Nuclear Chemistry: a 21st Century Lesson Plan

At the end of our atomic structure unit, I have my honors chemistry students do a research project on nuclear chemistry.  In the past, I’ve let students pick a topic (such as the Chernobyl disaster or storage of nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain), and asked them to make a poster that summarizes the relevant information.  I’ve been increasingly dissatisfied with this project, because I find that some students just regurgitate information from Wikipedia or random blogs without applying any critical thought.

Instead, I think this could be a great place to inject 21st century skill instruction into my curriculum and to help my students learn to use some tech tools to support and demonstrate learning.  I developed a lesson plan for a 4-day project in which my students will decide whether a new nuclear power plant should be built in their community.  Students will (1) conduct and share research about the topic of nuclear power, (2) participate in a class discussion about the reliability of the research that they compile, (3) use a tech tool to create a digital product that shares their evidence-based argument for or against the nuclear power plant, and (4) analyze their classmates’ arguments and digital products.

This lesson plan was inspired by the principles laid out by Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown in their 2011 book “A new culture of learning: Cultivating the imagination for a world of constant change” and by Renee Hobbs in her 2011 book “Digital and Media Literacy: Connecting Culture and Classroom”.  

Thomas and Brown argue that students need to be taught how to find information, create products that represent their learning, and play as they learn (2011).  In my lesson, students will be scaffolded as they conduct research and analyze the sources they find.  They will be asked to play with a new tech tool and then use it to make something that represents their learning.

This lesson also aligns nicely with Hobb’s five fundamental literacy practices (2011): Students must know how to:

  1. Access relevant information.  In this lesson, my students will access both text and multimedia sources as they conduct research on nuclear chemistry.  They need to be taught how to appropriately use the powerful tools available to them (databases, Google, etc.)
  2. Analyze information they collect.  We will use a Google Form to collect students’ research, so that we can analyze it in small groups and whole-class discussion.  I think this is an area that my students need the MOST help doing well, and is an area that is so important in their future academic and real-life settings.
  3. Create content.  My students will have choice in how they create a product that is relevant to the stated purpose: to argue for or against the new nuclear power plant.
  4. Reflect on learning, thoughts, and feelings.  After viewing their classmates’ arguments, students will have a chance to reflect on their learning through this project.
  5. Act on their learning.  While the scenario I created for this project is hypothetical, as there are currently no plans to build a nuclear power plant here, this type of scenario is something my students could face in the future.  I hope that they will remember what they learn about researching and sharing their arguments, and that they will use that to make a difference in their communities when controversial situations arise.

I am so excited to try out this lesson plan, because I think it will provide a chance for my students to grow in skills that can be transferred to other classes and to life while still allowing them to interact with chemistry content in a meaningful way.  When I try it out in October, I’ll let you know how it goes!



Hobbs, R. (2011). Digital and media literacy: Connecting culture and classroom. Thousand, Oaks, CA: Corwin/Sage.

Thomas, D., & Brown, J. S. (2011). A new culture of learning: Cultivating the imagination for a world of constant change. Lexington, Ky: CreateSpace?.


Flipped Learning as a vehicle to Intentional Content

As I see it, one of the biggest benefits of Flipped Learning is that it gives me greater flexibility in how I convey content to my students.  My students do not need to be sitting in my classroom looking at me in order to learn.  They can learn from watching the videos that I make, or by completing an online activity, exploring the concept through an in-class inquiry lab, discussing the ideas with their classmates … the possibilities are endless.  This is not something that only “flipped learning” teachers do – it is just plain good teaching to use a variety of strategies in your classroom.

However, I am not always been intentional in thinking about the content that I’m teaching and the best way to deliver it.  I admit that I sometimes fall into a routine of “I taught it this way last year” or “this is how the other teachers for this course are teaching it” – partially because I get busy, partially because it’s easier to do what I’ve always done, and partially because I actually do a few good things already!  But since it is summer right now, I have plenty of time to think and dream and brainstorm, and I’m currently thinking that some of my units could use a bit of TLC and creativity.

My Hopes & Dreams… & Challenges

hopes dreams

The hard thing is that I have to “cover” the same curriculum as the other honors chemistry teachers in my school, and that curriculum is skewed toward calculations and algorithms (i.e. worksheets where they do basically the same problem with different numbers 10 times in a row).

I think I can persuade the other teachers to start developing students’ conceptual understandings and assessing those more frequently.  But I will need to show them what that looks like – and I’m not sure I know exactly what it will look like!  We will also need to cut some of the procedural stuff from the curriculum, because developing conceptual understanding takes TIME.  But it’s always hard to agree on what can be cut because we all have our favorite things to teach.

The best next step is probably to spend some time studying the Next Generation Science Standards, since Illinois will probably be adopting them as our new state science standards in the next few years.  I’ve heard that a significant amount of content has been de-emphasized for the sake of skill and concept development.

Next Steps

hop step jump

Once I decide what to cut, I need to figure out how to class time to help my students actually learn what they’re supposed to learn without being BORING.  This is where I’ve been stuck for the last couple of years.

When I flipped, I basically just started doing the same worksheets in class that used to be homework.  My honors students bought into it easily, because it wasn’t “flipping” their world too much – they would still get direct instruction (through videos) before they applied the knowledge (by doing worksheets or labs in class).  As I reflected on it, a student could succeed in my class without having to do a whole lot of real thinking.  And that is a shame!

So I have two goals:

1)    Incorporate Learning Cycles

As I mentioned in my last post, I am going to try to use Mussallam’s “Explore, Flip, Apply” in my class this year, to create a healthy discomfort for my students before they are taught new facts.  I’m planning to start small – maybe focus on one or two topics in each unit.  I already developed a cycle for bonding types, in which students explore the conductivity and solubility properties of various substances in the lab to develop initial categories of bonding, watch a video about the scientific models for bonding, and then come back to class to apply what they’ve learned through peer instruction and another activity.  This activity is adapted from the Living by Chemistry (link) curriculum that I use in my general chemistry classes.  The curriculum is full of great ideas, so if you teach chemistry, I strongly recommend checking it out!

2)    Turn Worksheets into Activities

There are just some things that students need to practice over and over.  And worksheets are great for this, but they get boring when used too frequently.

I’ve made some math-teacher-friends this year, who also face the difficulty of teaching students skills that are best learned through repeated practice.  They have shared a few ideas of in-class activities that can be used in place of worksheets.  Some of them work better with shorter problems (which could be useful for molar mass calculations, or identifying the number of protons, neutrons, and electrons in an atom based on atomic mass and number) and some work okay with longer problems (like gas law word problems or stoichiometry calculations).

I would LOVE to have more ideas for how to do both of these things, so if you know of a book or website with strategies, please share a link!  I’ll also try to share ideas here throughout the year as I use them.

Flipped Learning – Learning Culture

(I wrote this post for a class I’m taking on Flipped Learning.  This post explains the Learning Culture in my classroom, and how I make decisions to support this culture.)

Why I Decided to Flip

Two years ago, I made the plunge into the “flipped learning” world.  I flipped my honors chemistry classes, cold turkey, at the beginning of the 2011-2012 school year.  I had stumbled across Aaron Sams & Jonathan Bergmann’s website or blog, where they shared how they’d been creating “Vodcasts” for their lectures.  I was attracted to this teaching strategy because I found myself lecturing in class a lot, and students still came to class the next day saying they couldn’t complete the assigned homework practice problems.  Also, I felt like I didn’t have time to do the inquiry labs that I wanted to do to help students construct their own understanding of the content and to help them develop scientific thinking and process skills.

Flipped 101

And it changed my world!  Honestly, that first year was tough – I spent a lot of my time outside of class making videos, and I struggled to figure out what to do with all the class time we had.  It was Traditional Flipped Class – students spent a lot of time doing worksheets in class – mostly because I often didn’t have time to think through and change my calendars to accommodate more of those inquiry labs I wanted to do.  However, my classroom culture changed immediately.  Just a month into the school year, I felt like I knew all of my students better than I’d known any of my prior groups of students by the end of the semester, because I interacted with them so much more frequently.  And in when working in smaller groups, I found that quieter students were much more likely to call me over and ask a question.  I had more time to spend working with struggling students, and to push the students at the top of the class to try greater challenge problems.  I loved being the facilitator and coach for my students, rather than the “sage on the stage”.

I had some students who were resistant to watching the videos at home, so I made a deal with them that they could work ahead, watch the videos in class on our classroom computers, and do the homework at home.  That flexibility and loss of control was a BIG change for me, but I was amazed at how it reduced the homework battles between me and my students and helped them achieve more than I think they would have in a traditional classroom, because they felt like they’d “won” by having a say in their pacing.  Many of those students ended up watching the video AND doing the practice in class … so they were able to have no homework.

Flipped, Round 2

This past year was my 2nd year flipping, and I made a few minor changes (re-doing some videos, increasing interactivity by posting the videos in Edmodo so students could respond with questions, asking students to make their own videos for a topic, incorporating a few new inquiry labs).  I improved in my ability to monitor and assist students during class time, and I had even stronger relationships with my students as a result.

However, my focus was mostly elsewhere, as I was teaching only 1 section of my flipped class and 4 sections of a brand-new general chemistry curriculum (“Living by Chemistry”, which is a great inquiry-driven, topically-organized, learning-cycle-focused curriculum).

At least when I compared my data, it seemed promising: my 2 years of flipped students scored, on average, 1% better on unit tests and 4% better on final exams than my 3 years of non-flipped students.  So it seemed to be working … or at not doing too much harm, at a minimum.  Still, I had a nagging feeling that I could be using my class time in a more engaging way.

Flipped, Round 3…and beyond!

So in the upcoming year, I am planning to make a few changes that will enhance the learning culture of my flipped honors chemistry class.  As I’ve reflected on what I heard at FlipCon13 and listened to some of the Flipped Learning Podcasts, I believe that Ramsey Mussallam’s “Explore-Flip-Apply” model describes my ideal classroom environment.  This has been the missing piece for me, as I’ve desired to have more inquiry experiences for my students, use my face-to-face time more effectively, and developed some familiarity with using learning cycles through the “Living by Chemistry” curriculum.

I knew after FlipCon13 that I wanted to learn more about Ramsey’s ideas.  So I listed to Episode 3 of the podcast, in which Ramsey explained to the host, Troy Cockrum, how he created learning cycles out of his objectives.  He started by developing “explore” labs to engage students and help them construct the basic knowledge, made “flip” videos for lower-level Bloom’s taxonomy tasks (like knowledge and comprehension), and had students come back to class to practice and then apply those skills (higher levels of Bloom’s).  The picture below is borrowed from his website, and explains where each of the components of Bloom’s taxonomy occurs for his students:

Ramsey also acknowledged in the podcast that this is really hard to do with some topics, and that sometimes those explore labs just flop, which encourages me to give myself some grace as I try it out this year.  I think this will have the potential to help me get my classroom learning environment to where I want it to be.  Hopefully this will shift my classroom to be even more student-centered, in that the videos will not be delivered to students until they’ve grappled with the material a bit, started asking questions, and felt a need for a more in-depth understanding of the content.

On the days where we are practicing and applying the content, I want to push my students to be more metacognative about their own learning.  I’m not ready to do full-on mastery learning or standards based grading, but my course and assessments are already aligned around clearly-written objectives, and I will have my students reflect on their own level of mastery for those objectives  (I like Dena Leggett’s categories of “Got It”, “Fuzzy”, or “I Don’t Know” from her session at FlipCon13, “Maintaining Rigor in Advanced Flipped Classrooms”), potentially through end-of-class exit slip questions or using an app like Socrative to send electronic questions to students.

Hopefully these changes will help me push my students into their zones of proximal development (Vygotsky), where they are actively engaged with the content to a degree that stretches them but does not break them!

Blog-Reader Extraordinaire

Google Reader Stats

I think should win some kind of award for Most Faithful Blog Reader Ever.  Reader currently tells me that I’ve read a total of 144,265 items since January 9, 2007.  During the school year, one of the highlights of my week is Saturday morning, when I can sit on my couch with my iPad and a steaming cup of coffee and catch up on my blogs. Seeing “400 unread items” gets my heart beating a little faster.  And when the number of unread items gets way up there, I’m not good at just clicking “mark all as read” and moving on …I feel compelled to give all of those posts a chance to catch my eye, since someone obviously felt they were worth writing, and I don’t want to miss out!

So in March, when I heard the news that Google Reader was shutting down, I almost cried.  I wasn’t sure how I was going to survive. I mean that almost literally.

Once I picked my teary self up off the floor (and discovered Feedly, my new, beautiful RSS-drug of choice), I realized that even if I stopped reading blogs, nobody would notice.  Even though I am a faithful blog-reader, I’m just a lurker — I haven’t yet jumped into the conversation.  But after 6 years of reading blogs, and being a high school chemistry teacher for about as long, I think it’s about time for me to join in.

I certainly don’t feel like I am a master teacher.  I still make lots of mistakes, have seasons of high and low motivation, and learn so much about myself and the craft of teaching every year.

The Birth of this Blog

But I’m beginning to realize maybe those are things worth sharing.  I’ve gleaned much encouragement and tips from other bloggers  I need their little encouragement to try new things, rather than recycling what worked last year.

And I have a mix of professional interests that I love thinking and talking about: educational technology, chemistry,  flipped learning, the Living by Chemistry curriculum, inquiry, NGSS, STEM, mobile learning (one to one technology programs), student research, peer instruction, group dynamics in student lab groups, iPad apps, …. I could go on and on!

This blog is a place where you can find tales of my experiences in these areas.  I hope to provide you with the same encouragement and influx of ideas that I’ve received from my favorite bloggers, and perhaps the motivation to try something new or to share your own ideas!

So, Google Reader: may you rest in peace.  And thanks for giving me the motivation to get started!