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Social justice in chemistry

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I’m relatively new to social justice, but when I realized what it involves, I knew that I needed to bring it to my classes. A few years ago through Twitter, I stated following a number of teachers and leaders who do and embody this work. I’m nowhere close to their levels of expertise, elegance, or confidence (yet), but I decided that this was the year for me to start bringing it to my classes.

Moses Rifkin is awesome.

Besides being a super nice guy, he has been doing social justice in his physics classes for a number of years. I finally met him at NSTA last fall and had a lovely afternoon discussing things and attending social justice sessions. He generously provided his curriculum in this series of guest posts on John Burk’s pages, I took (very) large chunks of his curriculum, subbed “chemistry” for “physics”, and was off to the races. I tried this unit in my AP Chemistry classes (not my 1st year chem courses) after The Exam was finished. 

Added bonus: I decided that I would try out OneNote for this unit (part of my professional goals), but did a bad job introducing this tool. My students (rightly) objected. 

Side-note: my school district is very strict about showing student work (even without names), so I can’t post any pictures of student work. 

I wanted to set my desks in a circle for discussion, but since only half of my classes did this unit (and they alternated in my schedule with the other classes), it was too much of a pain. I wish I had just done it. I’m lucky in that our English/SS teachers have trained our students well in how to have respectful conversations with each other, even with difficult topics. I did, however, use a “speaking ball” for the whole week: 

My generation’s fidget spinner.


It’s the day after Memorial Day and a week of non-school, so most of the kids hadn’t done the mini-research project of finding an African-American chemist. I asked for the name of a chemist, and most thought first of Marie Curie, but then listed all of the white men found in the names of various laws (Boyle, Avogadro, Hess, etc.). No living person came to mind, and only one woman. (Hey, chemists: do we have a spokesperson?? Nobody like Neil deGrasse Tyson or David Attenbourough or Jane Goodall or…).

I gave them a few minutes to start some searching for images, which pops up a white woman in a lab coat (advertisements/stock photos), a lot of people staring intently at test tubes of colored liquids, a few pharmacists (thanks, English!), and a few shocked people with crazy hair. In short, few actual chemists, nobody doing any real science, nearly all white. 

Then we took a few minutes to compare basic US racial demographics to science industry demographics and college degree stuff. We talked about why. Since 2/3rds of my classes were jet-lagged and they hadn’t completed the first assignment, this was challenging to jump into. I tried to get them to produce reasons for this gap in intended college degrees and attained degrees. This definitely perked up some ears, mostly because they hadn’t thought about it before. 

Homework: pick a hypothesis about differences and research it thouroughly. 


Discussed the stats they found regarding particular hypotheses about why African-Americans aren’t found in proportional numbers in chemistry. Different classes took different interests (one more of a social bent and one more of a financial bent), and threw around a lot of numbers. Students were okay with sharing numbers, but it took a bit to get them to propose possible implications. I’m glad numbers is starting this unit, so that students have something to hold on to that’s not just anecdote. We discussed whether all these numbers were comparing apples to oranges or not, and what it would take to make it more apples-to-apples.

Then I tried to get them to define racism and who perpetrated what. A few students knew a sort of academic definition (relating to cultural dominance/white power), but it wasn’t communicated clearly to others and didn’t stick. 

Homework: read some articles from a list. 

Stereotypes and what we can say about them.discussed the articles they read. It’s interesting to me that the students already know that “low-income” and “people of color” often overlap, but some students needed reminders that those terms aren’t synonymous. I brought up two things: how racism was viewed if it was intentional (racial slurs or worse) versus unintentional (implicit bias or microaggression), and trying to identify who can be a perpetrator of racism. 

Privilege was a pretty involved topic. Our school body has a lot of privileges as a whole. There were some good commentions between personal privileges and possible affordances, along with thinking of others’ lack of privileges and possible lack of opportunities. 

Conversations are super involved, very respectful, but I feel like they’re rushed (argh… my carefully planned six day schedule isn’t extend-able at this point!)

Homework: read some articles. 


Students discussed their thoughts on articles, many of them read one on the history of race and the Oregon Territory. After a bit, I asked them to put their conversations on hold, and try a new thing (which is based on Jess’s mind-blowing classroom… I’d move to get my kid in her classroom!):

I wasn’t sure about a whole day (there’s only so many days left with my Seniors) with this activity, and I knew my high schoolers would, especially after three days of race-thinking, catch on to the predict-the-story-between-two-books thing. Instead, I gave the whole class all 22 books at once, and asked them to match them to the list of descriptions. They did pretty well (each class got more than half correct), but then there’s the larger discussion around why getting them “correct” isn’t the important part, that about half of the stories still weren’t known/were incorrectly judged, that 16 of the books depict people of color, that the more emotion-related stories (divorce, bullies, etc.) largely involved white characters, and of quite literally judging books by their covers. Also, I taped over the library designation on the spines. Our amazing public library system recently re-organized the children’s books into interest sections, such as “Animals”, “Sparkly”, and “Things That Go”. The books I checked out came from either “Our World”, “Life Issues”, or “Biographies”. Our class discussions were far more surface-level than Jess’s class, but I did enjoy it as a first attempt, and am very interested to give it its own day next year.

Students then got into Peggy McIntosh’s “Knapsack”. And the idea of privilege was pretty well-accepted in our class, but how to deal with it created a lot of conversations regarding what’s seen as unearned privilege, and whether affirmative action is a form of unearned something or not. Also some connections to feminism, and a few family stories of immigration. This was a day that I wanted to keep going for a while.

Homework: do two IAT tests. 


The IAT test results were interesting, and a lot of students were interested in what it all means. We talked about possible problems with the tests, as well as implications. A couple students took the same test multiple times to see if their results remained the same. 

Homework: look up a non-white and/or non-male chemist and make a poster about them!


The posters they generated are fantastic! I gave them the option of posting them in my room, in the halls, or keeping them private. There’s a great bulletin board outside my classroom, filled with pictures and details of non-male and/or non-white chemists, which makes me so proud of the work they’ve done this week. 

Homework: fill in an anonymous survey about the last week. 

 Wrap Up / Takeaway 

In my post-course survey, nearly all of the feedback was neutral-to-positive. A number of students stated that they wanted this discussion in other classes, and wanted to do more. Some said that this provided them with a safe place to have conversations (or at least a place to say things openly with peers). I need to have more conversation-drivers for those quiet times (although I think that the circle of desks will help, as well as having quiet times isn’t all bad). I also need to be more clear about my expectations for the week, including that it’s okay to be uncomfortable in these discussions. 

These are my AP Chemistry students. My students are generally pretty good about completing homework and doing things I ask of them. This unit had the highest homework completion rate of the entire year: they want to have these discussions. And to the best of my abilities, I’ll continue to provide my students a place to have them. 

Stoich Speed Dating

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Kinda based on the idea by Kate Nowak, I had my students Speed-Date (is that a verb?) stoichiometric practice problems. It’s a little different in format, and it’s in groups… on whiteboards… okay, maybe it’s a lot different.

My students normally sit in pods of three or four. They’re super familiar with the whiteboarding we do (which is at least weekly). After one practice/review stoich problem, I had them clear the boards. We picked some random numbers, and I added “grams” to each (something like, kids shouted out 5, 17, 207, and 73, so I would declare 20.75g and 17.73g). I posted a list of chemical equations on the document camera. Each group picked a random 2-reactant equation from the posted list of equations and started the stoich process (balancing the equation, filling out the BCA table, good sig figs, etc.). For example, if they chose the combustion of hydrogen, then using our random numbers, the stoich problem they worked on started with 20.75g H2 and 17.73g O2.

Now for the speed dating part: Every 2 minutes, I yelled “ding!” and each group moved to a new board to continue whatever the last group had left.

The first “ding!” usually happened just after getting molar masses calculated, so a lot of groans came out, but they knew approximately the step to work on for the next board. The second switch came part way through the BCA table, which really bothered some perfectionists. Some groups found mistakes and had to correct them. Four cycles usually got the boards completed and double-checked.

What I liked:

  • Even in a large class (10 groups), nearly every board had a different equation, so switching meant some big changes but the same process. It’s actually quite a bit of practice.
  • Limiting reactants were not always in the same place/order from one board to the next.
  • Students improved in figuring out the sequence of steps in stoich because they had to repeat/check and see the status of the new board.
  • Struggling kids were able to see how a particular step changed when equations changed (I may have “ding”ed intentionally when I saw a half-fast/slow group getting too comfy).
  • I was able to help one particular kid while everyone else worked through switching boards and checking each other.

What I need to improve/think about:

  • This worked for one round, but wasn’t interesting enough for two.
  • I did not check/grade the boards, but relied on students to check themselves.
  • For the groups that found mistakes, I’d like a way of discussing the mistake with the previous group. I don’t want them making the same mistake on the next board(s).

#MTBoSBlogsplosion: Soft Skills

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I’ve worked at a large public school, a science museum, a tiny private school, and a small public school. The places I’ve worked have each taught me valuable skills in how to teach different kinds of students.

The private school, in particular, helped me learn how to talk to lots of different kinds of kids. At this school, teachers met with individual students twice a week for 30 minutes. In this way, I taught various sciences (about 6 different kinds of classes), but since each student had different strengths and challenges, I really had a separate prep for each kid (about 30+ different preps). Teaching chemistry to a “normal” high school student is different from teaching to one with dyslexia; to one who is dyslexic, dysgraphic, and dyscalculate; to one with high-functioning autism; to one who has clinical anxiety and depression. And, a lot of these students had previously slipped through the cracks of public schools and larger classrooms. I have no formal special ed training, so a lot of my preparation was on my own and on the fly. But a lot of my work, especially when students came to us in the middle of school years, was to make them comfortable with school and to boost their academic confidence.

Part of making them comfortable again revolved around allowing kids to be wrong without penalty. It’s sort of in three phases: allowing kids to be wrong; brainstorming possibilities; and encouraging fixes to original answers.

I truly believe that it’s invaluable to make mistakes, as long as you figure out how to fix them once you know better. Part of this is classroom culture: I think math and science classes are especially guilty for having only single correct answers to any problem, which may be true for numerical calculations, but usually, there’s something that’s right about most answers. I think this is why I really love the “My Favorite No“, although I haven’t formally used it in class. I can’t always get students to commit their thoughts to paper, but I can get them to write all kinds of stuff on impermanent whiteboards. We use The Mistake Game fairly regularly. It’s on me to not say “no” during class. Instead I try to do the improv thing of “yes, and…”, and request others to help out or refine. (There is a limit to my tolerance, however, when there’s safety issues, like personal insults or goofing off in lab.)

Once kids figure out there’s no penalty in wrong answers and that I don’t shut kids down (which takes at least a month, often more), they’re more wiling to brainstorm. Early in the year, I ask kids to go home and “interview” people about the word “nuclear”. I keep expecting crazy answers and misconceptions, but my kids are (sadly!) so trained to only give correct answers, that they won’t volunteer the weird ones. I have to frame my questions intentionally so that I encourage off-beat things and everything is acceptable. Instead of, “who has an answer?”, I say, “what are some possibilities?” or “what’s the strangest thing you heard?” Distancing their verbal responses from the specter of “correct” has been really useful in getting more kids to talk more often.

Fixing answers is, to me, like making final works out of rough drafts. I’ve been bad at intentionally circling back to original questions (and I wonder if making that connection between original and new would be helpful), but I’m pretty good at helping classes think through lines of logic. Once being wrong isn’t a problem, and brainstorming is totally okay, it’s much easier to try out new things. It’s still difficult for me to stay out of the way and allow kids to try to sort out whether new ideas are right or not (addressing misconceptions seems to work really well). While it’s relatively easy for me to avoid saying “no”, it’s soooo hard to not immediately praise the right answers and get on with my lessons and goals. But I have to remember that it’s not about my learning. I don’t have a method for getting to this third step. I feel like I should be able to verbalize it, but I can’t. It’s a lot about kids’ comfort in class with me and with each other.

I wonder if these kinds of skills are limited to my classroom only. If these ideas are so classroom-dependent, I wonder if it carries to other classrooms or not. Which means I want to know how I can extend open investigation to every class. This isn’t in my control, but I’d like to think my students can get out of the always-only-correct paralysis for an hour a day.

Week 4 begins

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Whew. Today was the unit test on measurement and matter. I’ll start grading shortly. 

It’s been a whirlwind already, with some pretty intense students. I’ve never had students who could review significant figures, dimensional analysis, measurement rules, and other number handling… in 30 minutes. I’m starting to wonder how much I can throw at them, and how much I should throw at them. I hafta figure out pacing on a whole new level. I have a feeling that they might take what I toss their way. I’ll have to be careful about what is actually reasonable. 

Day 104: Starting an SBG Curriculum

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Day 104/180: Starting to work through SBG, and feeling unsure

Part of this year’s sabbatical goals were to create an SBG curriculum so that I could possibly implement it into my shiny new next-year-job. So far, I’ve just made a list of chemistry topics for the year. I’m not yet sure if it’s better to be more or less specific as far as content goes, so I’m erring on the more side. I’ll also need to figure out how to combine these into larger units (i.e., fewer unit, non-chapter, tests), as well as the non-curriculum-specific skills I want students to have.

I’m working off of TEACHING|CHEMISTRY and Always Formative and Crazy Teaching for SBG information.

The curriculum works in my head, but it’s been a while since I’ve actually written out plans. My previous school was more of a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants kind of place, since each student was on his/her own schedule. I had a list of topics to cover by the end of the year, but the pace, and even the order changed for each kid. I feel like a first-year teacher again.

Additionally, I’m sad that #chemchat is a kinda lonely place. Apparently, there used to be a weekly Twitter chat there, but hasn’t been around for a while other than a tag for random classroom experiments and thoughts. I don’t really have time to do a weekly chat (especially on the West Coast), but I’m working on maybe a thing… maybe a #slowchemchat thing…

Day 102: Cleaning Out

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Day 102/180: The rest of “Mindset” and some old links

School and mindset. Praise effort over innate ability. The kids I worry about hitting an academic brick wall in college: I’m probably sensing a fixed-mindset-ness about them. Page 235: Ask about efforts and mistakes made (and learned from!) Emphasize value of learning over merely achieving or completing. Be careful of the perpetual over-achiever. Again, emphasize the learning rather than the completion or ranking.

Having a growth mindset for controlling weight loss or anger, etc.. Cool. Reminds me of “you can’t change what others say/do, only how you respond to them”.

I thought “Mindset” would be an optimism/pessimism thing, but it’s really not. While having a growth mindset is probably less pessimistic thank fixed mindset, it’s more of a way of thinking past all of the lemons and toward the lemonade.

I’ve been very bad in getting to an article by Matthew Hartings (sorry!) in J.Chem.Ed, about making the Junior and Senior years of college chemistry essentially a focused research project. Pretty cool.

In high school, I had a 2-year chem/physics class. Because of eliminating some overlaps (like gas laws), there’s an extra quarter. The extra quarter was spent on an independent research project of our choosing. To my recollection, the rules were as follows:

  • Each quarter of Year 2, students were to find 10 sources of information (in an annotated bibilography) on their topic. If a new topic was chosen, additional sources had to be found. (This was pre-internet days.)
  • Students had to produce some kind of physical object/project.
  • Students had to produce a ginormous lab write up of all experiments and results.

Thoughts on the paper:

  • For college-level Juniors and Seniors in chem, they’re presumably going into the sciences. Giving them research and related problem-solving experience is probably pretty valuable. I did not have this structured experience, and think that it hurt me in grad school.
  • Giving students a starting point (everyone started on some aspect of gold nanoparticles), narrows the field for the faculty to work with and prepare. Probably also easier for students to come up with topics, since the subject of research (but not the variations) is already chosen.
  • I wonder what happens when a research topic fails.
  • It sounds like a serious ton of work for students. Yes, they get more transcript-credit, but does the potential time-commitment drive away some? (Thinking about my art studios and science lab requirements for my double-major.)
  • I did do some minor research in college, but was never given the training in what or how to think about problems, and definitely not how to further my questions longer than one quarter. I’d like that experience now. I’m kinda jealous!

Day 85: Clearing Out the Backlog

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Day 85/180: cleaning out email links, watching/studying lots of links

There’s a thing about keeping your inbox at 0. I’m kinda in the opposite mindframe. My email houses lots of things for me to look at later. Today is for housekeeping.

I finally watched Casey Rutherford‘s BigMarker talk on sense-making through physics. His ideas on making sense of an event, versus questioning why (and how) the event happens is a pretty big shift for students. I need to think more about incorporating this consciously into my curricula.

I also finally watched Moses Rifkin‘s talk on social justice in science classes. I’m super interested in doing this kind of (necessary!) conversation in class, even though I’m not comfortable with leading discussions (having never led them before, as well as being an introvert). I’ve signed up for the Science Teachers for Social Justice group, and find it interesting that all the teachers (so far) work at independent/private schools… no public. Hmm…

Uff da. So much thinking needed. Processing time kicking in…