Teaching AP® Chemistry with an Atoms-Focused Approach

Robin Licato is a Forensic Science and AP® Chemistry teacher at St. Agnes Academy in Houston, TX. She has taught in public, private, and parochial settings as well as urban, suburban, and rural school districts. She was a member of the task force at the Houston Independent School District for the development of a new teacher appraisal and development system. Here she discusses making the switch to an atoms-focused approach in her AP® Chemistry course.

Courtesy of St. Agnes Academy (Houston, TX)

Education, a student focused approach. That is what is happening right now. The pandemic forced remote teaching to happen across our nation and has turned traditional school on its axis. Teachers are sometimes “meeting” in person with students on a weekly or biweekly schedule and need to make that time count. Additionally, it is important to have students continuing to learn on their own when asynchronous. This new world has forced instructors to truly meet each student individually on the content level as well as the delivery level. “Group instruction” is a thing of the past.

As the Modeling approach to science takes hold, it is important to find resources that support the link to these important science practices. In this 21st century, students do not need to spend time memorizing lists of facts that are readily available at their fingertips. What we ultimately need our students to be able to do is interact with data. By teaching students to apply the data to new questions and situations and reach reasonable conclusions, we are extending the learning. Challenging our students to stay curious, ask the follow-up questions, and draw reasonable conclusions is how we create the entrepreneurs and scientists of tomorrow.

Enter Chemistry: An Atoms-Focused Approach, the resource I chose to navigate AP® content this year. After an extensive search last spring, I settled on this text as the resource for the AP® Chemistry students I teach. Switching to an atoms-focused approach has made a tremendous impact. Face-to-face, as I had intended, or now in the “remote teaching” environment, beginning with the atom and building understanding has been the key to rooting out student misconceptions. Using prompts found in the Activities (Instructor Resources), students can whiteboard individually or together to create a particulate-level representation of what they understand is happening. These whiteboards then spark a whole host of conversations with students at various stages of understanding. Whether we are in breakout rooms on Zoom or turning in independent work through our Class Notebook, all students are being met where they are and propelled forward in their understanding of particulate matter.

Students are traditionally challenged by both geometry and chemistry. Although we know ALL kindergartners will walk in on day one, we do not know when they took their first actual steps. We do know it was probably not on the same day for the entire cohort! So, it has always been with these two very conceptual courses. Students who have the maturity to “see” the three-dimensional figures, or who can imagine the label of the can as a flat rectangle always “ran” through the course with less angst than those who could not yet “walk.” It is simply good pedagogy to show students the atoms rather than tell them what the atoms look like. It allows those students who are at the early stages of cognitive consciousness a visual reference upon which to pin new concepts. The old ball-and-stick models do not suffice on their own. There must be pictures of “polarizability” for the emerging learner to begin to grasp the concept of intermolecular forces. The particulate drawings and the care spent on visualizations in this text are amazing.

Beginning with particles and progressing through molecules and their interactions makes sense to the developing chemists. The atoms-focused approach allows educators to “cycle back” and ground all new knowledge on these first few particle-centric concepts. The spiral nature allows for better retention, recall, and actual understanding of the heavier topics. When students understand the effect energy has on particles in a system, calorimetry is the natural follow-up. Kinetics is made concrete when students know “what’s in the beaker.” It is better to watch the rate-determining step in a reaction rather than be told about its existence.

Learn more about Chemistry: An Atoms-Focused Approach for AP® Classes here.

AP® is a trademark registered and/or owned by the College Board, which was not involved in the production of, and does not endorse, this product.

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