I like to say that I teach demographic-based chemistry. When I begin teaching a new set of students I look at the area I live in and assess the demographics of those students. When I first started teaching I was teaching in a RURAL area, where government subsidies where high and the value of education was low.
Because of that experience, I decided I didn’t like the atoms first approach. (If you don’t know what atoms first means, just click here for the atom’s first summary blog post.)
Here’s why I don’t teach atoms first.
#1 It Terrifies Students Who Were Already Scared
Students go into chemistry hearing horror stories about how hard it is. Nothing confirms those nightmares faster than starting them off within the first 2 months by teaching quantum chemistry.
The deep secrets of the atom are fascinating for those of us in chemistry and physics. But remember, we are trying to 1) provide a general education to help that student be a productive member of society and 2) spark an interest in science.
If we start them off with deep intricacies of completely intangible chemical topics, you lose half of your chemistry class without even trying.
Think about it. Electron configuration, spdf, and orbitals have no practical application for students. They see an epic waste of time unless you are going to college or going to be a physical chemist.
#2 It Doesn’t Put the Most Practical Chemistry First
In my opinion, students need to learn the most practical chemistry first. Topics that will be 1) familiar and 2) things they can use. So, teaching them to name compounds is very practical.
I want my students to be able to go home and read the back of the shampoo bottle and say to themselves, “It looked scary before chemistry, but now I know that sodium chloride is just table salt.”
This prevents them from becoming ranting and raving lunatics on the internet about chemicals that really might not be all that bad.
#3 It Hasn’t Been Widely Tested in Non-University Classrooms
The papers I was able to read about why the atom’s first theory became popular was based on implementation at the university level in California.
That was a completely different academic level and demographic than you and I are teaching.
#4 Teach a Demographic First Chemistry
Take a second to think about your students. Think about their background. Are they financially stable? On government subsidies? Did their parents attend college? Does the community value education?
When I started teaching I developed a lot of my resources for students who grew up in low-income areas, who’s parents probably didn’t have a college education, and who’s community didn’t see the value in education.
When you take that type of background into account, it is easy to see why many students give up. They hear about these orbital things that are inside an atom somewhere that you have to put electrons in. Or maybe it was a shell? Subshell? Oh well….The next topic might be easier, they think.
Teach for YOUR Students
Above all, teach to your students. If you are a mainly a physics teacher who got stuck teaching chemistry this year, then yeah, I get why you might teach the atoms first approach with all it’s physics concepts that come first. Just remember, this is chemistry, and though they overlap, students should leave your classrooms at the end of the year knowing chemistry is practical, useful, and not scary.
Play around with the order of what you teach when. Imagine your students understanding chemistry more than ever. Of course, I believe that comes from teaching more traditionally, but I’ll leave the final word up to you.
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My students like steps for everything. I like steps for things when I’m learning too. Can’t blame them!
Use these steps, or check out this worksheet, for helping students understand how to get the info about protons, neutrons and electrons out of an element.
#1 Know Your Atomic Number
Make sure your students know where the atomic number is and what it is.
It is often confused for the mass number. I like to use this worksheet to clarify the difference, but you can just explain it to them or have them illustrate why they are different.
I tell my students that the atomic number is the smaller number and it is just protons. They like short and sweet definitions.
#2 Know Your Mass Number
Tell them this number is always the bigger number because it has neutrons and protons included in it.
Emphasize to the students that mixing these numbers up is one of the major causes for losing points on the test. That will get their attention.
#3 Define the Calculations
When I have a class of students that gets confused on which number to subtract, that’s when I draw out the difference and show them the difference in atomic number and mass number. Subtracting them backwards wouldn't give any information!
Once they see that the protons are what is canceling out and you are just left with neutrons, it really seems to help those students who need to know why, why, why we need to do that.
#4 Explain the Calculations
I use a cheat sheet like this to color code and lay out how to calculate protons, neutrons, and electrons.
If you have read some of my other blogs, or bought my stuff on TpT, you know I like to color code. Notice on here positive protons are yellow to stay on theme. Plus, it is a nice subtle clue for students.
If your students understand atomic numbers and mass numbers they will be able to figure out protons neutrons and electrons.
As I mentioned earlier, this worksheet is amazing for that. Plus, if you have more advanced students, just use it as a hand out.
If you would like homework or class work for your students to find protons, neutrons, and electrons, try out this worksheet. It is more for practice than the other worksheet I sent you to earlier.
Your students will thank you for giving them a quick reference to remember how to calculate protons, neutrons, and electrons when they are prepping for the midterm exam.
Hi! I'm CoScine. I write chemistry worksheets for visual learners. They are fun, easy to follow, and most of them are quick to grade. Since I started my teaching career at the college level, these are just simple chemistry. These worksheets are hard core science.