Chemistry as a discipline deals with the composition of materials and how composition determines the properties of that material. What chemistry really gets at though are more fundamental questions that humankind has ruminated on for centuries: What is the origin of this? What is our origin? Why are things the way they are? Fostering the inquisitiveness within students to reflect and answer such questions has always been a driving force behind my pedagogy and the content I taught in my chemistry class. A pedagogy which reflects the desire to answer these questions is very student-centered. This is the type of pedagogy our school, ConneXions School for the Arts, aims to practice (School Vision).
Turning such a vision into everyday activities in the classroom requires development of teachers in their content knowledge and pedagogy. In terms of my professional development as a science teacher and understanding of chemistry content, much of that stems from my background in chemistry, specifically my bachelors of science in Biochemistry (Undergraduate Transcript, 4j, l, n). While I was at the University of Florida pursuing my BS, I also did a minor in the UFTeach program. This program provided students pursuing a degree in science or mathematics with education courses that helped develop pedagogical skills in their discipline. These courses exposed me to key components of my pedagogy, such as the 5E Inquiry-based lesson plan, how to address common misconceptions in science, how to help students with the immense vocabulary load they are exposed to in a science class room, and how to differentiate instruction when it comes to laboratory experiences (UFTeach course listing, 4a, e; 5i, n; 7k; 8k, l). While teaching in Baltimore, I have participated in system-wide chemistry professional development. Those sessions provided me with the ability to collaborate with fellow chemistry teachers and also provided me with materials that have allowed my students to explore certain concepts that, before the PD, would have been much harder for me to get across to students due to the lack of resources at my school.
An evidence-based practice in science is for students to explore a concept before they are explicitly told the concept and any related parameters or definitions. This exploration before the explanation is a major component of the 5E inquiry lesson plan. An example of this in my classroom was the Flame Test laboratory experience in which students tested various compounds for the flame emitted. Students were not told what colors to expect from the compound burning, and then had to use their experimental data to determine the composition of an unknown compound based on that compound’s flame (Flame Test Laboratory Worksheet, 4b, c, h, j, k, l; 5f). This forced students to be diligent about their process and their data, so they could make realistic conclusions based on their data. Students had different answers and they had to engage in a discussion with other students to come to a conclusion about the identity of the unknown substances. This type of discussion is common in science and a huge part of engaging with the scientific community. The skills students build in these kinds of experiences are essential to their ability to translate science specific skills to outside of the classroom. Once the discussion was complete, students then learned the chemistry behind the different flame colors and they then analyzed the electronic configuration of various metals and how they relate to the flame color (Flame Test Presentation).
Focusing on discipline specific content is important, but it cannot be presented to the students simply as such. An important part of the learning process for a student is their explicit connection of content to their reality. Students are more willing to delve into a topic once they have a connection to it of some sort. To that end, I made every attempt to find ways to make these connections explicit. I went so far as to completely change my curriculum in my second year of teaching. I divided my course into three units: “Chemistry of Superheroes,” “Cookin’ Chemistry” and “ChemArtists” (Class Website, 4m, o; 5b, c, f, q, r; 8t). These units were chosen because they were relevant or considered interesting topics by students. Each unit looked at the same chemistry content I taught in the previous year, but couched in topics that were appealing to students. For example, I took the the NY state standards (these standards are more rigorous than Maryland’s Chemistry standards) for thermodynamics, macromolecule contents, and phases of matter, and designed inquiry activities based on those topics to create a “Cookin’ Chemistry” unit (Alignment of Cooking Chemistry Unit, 4a, c, f, n; 7p). Students were then assigned an interactive homework assignment that asked them to cook with a family member and teach the family member aspects of chemistry behind the dish they were cooking. The family member then had to sign the homework and answer a couple of questions about the content the student taught them. This helped students take their knowledge outside of the classroom and apply it to their daily lives (Cookin’ Chemistry Interactive Homework, 4r; 5e, j, s).
Those experiences culminated in the creation of a tv-show segment that students created for a dish of their choice. This was their final performance assessment of the course. The assessment had a group component where they created a video segment of their very own tv show. Here is an example of a student video project (4f, g; 8m, q) and accompanying script (4f, g) a group turned in. Students were then individually asked to debrief the video and the chemistry behind the video in a panel style presentation. These are the types of questions (6f, g, h, j) students were asked in the panel portion of the project. These questions were designed to have students think critically and deeply about the content. Our school uses Marzano’s new taxonomy, which is similar in some ways to Bloom’s taxonomy. For that reason, the questions are grouped by different categories of Marzano’s taxonomy.
After teaching students a given concept, it is important to assess students for their understanding. At the course level, students at my school must prepare an exhibition, which is a performance assessment that students present in front of a panel. This assessment has an on-demand question component (as described above with the cooking show questions). The demands of such an assessment require that students be taught such skills and content at the unit and daily task level. To test their mastery of specific content, I created assessment questions that were linked to state standards via Mastery Connect (Screen Shot, 9c, g, h, l). The Mastery Connect software generated reports about which areas assessed proved the most difficult for students via a question-item analysis (Question-Item Analysis Example, 4r; 7k, l, n, q). With such an analysis, I could adjust my instruction to meet the needs of the class or individual students. To monitor their growth in chemistry-specific skills, students were provided with a bi-weekly progress tracker that provided feedback on their organizational and interpersonal skills (Weekly Progress Tracker, 2f, l, m). Combined with the feedback from the tracker, students had a good idea about where they stood in the class at all times.