Wednesday, December 3, 2008

How do we teach chemistry so that it is real and relevant?

A few weeks ago I went to an innercity high school to observe a teacher that had been a participant in our professional development classes. This teacher is outstanding and was doing her best to engage 16 year old, economically disadvantaged students in her lecture on the structure of the atom. She used inquiry based methods, including “what do you know, what do you want to know, and what have you learned” prompts before, during, and at the end of class. She also used fun, exploratory techniques like modeling the Rutherford Gold Foil Experiment using a bowling ball as a model of the nucleus and having students throw tennis balls (see image). The students were enthusiastic and seemed to be learning about atomic structure – that atom is mostly empty space, that most of the mass is in the nucleus, protons are positive, etc.
She then lead the students through an introduction to electron orbital theory, which was less exciting but still very well taught.

At the end of what was an inspiring chemistry class, the teacher asked if there were any questions. One girl raised her hand and asked “Are there atoms inside me?”

How can a student who has taken a semester of 11th grade chemistry, a 10th grade in biology course, and 9th grade integrated physics and chemistry course, not understand that everything, including our bodies, is composed of atoms? How can we have this huge disconnect between what kids memorize for tests and what they really comprehend about science and our world?

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