure of the IB Syllabus.

Twice now, after a unit assessment, I have had the students revisit their Google Slides document to make updates to relevant sections. For example, after we completed atomic structure and periodic properties I had them revisit Main Idea 1 and Main Idea 2. More recently, in the middle of our unit on covalent bonding, the students went back to their slides relating to Main Idea 3 and Main Idea 4. Then as an opportunity to review intermolecular forces, we discussed Main Idea 5, "Molecules Interact With One Another." I have found these revisits to be of utmost importance, as the content in the article certainly caused much anxiety at the beginning of the year. As an example, Dr. Watkins says, "More succinctly, it accounts for the importance of the number 2 in chemistry." After studying electron configuration and an in-depth look at covalent bonding, this statement has much greater meaning and relevance to the framework of knowledge the students have created.

I plan to continue this process throughout my two years of IB Chemistry, hoping that students consolidate their understanding of the core ideas, and strengthen the connections between topics throughout the curriculum. Near the end of the course, we'll re-read the entire article and make one last edit to our Google Slides presentations. My hope, of course, is that this will solidify some of the big picture ideas and connections I have highlighted throughout my blog post.

*Dr. Atkins is a prolific auther, and his name has come up a few times are at ChemEd X.

  1. "The Ten Great Ideas in Science" in 2004.
  2. Hal Harris also reviewed "The Four Laws that Drive the Universe" in 2007.
  3. Earlier in 2017, I reviewed "Chemistry: A Very Short Introduction.
  4. And also this year, I purchased  "The Four Laws that Drive the Universe" and provided my own perspective.