Emeryville, CA- University of California at Berkeley chemistry professor Angelica Stacy created Living By Chemistry to make high school chemistry more accessible to a diverse pool of students without sacrificing content.

“This is important because chemistry is a gateway to almost all the health professions,” Stacy, a National Science Foundation Distinguished Teaching Scholar, said Friday at the California Science Education Conference in San Francisco. “I want to open that gate to more students.”

And that’s exactly what’s happening. Nicole Nunes and Daniel Quach used Living By Chemistry to detrack Thurgood Marshall Academic High School in San Francisco’s Bayview-Hunters Point area, one of the city’s most violent, impoverished neighborhoods. With Living By Chemistry, they said, all students gained knowledge in chemistry and the achievement gap narrowed.

The curriculum works because it puts scientific ideas into real-life contexts that build upon students’ prior knowledge and because it gets students to actively engage with each other, Nunes and Quach said at the conference. In detracked classes, group activities allow students to help each other, which increases their self-confidence. These activities are also designed to work on a number of levels so all students can deepen their understanding.

You can really adapt it and make it work for your students,” said Liz Christopher, a teacher in Woodland, Calif., who has been teaching with preliminary Living By Chemistry materials for six years.

For example, in one Living By Chemistry activity, students work in groups to logically arrange the Create a Table cards, which each represent an element in the original periodic table. Each card includes the element’s name, a short description, a compound it’s in, how reactionary it is, and an illustration of a colored circle with spokes extending from it. Some circles are solid and some are grainy to represent metals and non-metals. The ring around each circle is color-coded to represent solids, liquids, and gasses. The spokes represent valence electrons.

Students can use surface information-element color and number of spokes-to arrange the table or they can dig a bit deeper to find other patterns.

“If it’s a group of kids who are really struggling, I might say, ‘What do you notice about the color?’ ” Christopher said. “But there are a lot of ways you can think about it. You can get your students to think if you push them and ask them questions. It really does stick with them.”

Stacy began exploring new ways to teach chemistry after finding that students weren’t retaining the basic tenants of chemistry when they took lecture classes. Questioning whether lectures were the best vehicle for teaching chemistry, she tried a new lesson design that consisted of:

1. An initial discussion of students’ ideas and prior knowledge

2. Group and individual activities to explore ideas

3. A whole-class discussion to formulate ideas and help students make sense of the activity

4. An assessment to monitor student understanding

This new format pushed students to think through ideas and deepened their understanding of chemistry, as evidenced by their increased scores on the post-test. This experience became the basis for her work on Living By Chemistry, which is published by Key Curriculum Press. Living By Chemistry’s preliminary edition has five units that explore the chemistry behind alchemy, smells, weather, toxins, and fire.

Living By Chemistry was designed to help teachers reach more of their students by:

*Providing daily lessons. “If you’re so busy having to design what to do each day, you don’t have as much time to assess what you’re doing and target instruction to meet students’ needs,” Stacy explained.

*Putting ideas into real-life context. This grabs students’ interest and helps them retain knowledge by connecting new ideas to their prior understanding.

*Carefully sequencing concepts based on extensive observations of students. “So many people have written textbooks without asking students what helps them,” Stacy said. “We’ve done a lot of work with students trying to understand what’s hanging them up. We found that sequencing makes all the difference in development.” Instead of asking students to simply memorize chemistry symbols and terms, Living By Chemistry uses activities to help students learn the language of chemistry and recognize patterns.

*Maintaining high content standards, but making them accessible to all students. Living By Chemistry provides a “rich and interactive environment for students” that includes card games, labs, memorable illustrations of concepts, and group discussions. “We are absolutely covering the California standards,” Stacy said. “Just because the students are enjoying it doesn’t mean they aren’t getting the standards.”

*Allowing all students to experience achievement so they gain confidence. The activities are designed to work for weaker students while still giving stronger students opportunities to explore concepts on a deeper level.

“We were looking for ways to make it easier for students to get the big ideas in chemistry,” Stacy said.

About Key Curriculum Press:

Founded in 1971 by mathematics educators, Key Curriculum Press is the leading publisher of student-centered, inquiry-based textbooks, supplementary materials, and Dynamic Mathematics software for high school students. Living By Chemistry represents Key’s first foray into science curriculum.

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