High School Chemistry part 2: Myths about Teaching Chemistry

There are some myths about doing chemistry that are important to homeschoolers.  Let’s go over a few of these:

Myth #1.  “You cannot teach chemistry at home if you did not take it yourself.”  (Or its corollary: You cannot teach chemistry at home if you don’t have a degree in chemistry, etc.)  I have met many parents who believe that this is true.  Parents can learn chemistry by reading the text just as their students can.  As well, homeschooling high school is not ‘parent spoon feeding the student’, but is student-directed self-study.  Chemistry can be learned this way as can any other subject.  What is required is a good, understandable text, a good amount of curiosity, and a willingness to be consistent.

Myth #2.
  “It takes $2000.00 to set up an adequate chem lab at home.”  I have heard this one at homeschooling conventions and it is patently wrong.  Since centuries ago, chemistry has been done in homes and can be done there today.  There are many very good books available either currently in print or reproducible with permission, which will provide a good laboratory experience.  The equipment is not terribly expensive, a good kit ranges from $100.00 to $350.00.  Even the Smithsonian chemistry sets in toy stores can be used to give a lab experience to your student.  Note that most lab manuals have been written for schools with laboratories and large-scale budgets.  Most of the common ingredient manuals are really more for elementary students.  So, how can you deal with this?  Simple, don’t worry about the labs you don’t have the materials for.  You should do about 25 -30 experiments during one year of chemistry.  (36-40 is better, of course)  So, choose your experiments from several sources, if necessary.  There are at least several manuals available that were written for homeschoolers specifically.  Experiences in Chemistry is one that was specifically designed to use everyday household equipment.

Myth #3.
  “Chemistry is too hard to do at home and should be taught by experts in school.”  Many homeschooling parents use chemistry as the subject to cover with a tutor, videotapes, or special classes.  These are great alternative ways to do chemistry, but they are somewhat expensive, whereas doing lab in a class for homeschoolers can be fun as well as a learning experience.  If you are thinking about a tutor, look into hiring a retired person from your church.  A retired chemical engineer can teach things about chemistry that no ordinary teacher would know.  If you plan on using videos, remember that a video does not substitute for laboratory experience.  Lab experience means using the equipment yourself, not watching someone else use the equipment.

Myth #4“Kitchen chemistry is the way to go for high school credit for your non-science major or non-college bound student.”  The chemistry of foods is a very complicated subject.  It is difficult to teach the foundations of chemistry simply by using a recipe book.  It is good to remember that Foods and Feeding is usually a very difficult course of study in college.  The fact that we all eat food does not mean that the chemistry of food is easy.  On the other hand, there are some good, edible experiments out there that can provide a great supplement to your chemistry studies, as well as being fun to do.

Myth #5.
  “One text is like another.  I’ll just pick up a used book from the school.”  Each text has good points as well as weaknesses, but they usually can be trusted to include the principles of the topic as well as some good problems for your student to solve.  However, there are differences in the texts.  One text might be good for your student, while another might totally turn him off to chemistry.  Read some of the reviews and see if you can spot the differences between the texts.  Some texts rely upon the student to work all of the math problems; others want the student to use analytical skills to solve non-math oriented problems.   One text may have the semester lined out with assignments, etc., while another may leave all that up to the student. If your student is self motivated he can use the later, while a less organized person will want to use the former.  Choose your text based upon the goals, skills, and interests of your student. (Yours, too)

Part 1: High School Chemistry!

Part 3: Resources for Teaching Chemistry

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High School Chemistry part 1

As our children get older, we are being faced with teaching upper level science at home.  Do you have reservations about doing science at home?   This post can help you approach high school science with confidence.  Science is the subject most mentioned by parents in my seminars as the reason parents send children back to regular schools.  And yet, science may be one of the best subjects for homeschooling because of the flexibility possible at home.  Let’s discuss some of the many options available for learning high school level chemistry at home. 

Chemistry is a difficult course.  In regular schools, students either take a minimum level introductory course or no chemistry at all.  The homeschooled student is different, however, and many are taking difficult courses like calculus, physics, law, logic, and world philosophies.  Homeschoolers should not be afraid of chemistry, either.  Some of that fear can be removed by learning about chemistry, what is involved in learning it, how a homeschooler can do chemistry lab at home, and how to plan ahead for chemistry.

What is chemistry and what is studied in high school chemistry?  Chemistry is the study of the matter that makes up the universe and the changes in that matter.  In a high school course, the student should learn about the structure of matter, the periodic chart, chemical reactions, the chemistry of life, nuclear chemistry, and some basic lab techniques.  Who needs chemistry?  Every student should take some type of chemistry.  Those students who will go on to college should take a more rigorous course and those who may never go on to college should at least take a foundational course that emphasizes real-life application of chemical principles.  Both of these groups should have lab experiences although the labs may be somewhat different.  Whether your student studies chemistry for one semester or for four semesters, he should be able to apply what he has learned to life.

What are the fundamentals of a high school chemistry course?  For a list of traditional topics normally covered in high school chemistry, check this blog entry.  For students using a non-traditional method of learning chemistry such a list can be a valuable help to keeping on track.  Check off topics as they are studied so that the student does not have to repeat topics already learned.  An example of this: suppose the student has studied the structure of matter, atoms, molecules, and compounds in 8th grade.  He should not have to repeat topics if he already knows the information.  So, he checks off those topics and during the first quarter of the year, reads over the material already studied in a quick review.  He then spends the remainder of the semester studying electron configuration, the periodic chart, and bonding; fundamental concepts he has not yet learned.  By doing this, the student has more time to learn the new material and, at the same time, is getting ahead of the normal schedule allowing him time for the more complex topics at the end of the book.  When you study the theory of chemistry you should not leave out the practical aspects of the subject.
   
Many students never really make the connection that chemistry is something they will live with for the rest of their lives.  They do not connect events in the laboratory with events in the garage or the kitchen.  The application of chemical principles to real life is very important to every student because in understanding these principles the student understands many events in the “real world”.  To help make chemistry real for your student, use a good plan for laboratory.

A homeschooler can easily have a real chemistry laboratory at home. There are several lab manuals on the market that use materials which are available to the average homeschooler and which will do an excellent job of teaching chemistry.  Check out the resource list in part 3 of this blog post for suggestions.  The materials do not cost a large amount, either.  In fact, if you buy a good chemistry kit (with glassware rather than plastic) when your children are young, you will get many years of use out of the materials.  Kits may contain the chemicals necessary to do the experiments, or chemicals can be bought at the grocery store or hardware store.  Have your student keep a lab notebook that describes the experiments he or she has done.  The best plan for building a home lab is to:

  1. Buy your equipment early
  2. Buy a lab manual and read it for materials required
  3. Make your purchases, ideally purchasing or borrowing only what you need to complete the prescribed labs
  4. Ensure the student keeps a lab notebook as the labs are completed.

Now, you have a list of topics for chemistry and a plan for getting your lab set up.  The next step is putting it all together.  This means choosing a text, a lab manual, and perhaps a few references.  These choices must be made based upon the goals, reading level, and math level of your student.  Remember, you do not necessarily have to do the teaching.  The primary role of a parent at the high school level, anyway, is facilitation (that’s where you provide the money and the wheels for your children.)  Your student should be able to do the reading and problem solving solo, or nearly so.  You may be needed to help interpret the text, discuss the material, and be curious; or, on the other hand, you could have another friend do these things.  One homeschooling mom from Colorado told me that she thought that the beauty of homeschooling is that the children learn to learn on their own.  Even struggling with hard things helps them learn so much better.  So, be encouraged; you can do this!

Each student learns differently and so, will need a different kind of chemistry course.  Here are some suggestions for different students:

Planning for chemistry for the non-science major who will probably not ever consider college is not difficult.  The concepts he should know are the fundamentals, the basic principles of chemistry upon which our lives depend.  A good text might be Usborne’s Illustrated Dictionary of Chemistry.  These books explain things simply and concisely.  Use Chemistry Experiments by Mary Johnson for lab. 

Your non-science major future college student will need a bit more rigorous course.  The A Beka text, Chemistry: Precision and Design, is very good and the explanations are excellent.  Chemistry in the Community (ChemCom) by the American Chemical Society is a great text and the labs are within the text itself.  Choose a kit from The Science Project Store, Science Labs.com (for ChemCom), or use Experiences in Chemistry from Castle Heights Press. 

If you have a student who is in 7th grade and very interested in chemistry, go for it.  Take out the list of fundamentals; get an introductory text, like Bob Jones’ Physical Science or A Beka’s Science of the Physical Creation, and just do the chemistry part of it.  Do the first part of Experiences in Chemistry for the lab.  When the child is older, just dive right into a high school level book and complete the laboratory activities already begun.  If you choose Science of the Physical Creation, you can do many of the lab activities at home provided you have a good lab kit. 

Your older college bound science lover can complete any of the usual high school texts or he or she can go right into the General Chemistry text by Umland for a rigorous start on college level material.  Remember the information is not different, there is just more of it.  For lab do Experiences in Chemistry, or a Chemistry kit from ScienceLabs.com such as the Chem C2000.  After the text is complete have your student take the Advanced Placement test in May.   If your student has used the normal high school level texts have him or her take the SAT II: Chemistry in the spring.

What about the parents who simply want a worry-free experience for their students?  Go to the local junior college and have your child take the general chemistry course.  It will be two semesters and the labs will probably be integrated into the course.  Don’t be afraid of night courses.  My son took one and the instructor was a retired chemical engineer who taught a great deal about vat chemistry in industry.  My son loved it. 

Now you know something about what is taught in high school level chemistry, you know how to plan for a laboratory at home, you also know several options for putting together a good chemistry course.  Learning chemistry requires effort, but is an excellent way to learn about God’s universe and the way it is put together.

Part 2: Myths About Teaching Chemistry!

Part 3: Resources for Teaching Chemistry.

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Making a Science Lab Notebook

This method of writing up an experiment has been used in colleges for years and gives the student practice in valuable communication skills.  When I teach science, I ask my students to get a black and white speckled composition type notebook with graph paper in it.  The instructions below apply to any lab science course for completing a science notebook.  You may also record your data in your science notebook, but keep it separate (perhaps in a few preceding pages) from the below information, which is a summary of the scientific method as it pertains to your experiment. 

  1. On the first page of the notebook, write your name, course title, and year.  
  2. On the next page, write “Table of Contents” at the top of the page.
  3. Number the pages of the notebook in the bottom outside corners.
  4. As you complete experiments, record on the Table of Contents page the title of the experiment and the page upon which it is found.
  5. Skipping two pages after the Table of Contents, begin with Experiment One
  6. On the left hand page, write the title of the experiment, the date, and the problem or question you are attempting to solve.  
  7. Next, spell out your hypothesis of what might happen.
  8. Include a list of materials.
  9. List the procedures in the experiment.  Reference your lab manual.
  10. The observations step is next; write details of the experiment including everything you noticed about what happened.  
  11. The last step is the conclusion.  This is where you will try to answer the question “why did the experiment happen the way it did?  I like to see complete conclusions.  
  12. Some lab experiments require additional steps like calculations, or results, or sources of error.  
  13. The signature at the bottom of the page certifies that you truly did all of the above yourself.  
  14. If there are any questions about the experiment required by the lab manual, I have the student write the answers to those questions after the conclusion step.  
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