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It’s all hands-on in chemistry

Curriculum helps students meet science standards, deepen knowledge

Godwin Heights — Sophomore Airriana Pegues pulls two marbles out of a red plastic bowl. Her mission is to determine how bonds are made and broken in an effort to answer today’s question: Can we model what is happening when particles are rearranging to help us explain changes we are seeing in energy?” 

At first, she looks at the marbles, turning them over in her hands. Airriana then places them on the table and slowly starts to roll them closer to each other. Suddenly, the two marbles move on their own until they seemingly “snap” together. She notes how, when close, the marbles move quickly, creating heat. She then breaks the bond by pulling them apart and does the experiment again.

When chemistry teacher Grace Boersma asks what the temperature is when a bond forms and breaks apart, Airriana responds: “In order to make a bond the temperature has to warm up, and when breaking a bond the temperature has to cool down.”

It is one of the hardest concepts in chemistry, Boersma says. “Most people think that there is energy when bonds release, but that is not the case.” Using marbles and rulers, Godwin Heights High School students are learning this concept on their own.

Blazing a Chemistry Trail

“Chemistry has always been tough to learn,” Boersma says. “Even 10 years ago, it was ‘let me lecture, here are the notes and practice it.’ ”

Last year, in the midst of a pandemic and online learning, Boersma decided to implement a more hands-on approach, utilizing the inquiryHub (iHUB) chemistry curriculum.

The free curriculum was developed by teachers in Denver, Colorado, the University of Colorado and Northwestern University. The five units are designed to address common high-school physical science performance expectations of the Next Generation Science Standards, adopted in Michigan in 2015. Godwin High students and staff are familiar with the iHUB program, as the high school along with Union High School in Grand Rapids, piloted its biology curriculum in 2019

‘With the hands-on approach, it is confirming what the students are learning. It is just not me up there in the front of the classroom reciting information, but rather we are all learning together.’

— chemistry teacher Grace Boersma

Boersma was one of the first teachers outside Colorado to incorporate the curriculum in her class. She is now piloting the program for a second year, serving as a national resource to others who are adding the program, or at least sections of it, to their curriculum.

“With the hands-on approach, it is confirming what the students are learning,” Boersma says. “It is just not me up there in the front of the classroom reciting information, but rather we are all learning together.”

Godwin Heights science teacher Derek Stoneman, who with Boersma teaches the iHUB chemistry along with biology, says students knew the information but the question was did they know it.

 “The depth of learning is a lot more than it was,” Stoneman says, adding he also has seen an increase in engagement with the students. “It’s nice to be able to sit back and let the students take the lead.”

The key to the iHUB curriculum is its storylines, wherein students ask and answer questions related to a phenomena or design challenge. In Boersma’s class the students are working on the question “Why do cars run on gasoline instead of rocket fuel?” They investigate chemical reactions and energy to determine the answer.

The marbles help students explore the atomic level, looking at how bonds are formed and how they are broken. All the while Boersma is a facilitator – similar to Ms. Frizzle from “The Magic School Bus” – asking questions and guiding the students along.

The Learning Curve

Boersma now hands out rulers, noting that red ones have a strong magnet attached and yellow ones have a weaker magnet. The students start to explore how bonds are made and broken by rolling the marbles along the ruler, trying to force a break between another marble and the magnet.

“So if the bond is strong, what did we discover?” Boersma asks the class. There is a pause, with a few students suggesting that it takes a lot of speed to break a bond.

“Yes!” Boersma says. “And if it is a weaker bond?” The answers come faster, with more students offering answers: “It’s easier to break.” “You need some type of collision to make it break.” “The item has to move slower for the bond to be created.” 

Airriana says being able to work with the marbles and explore the concepts makes the lessons easier to understand. 

“We already know some of it and we have been talking about it, so it continues to build on what we have learned,” she said. “Then we are able to use the marbles to see for ourselves how it works.”

Boersma said she knows the hands-on activities are helping, as she has seen better results in students understanding the lessons and concepts, both with online and in-person learning.

“It is a lot better doing it this way, because I can remember what is happening,” says sophomore Joseline Gracia as she tries different angles with a red ruler, rolling a marble down its grooved middle to see if it will break the bond between another marble and the magnet. 

“It only breaks when we use the silver magnet,” Joseline notes. “We definitely need more energy and force.”

Oh, and the answer to that question, “Can we model what is happening when particles are rearranging to help us explain changes we are seeing in energy?” Airriana smiles slightly. “Yeah. Yeah, we can.”

Explore more unique video stories of students learning, interesting school programs and educators working to help all children succeed.

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Joanne Bailey-Boorsma
Joanne Bailey-Boorsma
Joanne Bailey-Boorsma covers Kent ISD and Godwin Heights. She was born in the Detroit area but grew up in Brighton where she attended Hartland Public Schools. The salutatorian for the Class of 1985, she changed her colors from blue and maize to green and white by attending Michigan State University, where she majored in journalism and minored in photography and German. She expanded her color palette to include orange and black as both her daughters graduated from Byron Center Public Schools; maroon and white for Aquinas College where her daughter studies nursing and also brought back blue and maize for Grand Rapids Community College where her youngest daughter currently is studying music. Read Joanne's full bio

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