Am I Teaching Chemistry Effectively?

My knowledge base when it comes to science and math content is quite limited.  I’ve had to reteach myself the concepts prior to covering them in class.  How can that be?  I took math and science classes in school?  So, what happened?  Perhaps I didn’t pay attention or maybe that huge boulder that was thrown at my head in fourth grade actually caused permanent brain damage.  Or, maybe I didn’t have teachers that made the subjects fun and engaging for me and so I was never able to move the information from my working- and short-term memory to my long-term memory.  Whatever the reasons, I am not a walking encyclopedia when it comes to the two big STEM fields.  So, I overcompensate by doing much learning and research prior to teaching a new unit or skill since I want my students to have a different experience, than did I, with math and science concepts.  It works, for the most part, but I always feel like I’m not going into great depth regarding the STEM content as I don’t feel at home with the big ideas.  Perhaps that’s why I’ve gone to a much more student-centered approach to teaching when it comes to my STEM class.  I want them to do the thinking, learning, and problem solving.  I want them to design the experiments and investigations.  While this is a great way to structure my STEM class, I do wonder if I’m teaching the content as effectively as possible.  Could I be doing more to help the students understand the science and math concepts covered?

In my STEM class, we’re currently in the midst of our unit on Chemistry.  As our sixth grade science curriculum is very much a sampler of the various sciences they will see again in their academic futures, the chemistry unit is a fun introduction into some of the big ideas within the chemical realm.  The goal of the unit is to help the students understand the scientific method and introduce them to the lab reporting format used at my school.  So, we started the unit with a class lab on gummy bears.  We wrote the lab report and conducted the investigation together as a class so that the students would begin to know how to do it on their own.  The boys are now working on a partner lab project that will culminate in a science fair exhibition during my school’s Parents’ Weekend in late October.  The students chose a topic from a list I created before creating a testable problem.  Many of the students are going with how soap type affects the removal of bacteria from one’s hands during hand washing.  Two groups are working on solubility experiments while one group is testing how coats keep people warm.  They are totally into their experiments and research investigations.  They are documenting their findings, taking pictures, making keen observations, and learning about chemistry.  It’s awesome!

However, I never discussed what the field of chemistry encompasses.  I never fully introduced the concept to the students.  Instead, I just assumed they knew what chemistry is all about.  Now, we all know what happens when one assumes.  So, most likely, many of my students are probably a little lost in STEM class.  What is this chemistry thing all about?  I feel like I need to backtrack a bit to cover this.  I also want to do some mini-lessons on the chemistry of everyday life, much like the experiments they are conducting.  How does chemistry affect our lives on a daily basis?  Where do we find chemicals and their interactions?  So, my goal over the next few weeks, prior to the close of our chemistry unit, is to be sure the students have a basic understanding of chemistry and how to affects our lives in a very large and meaningful way.  I want the students to see how science is everywhere.  I don’t expect them to memorize the periodic table or know how valence electrons work because they will see this content later in their high school chemistry course.  I do want my students to have a basic foundation in chemistry.  What is it and how does it affect us?  Despite not having a strong understanding of chemistry concepts, I do know how to engage students and inspire thinking.  The rest, I leave up to the boys.


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