Chemistry “Big Ideas”

As I mentioned in my last post, I have been working through Wiggins and McTighe’s Understanding by Design in order to gain a better understanding of using a backwards design process. Part of the process has been brainstorming “big ideas” that I think are at the core of chemistry1, and I came up with 5 of them. The list below has them from the “biggest” ideas down to the “less big” ideas.

Look, a diagram!

1) Nature of Science

I think it stands to reason that general science skillz (designing and performing experiments, collecting and interpreting data, drawing and presenting scientific conclusions, etc.) which are fundamental and continuous through all science disciplines is the biggest of the ideas covered in a chemistry course.

2) Particle Nature of Matter

One thing that I’ve though for a long time (and that fits perfectly with the Modeling Chemistry curriculum!) is that students need to have a basic understanding of the evidence and reasoning for how we know that matter is made of discrete particles and not continuous before you can move on to deeper chemistry topics. Too often traditional chemistry courses (not to mention earlier science courses) jump right in to talking about atoms as fundamental building blocks, but take for granted the justification for how we know atoms exist. The icing on the cake here is the fact that this piece of chemistry/physical science is fraught with common misconceptions2 (see section 4d).

Quick note: these next three ideas have approximately the same “biggishness” in the scope of a chemistry course, representing some of the fundamentals of chemistry-specific content. 

3) Chemical Reactions  Conservation of Mass (and Energy?)

I’ve struggled a bit with this one. I think there is a tendency to focus more on chemical reactions (types of rxns, stoichiometry, balancing, etc.), but conservation of mass encompasses all of that PLUS it also includes physical changes, which is crucial for a thorough understanding of chemistry. However, you could also make the argument that physical changes are already included in the particle nature of matter… although not necessarily from a conservation standpoint.

4) Atoms 

Chemistry is all about atoms – periodic trends and atomic structure are two big components but it could also include nuclear chemistry as well (if you’re into that).

5) Bonding

Material properties are all about the different types of bonding. The obvious topics here are ionic and covalent (and metallic) bonds, but there’s also polarity/miscibility, intermolecular forces, and solubility.

What am I missing? Any thoughts or feedback would be much appreciated!

[1] These big ideas also (conveniently) happen to align with our state/district standards, which I am also trying to more efficiently and effectively disseminate into specific learning objectives and assessment tasks – a post for later!

[2] For my masters program, I am doing action research this fall into how effective certain teaching methods are in addressing students’ misconceptions. More to come on that later!

2 thoughts on “Chemistry “Big Ideas””

  1. Good choice of big ideas. Im curious as to how you chose this ranking. I’m also interested in how you will help students weave these big ideas together in their learning. I struggle with modeling the atom and usually end up guiding students to reach the same conclusions as the scientists whose work built the currently accepted models.

    1. The easiest was the first one – nature of science has been lacking from the chem classes at my school, and I’ve wanted to do more with them because I think they are critical and THE MOST fundamental to any and all science classes and will be used throughout the entire year. The particle nature of matter is something that I had been chewing on all last year, and I think it makes sense that it is the introduction/precursor to other chemistry topics and can be utilized throughout the entire year as well. I had noticed that students seem to do fairly well with our unit about gases (gas laws, phase changes and KMT), and I think it will provide a solid foundation for understanding and visualizing matter that we can build upon in other units.

      I have also struggled with modeling the atom! To me, it seems to follow that if students can understand the reasoning and evidence behind the model of matter being made of discrete particles, it should make it easier to then start looking at the properties of the particles (periodic trends), and how we can distinguish them as having the individual properties (mass, atomic number, eventually bonding). In terms of the various models of the atom, I struggle most getting them to move beyond the Bohr model – but for my lower classes I don’t do any more than to say “this isn’t the newest model, but it is good enough for our understanding in this class”. Personally I don’t think QM model has much of a place in HS chem.

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