I have been working on the syllabus for one of my classes, and I wanted to start the year very purposefully. This is, in part, taken from Making Thinking Visible (my summer read, review forthcoming).

This class will be a place where thinking is valued, visible, and actively promoted as part of the daily experience of ALL students.

This class will explore properties and interactions of atomic and molecular structures of matter.

This class will explore the impact of chemistry on our local and global communities.


Context – A Personal Challenge

A while back I read through this blog post that has been circulating the math ‘sphere. If you have a few minutes, you should definitely check out the videos within the post showing students’ problem solving.  This sums it up the main idea pretty well:

In the days that followed I reflected upon what happened and I decided that my students primarily had procedural skill and fluency but very limited conceptual understanding or the ability to apply mathematics.  I realized that for my students to “understand mathematics” they would have to have a more balanced understanding that included all three.  This experience provided the foundation for why I value using real-world applications whenever possible.  They provide a context for building the conceptual understanding and procedural skill needed for rigorous mathematical understandings.

I find that this directly applies to science (especially chemistry) as well, and could become something of a personal challenge:

“I realized that for my students to ‘understand [chemistry]’ they would have to have a more balanced understanding of [procedural skill, concepts, and applications]. Using real-world applications provides a context for building the conceptual understanding and procedural skill needed for rigorous [scientific] understandings.”

Problem-based learning anyone? I know Shawn Cornally knows what I’m sayin’.

I think a further issue is the order in which these three pillars are addressed. What might seem like a logical progression (skill -> concept -> application) might cause students to focus so much on the first or second part that they miss the last piece. What would it look like to reverse this in the classroom (application -> concept -> skill)? Not sure yet. Sounds like a topic for another day.

Science Literacy

I have been reading a book (review forthcoming) and it has me thinking a lot about what “scientific literacy” means, and how we as science teachers can teach guide our students to become more scientifically literate. In particular, I have been thinking about the context of my conceptual chemistry class, which is designed for students who need to complete their required full-year science course after 10th grade biology. Many of these students are not looking to go to college, and chances are this will be the last science class they ever take. I have dedicated a lot of thinking time to how I can better prepare them to be citizen scientists; using their scientific literacy productively in their lives outside of the classroom (and hopefully continuing to use it into the future).

There are two questions in particular that I have been pondering, and I was hoping to get some feedback from some other science teachers:

1. What does science literacy look like?

My initial thoughts:

  • Being familiar with scientific experiments; their design, drawing conclusions, interpreting data, etc.
  • Understanding the relationship between science and our society
  • Approaching things with a skeptical mindset (especially the “too-good-to-be-true”), BUT ALSO
  • Being open-minded to new ideas that have sufficient supporting evidence
  • Being critical of the source and reliability of information (especially related to science)
  • Understand that there is not always a “right” answer, but that science is always seeking the best answer possible

2. What do citizen scientists do? 

  • Evaluate scientific information and sources
  • Review evidence for scientific claims, especially ones that challenge their status quo
  • Make informed  scientific decisions (everything from food to politics)
  • Interpret scientific data and evaluate others’ conclusions about the same data

What do you think? What else should be added to these lists? Any thoughts in the comments are greatly appreciated.

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!

Winter Break Reading

One of the best parts of winter break is that I actually have large chunks of time where I can sit down and read – rather than just the 30 minutes of SSR time at school. After racing my way through The Hunger Games trilogy, I spent a chunk of time last night and today reading articles about education. Specifically, I had come across a link to an Alfie Kohn article talking about educational research and some of the ways it is used improperly. As a scientist who is always on the lookout for ways that scientific data is ignored or misrepresented in the media (teachable moments, you know!) I thought it was interesting to look at educational research in the same way. It’s kind of a long article, but if you have the time its worth reading. The last portion – a more in depth analysis of research about homework and its (lack of) benefits – was very intriguing.

After reading the article, I perused Kohn’s website for a while as well, and looked at a few of his other articles as well. I can understand conservative critics finding issue with his progressive views, but I surely appreciate his critical look at many “common sense” practices. In many ways, it reminds me of similar ideas in Ken Kumashiro’s book, Against Common Sense (which I read for class this past semester).

Another book I received for Christmas is called Mindset by Carol S. Dweck. I’ve only looked at the first few pages; I will give a more complete review when I’ve finished it!

I’ve also found a few articles about modeling in science; not sure if I will have time for them this break but they are on my list as well.

The Process Pt. I

Writing standards is hard. Writing out clear, well-defined, broad-enough-but-not-too-broad standards that will describe an entire year of chemistry in one concise list is hard. The MN science standards for chemistry are not much help. They are definitely broad, but (in my opinion) most are neither clear nor well-defined. Not only that, but I’m trying to mesh them with the IB’s science criteria1.

I think the most difficult part is that at the moment I am trying to formulate all of these standards on my own. Having input from colleagues would make the process much less painful, but as of now I’m the only one that’s been at school working (workshop isn’t until next week, so I can’t blame them). I would love to have district-wide chemistry standards in place; last spring our district science curriculum specialist had asked for volunteers to work on it (which I gladly said I would), but it hasn’t happened yet and the word around the department is that it won’t happen until sometime during the coming year – not exactly great timing for my current preparations!

The perfectionist in me wants to have perfect standards – which I realize is not realistic. I knew this would not be an easy transition, so I just need to be optimistic and keep working at it! I think just working with what I have for the time being will allow me to get more of my daily instruction planned out, and I can adjust as I go – right? Right! (At least that’s what I’ll keep telling myself).

1 Even though I don’t teach IB-specific classes, all of the classes at our school are supposed to be “IB affiliated”. The criteria are the same ones used in biology in 10th grade, so students are already familiar with them.

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!