Thursday, August 9, 2012

#ModChem Day 14

Modeler's Log, Day 14--

Today is penultimate day of the 2012 #ModChem workshop, but we are not slated to start our cool down at all. From the rich conversation stemmed by Carl Wenning's musings on inquiry instruction to finishing up the last units of the modeling curriculum framework, today was large.

Our last article discussion was today, and it featured Carl Wenning's work on resistance to inquiry-oriented (modeling) instruction. This is a must read for those beginning with modeling instruction in their classrooms, especially those first introducing it at their school or district. Most everyone new to modeling instruction, or any methodological approach of student-centered teaching, has anticipations or apprehensions about implementing it in their classrooms for the first time. This article characterizes some of the more common aspects of resistance that teachers will encounter from students, parents, administrators, and even educator colleagues. Wenning also discusses some features of how inquiry-based instruction can and should be interpreted, but meanwhile stresses the importance of the classroom climate setting in communicating the intended perception of an inquiry-oriented classroom.

Some of us in the workshop have previous experience with modeling instruction in physics, POGIL, or some other type of inquiry-based instruction, which makes us more comfortable moving modeling chemistry into our classrooms; however, those who are coming into modeling instruction in chemistry from a more traditional background emphasized concerned feelings and anticipations for the coming year about implementing modeling instruction. Reading what Wenning had documented was a realistic projection of what teachers can expect with introducing modeling instruction into their science classroom. Our conversation about the article focused on three key ideas: what sorts of resistance to expect, how to deal with that resistance, and how to create the optimal classroom climate for a successful inquiry-based experience.

Aside from resistance to the instructional approach, other general concerns from teachers included:
  • How best to create a safe and inviting environment for participation and intellectual risk-taking
  • Dealing with absences in a classroom where being present is EVERYTHING
  • Sequencing concerns in comparisons to other teachers' classes or curriculum maps
  • Common assessments and high-stakes state tests; teacher evaluation data
  • First day of school activities to help set the classroom climate
There are, perhaps fortunately, no definitive ways to ease all of the above mentioned concerns. Many of these concerns are manifestations of philosophical views, paradigm stagnation, and general 'fear of the unknown.' Still, whether stemming from externally exerted forces or self-created, these concerns are genuine. Ultimately, it boils down to the educational philosophy of the classroom teacher and the school paradigm for teaching and learning. Here are questions to ask yourself, which can help identify your philosophy to address these kinds of concerns when considering inquiry-oriented instruction:
  • Who is the educated person?
  • What is good teaching?
  • What is learning?
  • What knowledge or skill is worth knowing?
  • What is the ultimate goal of your classroom for all students?
The remainder of our discourse focused on first day and first week activities to foster the environment in your classroom necessary for successful modeling instruction. No matter what you choose to do to introduce your class to students in the first days of the school year, it is critical that you make explicit the type of climate and environment that will be essential to the inquiry-oriented instructional style students will experience.

My personal take on how to reveal to students how they will be learning in my modeling classroom is a series of activities that span the first week of school. Dedicated content exploration doesn't officially begin until week 2 in my classroom. I view modeling instruction science class like a sport, and my students as a team, which is why it is so important for me to invest in team building in the first days of school. Perhaps the most well-known team-building exercise is the Marshmallow Challenge by Tom Wujec. It really is a perfect example, in my estimation, of how learning will feel to students in a modeling classroom. Since it is a very positive experience for most, and a very telling example of focusing on process instead of product, this activity is an essential introduction to my class.

Other ideas for team building activities will be discussed in more detail in a separate dedicated post.

Now, on to the concluding content of the modeling chemistry workshop!!

Unit 8 finished with a more detailed investigation of using the BCA table method for limiting reactant and percent yield stoichiometry problems. The BCA approach make these typically more challenging problem types more manageable to students and set them up for confidence in their problem solving strategy in stoichiometry labs and context-rich problems. Based on the use of the balanced chemical equation to yield "for every" statements about the relationship between required moles of reactants, students can readily determine the limiting reactant in a reaction process and proceed to predict a theoretical yield of product based on that amount. Again, the BCA approach empowers students to think through a stoichiometry problem and not merely solve it blindly using algorithms.

For the first time in the workshop, and to bring unit 8 to a close, we looked at and discussed the unit 8 assessment to scrutinize the types of questions asked and the setup of the assessments themselves in the modeling materials. This sparked a larger discussion about assessment and grading in general, specifically how assessments would look with modeling instruction compared to what we've done with assessments previously in our classrooms. Main features of the comparisons included that assessments in modeling instruction are: skill-based, shorter, mainly constructed response, and focused more on conceptual understanding. Some teachers find this manner of assessment to be vastly different than what they are used to with longer multiple choice tests. Ultimately, modeling instruction has clearly defined skill-based learning goals for students, e.g., standards, and the assessments match those standards precisely. When we really looked at the materials more closely, we realized that everything from labs to homework to assessments coherently centers around the standards. This makes perfect sense to keep things consistent and focused on learning. The next step was how to grade in a course like this: points-based or standards-based? Students will logically seek to reflect on grading practices, too, once they encounter a teaching and learning system that doesn't seem to match up with points. We won't get into grading too much more here, but I will say it poured over into dinner conversation with everyone later on after the workshop day ended. It is something everyone must rethink when they change their teaching practices. There's so much to grading and assessment that I have personally altered in my classroom since committing to modeling instruction that it will require its own post, if not posts, to explain!

After lunch, it was on to unit 9 - applications and extensions of stoichiometry - where we will conclude our modeling chemistry curriculum.  The last unit in our sequence sounds like it's focused exclusively on stoichiometry, but it is actually around stoichiometry. The topics of study in this unit include partial pressures and mole fraction, molar volume and the ideal gas law, molar concentration and solution chemistry, and heat of combustion and thermochemistry. Each of these topics has the potential to be its own unit, but they are all introduced together here with the central theme of ways of "finding moles." Since students are now facile with BCA tables, providing multiple ways to determine moles in various settings or process can create the context to make advanced introductory chemistry topics more accessible. It is during or following unit 9 where the curriculum can branch off into other extensions of stoichiometry, such as acid-base, kinetics, equilibrium, or electrochemistry. We whiteboarded questions from homework assignments in each of these topic areas to practice our questioning and discussion skills one last time. 

Some of these photos contain whiteboards with deliberately embedded mistakes.
  • Dalton's Law of Partial Pressures & Ideal Gas Law - keeping with the PTVn table method of unit 2, we introduced the gas constant, "R," and the ideal gas law. Particle diagrams to represent what was happening were kept an essential part of problem solving considerations here as well. In this topic, we did a molar volume of gas lab to determine the 22.4L/mol relationship.
    • Heat of Combustion & Thermochemistry - treating energy as a reactant or product to include in the balanced chemical reaction, we were able to use stoichiometry approaches to relate moles to energy transferred during endothermic and exothermic reactions. In this topic, we did a calorimetry lab to find out exactly how much energy was associated with the combustion of one mole of a substance. 

      • Molar Concentration of Solutions - keeping the focus around moles, the BCA tables and solution volume can be easily connected to make molarity accessible to students. Here you can see that a pictorial representation, using rectangular areas with length=volume & width=moles, for molarity creates a visual cue for thinking about solutions or dilutions.

       Two of the biggest take-home messages of the entire workshop, which have been creeping up all along, finally manifested themselves during units 8 and 9:

      Take-Home Messages:
      1) Many first year chemistry course quantitative topics are applications of stoichiometry, treat them in terms of being advanced methods of determining moles for the purpose of doing stoichiometry. For example, thermochemistry topics relate energy transfers to moles; acid-base relates pH to moles; electrochemistry relates electron transfers to moles. If students can make the connections between skills they already have learned with stoichiometry to other topics, then those otherwise nebulous second-semester topics can be more easily assimilated into students' conceptual understanding. This approach of treating advanced topics as applications of stoichiometry demystifies the calculations and helps students to organize their learning around those topics.

      2) Energy is not a stand-alone unit in chemistry and shouldn't be treated in isolation from other topics or ideas. This is one area where the modeling chemistry approach shines. Energy is not just something learned about in one, or maybe two, topic studies in a chemistry course; rather, the treatment of energy is done in the context of almost all other topics. This helps students to keep a coherent view of energy in chemical processes and have the ability to quantify energy more readily if they can conceptualize its physical role in a system. This becomes another powerful skill students can rely upon when encountering new topics. When they consider the energy flow in a system, they immediately can find something familiar with which to connect new phenomena. Regardless of how one chooses to view chemistry teaching, the view of the material world is typically one of matter and energy. So, shouldn't energy be kept at the forefront of a study of most chemistry topics?


      1. Thanks for sharing your Modeling Chemistry workshop experience in such detail. I am teaching using that curriculum, but have not yet been able to get to a Chemistry workshop (just a physics class using the modeling method). Your comments are helpful for tiding me over until I am able to go.

        Going to try the Marshmallow Challenge - looking forward to your post on other first week activities.

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