Tackling Big Ideas


It was the empty terrible feeling in the pit of my stomach at 9:30 at night that really bothered me as I am wading through the stack of papers that I was grading. I had the students do experiments, worksheets, I lectured and there was homework. Some of the students could “do” what I thought was science. They could calculate the answer. They could balance the equation. But there was always the “one” or “two” questions on the test that did not exactly ask the exact same thing we did in class. It went deeper than that.  The questions required a higher level of explaining. Most of the students struggled to grasp the question and the concept. They just did not have a grasp on the concept. I did not become a teacher so I could say, “Well, I guess they just don’t get it. Time to move on…”  I knew that if the overwhelming majority of the students were not understanding concepts at a higher level, I could not place all of the blame on the students.

     I was not happy or content with that feeling. As I started searching, I gathered that there were other teachers who were experiencing the same feeling I was. We would get together at workshops and conferences. I would read about teacher’s frustrations online. The conversations were not “gripe” sessions but more about identifying a problem and struggling to search for an answer. These teachers inspired me.  And with the help of these teachers across the country, as well as some chemical education research, a possible answer started to appear for me. The answer was “Modeling Instruction”. Modeling seemed to be the missing link. I began to read and hear many similar stories, “My students can do labs and solve problems on paper but they do not really get it. I started making them explain what is happening on an atomic level. They have to justify their answers and work in groups. They are doing much better.” This was and is a fundamental shift for many teachers. Students have to draw and build models and use them to explain the concepts of the labs or the equations and symbols on paper. It can be ugly and messy. I can say from first hand experience, the first time out the gate both myself and my students made mistakes and had many wrong answers. We kept with it and got better. It was worth the time I put into it. I continue to put in even more time and continue to learn. It took time and there are still setbacks but the level of answers and depth of knowledge has increased in the classroom. Buoyed by similar successes from other teachers this trend seems to be taking hold on a national level.  A quick glance of the “Next Generation Science Standards” for the “Matter and its Interactions” shows multiple references to modeling the microscale and explaining.  Many list-serves have discussions about teachers Modeling in physics, biology and physical science with success. So….the question is...if you are new to modeling on the microscale and not sure where to start...where should you begin???

ChemEd X offers many blogs and other posts that will help, but here are some basic ideas you might want to consider.

  • Start small with teacher directed activities. Kids are still on “summer mode” during the first week of school. Find a YouTube video or some images of a particular compound or molecule and simply ask two or three questions about it. 
  • Start with the experiment or the “large scale” first. Let students explore phenomenon by observing what they see and then move toward understanding what is happening on a micro-scale level.
  • Gradually make the students do more. Many teachers begin the year with some type of “classification of matter” activity. Provide the symbols of some matter and substances and then a list of pictures of what these are on a molecular level. Can they match the symbol and picture?
  • Start with the experiment first. If you want kids to model something, they first need to see the demonstration, experiment or reaction before they make the model of the system.
  • Use manipulatives when possible. Try to search for ideas and resources that allow for hands on experience simulating the micro-scale.
  • The power of groups. Students are often times more apt to offer different ideas in small groups as opposed to being called out in class. Circulate among groups to keep discussions focused and with a purpose.
  • It is O.K. to be wrong...as long as we try to get to right. I have found this to be difficult but important. Some students think they should only get the right answer. They are afraid of feeling stupid or saying the wrong answer (aren’t we all?). It is okay to be wrong. Misconceptions happen all the time in science with people of all ages. Our job is to form a supporting community in the classroom that allows for mistakes and supports a process to get to an answer supported by proper evidence.

So by now I might have you convinced to give it a shot. Unfortunately, a change like this can be similar to drinking water out of a fire hose. Here are some resources that might help.

  • American Modeling Teachers Association  For teachers, by teachers and with teachers, this is hands down the best place to start if you want any and all information about Modeling Instruction, ideas and suggestions. Access to the site does require a fee but is well worth it. Any and all questions, ideas and suggestions about Modeling (along with research) can be found here. As a bonus, my experience has been that they are also really nice people. The supporting curriculum, designed by teachers and not by a textbook company is great and there are discussion boards that support all of their work. Definitely give this a try.
  • Technology  There are two resources that I love to use. First is “Atomsmith”.  This is a molecular lab which allows you and your students to view 3-D computer models, create simulations, look at orbitals, watch models of reactions and the energy of that reaction and much more. I like to use an online version which is getting better and better as they add more functionality. The people at Atomsmith have been great with customer support and patience with any questions.  Another resource I like to use is the Chrome app “MolView”.  It is free. It is really nice if I just want students to get a quick view of a particular molecule. At the time of this writing it has a larger molecular library than Atomsmith, however, Atomsmith far exceeds MolView in various features such as reactions and orbitals and others.
  • Roy Tasker and VisChem  This site requires a little bit of investigation but is well worth the look. Roy Tasker has devoted this site to helping students visualize chemistry on the particulate level. There are many quick particulate level animations that can be viewed in almost any browser and are only a minute or two long.
  • Target Inquiry Labs These are a series of target inquiry labs created by teachers, for teachers, are aligned with the standards, address popular misconceptions, often incorporate the particulate level and are free.They are based on solid chemical education research. I wrote about a pair of my favorites in a blog post here at ChemEd X. These have been vetted and researched well.  There are two places to find these labs. One is at Miami University Oxford TIMU site and the other is at Grand Valley State.

     Transitioning to incorporate more micro-scale can be daunting and overwhelming but also exciting. It is exciting to see students “get it” in a way they have not in the past.  Yes, there are still bad days and setbacks but it seems that at the end there are a few more success stories with the help of Modeling Instruction and “modeling”.