Archive for August 2011
I spent three weeks this summer teaching chemistry to rising ninth graders in an academic program designed for students who are transitioning from public middle schools to independent high schools. Earlier this summer, when I was told that the program director wanted us to teach chemistry, I decided to look into the Chemistry Modeling materials and to read up on what kind of misconceptions high school students harbor about chemistry and atoms. The materials make a very convincing argument that students who lack a solid conception of atoms as building blocks are at a distinct disadvantage in high school chemistry. So I decided to focus the entire three weeks (really only two and a half weeks of class time) on a modified first unit of the Chemistry Modeling materials. This unit focuses on using atoms to describe chemical and physical changes.
I was prepared for the students to not have an atomic model useful for creating explanations. I saw that, indeed, while they all knew gases and liquids and solids are made up of connected atoms, they could not use this fact to describe chemical or physical changes very well. For instance, what is between the nitrogen and oxygen molecules in the room? (Typical answer: air.) I was ready for this.
What surprised me was that almost all of these students knew how to balance chemical equations. Yet they had no idea what any of it meant. They could also tell me that burning alcohol was alcohol reacting with oxygen and the result was water and carbon dioxide (some wanted to add intermediate “fire atoms,” though). While they had been taught to balance a combustion equation and even knew quite a lot about combustion, they nonetheless (to a student) had no idea what was going on.
Wait! If they know that alcohol and oxygen react, and the result is carbon dioxide and water, and they can even balance a chemical equation for the reaction, doesn’t that mean they know what’s going on? Well, using the modeling materials and letting the students talk and discuss and talk some more, you find out some very interesting things. First, the alcohol evaporates when it reacts with oxygen. The oxygen gets “used up” when it reacts with the alcohol. What does it mean “gets used up?” It apparently means that it is gone. Where did the carbon dioxide come from? It was in the air already. And the water? It’s around, too.
Thus, the atoms on the left hand side of the chemical reaction equation are totally different from the atoms on the right side of the equation in the middle school student’s mind. Why do we teach them to balance chemical equations in middle school? I wondered this when my daughter was in middle school, too. Note also, that all of these students were middle school over-achievers.
Also, I found out that molecules are not always seen as collections of atoms. They might even be containers. When sugar dissolves in water, the sugar molecules go inside the water molecules, which carry them around, like so many little kangaroos carrying their babies. Interesting stuff! In fact, if something starts off as a solid (like ground coffee) or a liquid (like perfume) and some of those molecules get into the air (we know because we can smell them), they could only get to our noses by hitching a ride on oxygen molecules. That is, these other molecules are incapable of flying around the room on their own, they have to be carried (always by oxygen, by the way, never by any other gas molecule!).
So the typical misconceptions about the atomic model go far deeper than I ever imagined. I was fascinated by this fact, and I pared back what I had planned and went even slower, giving the students more time to discuss and talk and describe. In the end, I’m not sure we got very far, but I’m pretty sure I gave them plenty to think about. I hope it helps them out in high school!
A recent thread in the Modeling listserv sought to tease out whether there are any innate differences in us that lead to more efficient learning in physics. In making the argument for some kind of “natural ability,” many of my colleagues use world-class performers as their examples. This kind of reasoning is, I believe, misleading to the application of the ideas of whether talent is in-born or grown. Yes, it is true that no amount of hard work is going to turn a 5’4″, 130 lbs. adult into an NFL lineman. And there are definitely certain physical characteristics that Michael Phelps possesses that help him in the pool (perhaps it is because I’m a swimming coach that others bring up Michael Phelps to me). It is equally true that Ryan Lochte possesses a different set of physical characteristics, but he manages to beat Michael Phelps on a regular basis.
But to take the conversation right to world-class, or even lower level championship-class, performances confuses the issue of whether there are substantial differences between students’ abilities to understand physics. I am not teaching high school physics only to create world-class physicists. If I were, I might want to work at a school that doesn’t demand so much of the students in the way of extensive writing or playing of afternoon sports. And I might want to prepare to be disillusioned a lot of the time. I am more interested in giving students who want to excel in science the foundation to do so, and to introduce students bound for careers as artists, lawyers or historians the skills to think rationally and scientifically. Can every one of my students achieve these lofty goals? I think so. The question comes down to whether they have the time to spend on becoming strong at physics.
The problem with citing world-class performances is that world-class performances are the result of many diverse factors. Some would argue that at least a few of these factors are innate, and we could have a good old time debating to what extent quickness, agility, reaction time, strength and a host of other factors are innate or developed. Likewise, we could debate the extent to which some kind of innate “smarts” are responsible for the work of Richard Feynman and Albert Einstein (both of whom famously denied any such advantage, citing the power of hard work). In the end, such debates have little to nothing to do with my students and me. I just don’t see enough difference in my students’ abilities to attribute it to anything other than differences in their backgrounds. Even if I’m wrong, I’m not too far wrong, and they can certainly get better at whatever they put their minds to improving.
One response to my warning the listserv conversation away from discussing world-class performances was to say that world-class performers make good examples for our students and athletes. They sure do–I would not deny that. We have our swimmers watch Michael Phelps’ butterfly stroke. We encourage our students to read about famous physicists. We bring outstanding scientists and historians and artists to our campus to talk to and meet our students. My uneasiness with discussing talent in terms of only the very best in each field does not mean I don’t want to study and learn from the best in each field.