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!

Summer Update

To anyone who says that teachers have it easy because they get their summers “off”:

You’re full of crap.

Other than taking 3 grad classes (one of which was with Diana Laufenberg!), taking care of my 8-months-pregnant wife and trying to get ready for a baby that will be here in a month or so, I’ve been trying to work on a few projects to get ready for next school year:

 1. Preparing for year 2 with SBG

Last spring, our district chem teachers finally got our act together and created our standards, based around our state standards being put into more student-/parent-friendly language. This summer, we’ve been working on creating a rubric for each standard that could be used on any general assessment fitting that standard. I’m getting pretty good at rubrics.

I’ve also been looking at the interplay between standards and learning targets within my own class, and how each one is assessed. In particular, re-examining my learning targets and not creating a rubric for each one (because I did that part of last year and it sucked), but doing more of a binary scoring that students keep track of and are given feedback by me. Still trying to figure out how the learning target assessments will translate into the gradebook…

2. Reading/working through Understanding by Design

At my school we are encouraged to use backwards design, which is used throughout our IB program (even though I don’t teach any IB classes). Other than an hour or so introduction to BD when I started 2 years ago, we haven’t gotten much guidance to really use it effectively and on an ongoing basis. Also, we are the only IB high school in our district, so getting other teachers on board with using IB stuff is often difficult. I’m still working my way through it, but I have been enjoying reading about the philosophical aspects of understanding and how that plays out in designing curriculum. Since we’re getting new textbooks this year for our lower chemistry classes across the district, I figured now was as good of a time as any to start figuring it out and trying to get some collaboration with it.

3. Reading about modeling chem

I only taught one section of general (traditional) chemistry last year, and I was not very happy with it. I wasn’t involved much in the planning of it because I was more focused on the lower chem classes that I alone was teaching. I’ve been trying to figure out ways to make it better for me and for the students. I would love to attend a modeling chem workshop; maybe next summer?

4. Reading blogs

I feel like my Google Reader feed is never empty, and I always have at least one browser window open with a bunch of things I want to read. Oy vey!

5. Reading books

I’ve got a pile of them, physically and digitally. I also have a couple more book review drafts that I would like to finish, so hopefully I’ll find some time to finish those and get them posted here (finally).

6. Trying to have a life?

Ha! Maybe someday…

Developing Standards for SBG II

As I mentioned in my last post, all of the chemistry teachers in our district recently got together to flesh out our standards as we move forward in our implementation of standards-based grading. Before we get to the goods, I want to clarify the specific terminology that we’ve been using, as defined by the district. Each class basically breaks down into three levels, starting with big ideas and narrowing down to more specific ideas.


Reporting Standards

Reporting standards will appear in the gradebooks, and reflect a combination of priority standards (big picture). We based these on the MN state standards.

Priority Standards

Priority standards are “absolutely essential for student success”. These are a bit more specific, but still general enough that they can be assessed in a variety of ways, and will cover a variety of learning objectives. I’m thinking I may put these into my gradebook as well (or at least have some method of tracking them/having students track them).

Learning Objectives

Specific nuggets of information, tailored to individual or sets of lessons. These are set by each individual teacher (although each level should have similar ones) so they were not included in our work, even though they are expected to be used to further clarify the priority standards.

Now that we’ve got that aired out, here’s what we came up with for our standards. These will be continuous for all levels of chemistry (conceptual, general, and HP/AP), with the thought that higher levels may add extras or go more in depth.


The first reporting standard (Nature of Science) will be a continuous thread throughout the entire year, and the others will be only in certain trimesters that we cover that particular standard (probably at least two others per tri). The district would also like us to map out exactly which standards (both reporting and priority) are being covered each trimester, so that theoretically a student could transfer from one HS to another within the district and be in basically the same area of the course… still not sure about that idea.


Any thoughts, comments, suggestions, critiques, etc. are more than welcome!

Developing Standards for SBG

One of the most difficult things that I’ve had to deal with this year is trying to figure out a set of standards to use for chemistry. As I was preparing last summer, I wrestled with our state standards (which, at the time, seemed too “big”) and the-slightly-less-daunting learning targets for each (series of) lessons that would be taught.

I spent quite a bit of time reading through lots of SBG tips and ideas, but I was still having a hard time wrapping my head around how it would look for my class. I tried grouping targets by topic (such as “atomic structure”, or “chemical reactions”) and used a lot of Jason Buell’s structure for designing rubrics (or topic scales, as he calls them) and set up checklists similar to what Mylene had done.  When all was said and done, I went about 3 weeks into the year before realizing that the grouping I had done and all of the rubrics I had created were not working the way I wanted them to – so I scrapped them and started over1.

My intentions were to fully use SBG this year, but the initial setback (without much time to gather the pieces) made it difficult to move forward. I have been utilizing learning goals (targets) for each section/unit and making the targets clear and assessments based on those targets. However, the big ideas (standards?2) are being loosely strung along while we plod through the year and not as clearly tied to the targets as I would like them to be. I’m hoping that by the start of our 3rd trimester in a few weeks, I will be able to have a bit more structure to end the year on a high note.

As our district moves forward with our SBG implementation plan, we are meeting with all of the other chemistry teachers tomorrow to finish developing our standards for next year. I’m hoping that this collaboration will give me a better sense of the “big idea”-“learning target” connection and make it a much easier transition to full SBG next year, and I will have a later post that details what we come up with.


[1] Although at first I felt as though I had wasted a ton of time by doing this, I’ve come to realize that I learned a lot about how to design useful rubrics through this process – even though I didn’t use the rubrics I created.

[2]  I haven’t settled on the preferred verbiage just yet (standards? targets? objectives? blah?) but I usually think of standards as being the “big ideas”.

The Process Pt. III

Ok, so here’s what’s up – I’ve regrouped my thoughts and laid out all of the “standards” that we cover for the year. I then grouped them into topics, and now I am working on flushing out the specific learning goals for each topic. The first one I started with is “water purification,” where we take a look at water contaminants, laboratory purification methods, and then large-scale purification methods (municipal and natural). So far, here’s the tracking sheet that I’ve come up with:

Water Purification Tracking Sheet

Any feedback you have would be greatly appreciated! I am particularly curious about the overall topic scale (1-4, first page) and the tracking of each specific learning goal. As it is now, I only have a tracking graph for the topic as a whole, but I’m wondering if it may be beneficial to have a graph for each learning goal – especially with the circular curriculum. In this particular case, the book talks about the lab purification methods first and then contaminants and last is the large-scale treatments (with a bunch of other topics sprinkled in between), so can I give them score on the topic as a whole when there is so much time in between learning goals? Perhaps I need to modify the scale, with 1.0 as knowing the lab methods, 2.0 as methods + contaminants, and 3.0 as all 3? Does that make sense? Sorry, I’m rambling a bit. I’ll just leave it to the comments to continue the discussion.





The Process Pt. II

I think I’m beginning to realize why I’m having so much trouble writing standards (even with some great suggestions from commentors!). When I first started, I grabbed the textbook for my lower-level chem class (Chemistry in the Community, aka Chem Comm… not a “traditional” chemistry book) and made a rough outline of topics that we cover within the 1st unit. After spending a few hours on that, I thought I was being too specific to one course and that I should try to make my standards more general so that I could apply them to the general (more traditional) chemistry class that I will also be teaching.

So I went to my state standards, which more directly parallel the traditional course outline (though they are still lacking). I started with them, and attempted to break them down into more student friendly “learning goals” (standards?) for each one. Whoof! Because they were awkwardly worded and incomplete, I found this to be even more difficult (which led to my first post of this process) than my original method.

After banging my head against the lab table for a while, I grabbed some of the documents I had created while in a grad class back in June that mapped out a traditional chemistry course (with learning objectives!), and we had come up with 9 topics that I chose to work from to develop the standards. After reading some tips over at the other Jason’s blog, I thought I was all set to start writing standards. But I soon realized (after, once again, some banging-of-the-head) it did not serve as an easy transition to use them as standards for Chem Comm.

Here’s what’s tricky:
The Chem Comm curriculum covers all of the same topics (but uses a different presentation method) that a “traditional” chemistry class does, so you would think the standards should overlap. What that means is the topics in Chem Comm are circular whereas a traditional method is more linear in how it progresses1. This is one of the things that I rather like about Chem Comm, but right now it sucks.

So where does that leave me? Back at square one – topic lists for each unit to come up with standards/learning goals for the year2. What will be tricky is differentiating the standard from one unit to the next; i.e. when a standard reappears later, I shouldn’t expect students to achieve mastery the first time around, right? So even if they only get to the 2.o level, when assigning grades I need to factor that in as “meeting” the standard for the time being. I think that will have to be a challenge that I tackle as it comes, there’s really no way around that.

On a lighter note: the easy part of this process was integrating the IB criteria with content standards – it’s just a matter of placing the content standards as sub-headings of the “Scientific Knowledge and Understanding” criterion. At least that’s one thing done! 🙂

1 Traditional Chemistry Units (roughly):
Properties of Matter, Atomic structure, Periodic trends/table, Bonding, Reactions, Stoichiometry, Solutions, Acids/Bases, Gases
Chem Comm Unit 1 ONLY:
Water explorations (solutions, properties, acids/bases, ionics, basic atomic structure, reactions)

2 This is more analogous to what Mylene had suggested on my last post about starting with assessments – I’ve been using the test review as a checkpoint, to make sure I’m covering everything and to make sure the assessment is where I want it to be. Thanks for the tip, Mylene!

Book Review: The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean

The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements

Now, if you’re as big of a chemistry nerd as I am, the title alone is enough to get you to throw off your lab coat and goggles to sit down with the book. But even if you’re not, the book is full of compelling, interesting, and even funny stories that just so happen to be center around the elements on the periodic table. There were many great things in this book – I just want to highlight a few.

The thing that I loved most about this book is that it does a lot of name dropping. I don’t mean name dropping the traditional sense of self-importance, but rather giving a more diverse and colorful depiction of the players involved in the development of chemistry as a science. As and undergraduate physics and chemistry major, I remember hearing the names of countless “fathers” of science because of some major breakthrough they made or some formula that carries their name: Fermi, Lewis, Rutherford, Bose, Crookes, Meitner, Pauling, et al. What I loved in the book was getting a more humanistic view of the “fathers” through the stories of their interactions, confrontations, struggles, and of course, discoveries. I am fascinated with the history of chemistry* and find it extremely compelling to learn more about these names with which I am so familiar.

The other thing that I absolutely loved about the book was that it presented the difficult subject matter (theoretical chemistry and physics) and explained it in a way that was intelligent without being textbook-ish, and described the science in the stories to a level that someone with a basic knowledge of chemistry would have no problem understanding – without being overly simple.

I will definitely be doing all that I can to use these stories in my own chemistry class, and hope that my students find them as exciting and interesting as I have!