Using Research Journals in High School Chemistry


I attended professional development provided by the VanAndel Education Institute (VAEI) in Grand Rapids, Michigan, that provided an opportunity to observe scientists at the VanAndel Institute engage in a journal club.

If you have ever been part of a book club, it is the same idea. Everyone reads the same research article. A presenter or (team of presenters) leads a discussion about the research discussed in the article. The research may not be directly related to anything that is being considered at the Institute, but this practice helps the group to remain current with cutting edge research stimulates creative thinking and problem solving through scientific discourse supports the collaborative nature of scientific research and discovery brings together staff from every level of the Institute in order to generate questions, ideas, and discussion from many perspectives. *

Reading journal articles supports the Common Core Literacy Standards for Science. It helps students understand the workings of the scientific method and of a good laboratory report. Engaging in a journal club atmosphere provides an opportunity for promoting the importance of claims and evidence as well as argumentation allowing scientific discourse to happen naturally within the classroom. It also gives students a sense of the evolving nature of science.  For these reasons, I have begun using scientific journals with my own chemistry students.

Based on what I have learned through my professional development training at VAEI and my own experience, I have a plan I want to share with fellow teachers that are interested in reading research articles with their own students.

At VAEI, we didn’t immediately assign articles to our students. First, we had them participate in a short research activity. They chose a question to ask, designed a short experiment and performed that experiment. The students analyzed their data and made claims that they could support with evidence from research and data. These were quick activities, but they provided an opportunity to discuss important aspects of research that they would see in the articles they were about to read. If that is already embedded in the curriculum, you don’t have to add anything before the reading assignment. But, if that isn’t already a part of the curriculum, you can either modify some activities that you already do or use a couple examples that I have tried.

The exact activities are not important. The idea is that we will complete a short activity with our students that will be a catalyst to allow student teams to ask a question, plan a procedure, collect data and analyze it in order to make a claim which will be presented to the class along with evidence to back up their claim.

Example #1: JCE Classroom Activity #85 – A Koolaid Reaction from the Fine Print,  Susan A. S. Hershberger* and Arlyne M. Sarquis.

Kool-Aid packages state, “Do not store in a metal container.” If we rinse a piece of steel wool and submerge in Kool-Aid containing FD&C Red 40, Yellow 5, and/or Yellow 6 for a few minutes, the azo dyes are reduced to colorless by the citric acid/metal reaction.

Example #2: JCE Classroom Activity: #103 - Enjoy a Hot Drink, Thanks to Chemistry! Gabriel Pinto,1 Maria T. Oliver-Hoyo,2 and Juan Antonio Llorens-Molina

Students observe that dissolving salts may be endothermic or exothermic. They see that this temperature change can be used in packaging to heat or cool food within the package.

These are just two examples. There are many other Classroom Activities that might be modified to fit this situation. But, after doing several short introduction activities, assign student groups of three to choose an activity to expand upon. They might choose to test a variety of drinks, dyes or flavors for example activity #1. They could time the color change and use different temperatures of solution or different grades of steel wool. They might place the solution inside of a clean metal soup can and see what happens (allowing for a discussion of materials which allow for storage of acidic foods in metal cans). For example #2, students might use different salts and collect data that supports using specific salts for specific food choices. The idea is to give students an opportunity to practice coming up with a testable question, to research background information, to create a procedure that uses good scientific practices, collect adequate data, make claims based upon evidence and present all of this while engaging in scientific discourse.

I know…sounds like a lot! And, it is! But, you are probably doing most of this already.  You might just need to reorganize a little. For instance, you might already do several activities like the examples I provided. They may be done over a couple months. Pick one that you will have students generate a follow up question for. For instance, you might decide as a class to consider example #1. You could ask students to share what they know about steel wool. They could do a quick internet search to find out steel wool is coated with an oil protectant. They will also learn about grades of steel wool. You can set up a quick experiment that asks if the grade of the steel wool will determine the rate at which the drink goes colorless. Basically, you will model how to set up a good experiment. This will make it easier for students to come up with a question and design an experiment on their own. I expect this will take only about an hour of class time. Allow students time outside of class to do a little research and prepare their procedures. You can limit their in class data collection to one class period with a little time during the next class period to finish up if necessary or work with their group to analyze data and prepare their presentation. When it comes to presenting the individual research activities, you can pair up your student groups and ask them to present to each other for 5 minutes. Walk around the room as you listen and pick out a couple of groups to present to the whole class. This will keep your presentation time down to about 30 minutes total. 

Outline for Student Team Research Projects

  • Question
  • Background knowledge
  • Research/Literature Review
  • Hypothesis
  • Procedure
  • Data/Observations
  • Results & Conclusion

–      Claim (answer the question at beginning of experiment)

–      Evidence (Summarize the data that supports the claim)

–      Reasoning (Discuss how/why prior knowledge, research, data and observations should count as evidence to support claim.) 

This is where the research articles come in. Assign an article or an assortment of articles to your students. Tell your students to look for similarities between their individual research project and the research within the article. Of course, there will be obvious differences, but this will add to the discussion. 

Journal Research

  • Assign articles or have students choose their own.
  • Students compare their process of individual projects to the research they are reading about.
  • Present the research in class or in a Journal Club.

 Where to find articles

  • Science/Nature
  • C & EN
  • ACS Publications
  • Others 

Student Team Directions

  • Pick a paper that interests you.
  • Read the paper.
  • What is the main question?
  • How is the question addressed?
  • Read background information related to topic.
  • What techniques/methods/models are used?
  • Copy figures/tables/data.
  • Summarize data & results.

For Student Research Article Presentations

  • Provide background information about topic.
  • Include definitions of terms of importance.
  • Explain models, instruments, tests, etc.
  • Identify claims and evidence to summarize conclusions of research
  • Discuss what should be done with the knowledge gained from the research…(Should more research be done? Is this the end result?)
  • Discuss what you think about the article and research

–      Do you trust the authors?

–      Do you think they missed anything?

–      Do you think the work can be applied to something else?

–      Do you still have questions?  

Suggestions for some articles to read with your students:

Effects of Different Cooking Methods on Nutritional and Physicochemical Characteristics of Selected Vegetables, Journal of Agricultural Food Chemistry 2008.

Effect of Beer Marinades on Formation of Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons in Charcoal-Grilled Pork, Journal of Agricultural Food Chemistry, 2014.

The Butter Flavorant, Diacetyl, Exacerbates β –Amyloid Cytotoxicity, Chemical Research in Toxicology, 2012.

FREE ACCESS to sample ACS journals! If you don't have a subscription, you can still access a variety of peer reviewed journal articles.

I would love to hear about what other teachers are doing with research journals. Maybe you have some handouts/lessons to share? Do you have some good articles to recommend (especially for lower level chemistry students)?


* Paraphrased from the VanAndel Education Institute Science Academy promotional literature

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Comments 1

Lowell Thomson's picture
Lowell Thomson | Wed, 05/07/2014 - 12:28

Hi Deanna,

I've wanted to do more 'primary source' work with my students for a long time. The school I'm currently at has access to JStor, and there are quite a few good journals there. However, many of my students find them too difficult to read. I will be putting this blog post on my summer "To Do List" to work the ideas into my curriculum next year.

Other than school databases, do you have any ideas for easily accessible (both in terms of free access and accessible to students to read)?