Delivering effective education during a shutdown: Developing scientific comprehension skills

This year I have been teaching the chemistry component of combined science to a higher-attaining Y11 set.  I inherited the set at the start of the year and found that although their basic understanding of chemistry was sound, they struggled with activities where they had to read and interpret text. They had difficulty with scientific comprehension. 

Throughout the year I have tried to develop their scientific comprehension skills by:

  • including exam questions where the students were required to read and answer questions based on the information presented
  • giving the students other text-based activities and by including excerpts of scientific articles in our lessons. 

The text-based activities included stories often gleaned from twitter such as ‘BASF develops process for climate friendly methanol’ and Sir David Attenborough’s Warning of a Climate Change catastrophe (reported by the BBC).

In the last week of school, when there was a degree of uncertainty about what would happen around the exams, I abandoned my revision schedule and opted for a more general education on the impact of soap on the corona virus; trying to show why it was better to use this to wash our hands, rather than relying on hand sanitiser.  My rapidly cobbled together power point interspersed information (from a variety of sources) with questions linked to the science we had studied throughout the year.  Required to set work for students to do remotely, I opted for the improvement of their ability to read, question and understand articles about science.

I have subsequently developed the original very rough resource into this revised version:

Click for lesson plan...

Cleaning, careers and chemical names

Here’s an activity which starts off by finding out a bit more about soap

(Taken from the https://chronicleflask.com with thanks.)

When you have read the article, you might want to know more about some of the jobs that were mentioned.  If you follow the links, you can find out more.

What does an epidemiologist do?

What does an immunologist do?

What does a microbiologist do?

(Remember that viruses are microbes.  Can you name any other microbes?)

You might want to know where Babylonia is? (The original article has a link.)

What type of chemical reaction is calcination? (See if you can find the IUPAC definition; and even better what IUPAC stands for).

Why do you think calling calcium oxide lime, is confusing? 

Can you find out how it is linked to limelight?

(Remember when you are looking things up, think carefully about the sources you use – who has written the information; what makes them qualified to do so? It also helps to keep a note of the date when you access any online source, because things get updated and changed).

You might like to do some store cupboard research and make a list of all the products you can find with lecithin or emulsifier in them – can you find any patterns in the type of products?

You could also analyse the cleaning products you have – just the labels – which contain sodium laureth sulfate?

Which contain sodium stearate C18H35NaO2?

Whilst reading the article, did you wonder about the names of some of the chemicals and their origins?  Have you ever wondered why Sodium has the symbol Na? It is because it is derived from the Latin word, Natrium. Try to find out which other elements have names that don’t start with their symbols or have a go at this activity.

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The questions signpost the students to reflect on what the article is about and provide further links to find out more.  I tried to include a variety of different areas of chemistry including chemical reactions and the chemical properties of metal oxides. I also brought in links with ideas in maths and biology and included opportunities to develop ‘science capital’ where possible.

When writing the resource, I decided that I would include some links to possible scientific careers, because this is an opportunity to promote science beyond school, something which I have been trying to do throughout the year.

One of the challenges in developing similar resources is finding interesting and accessible articles for the target age group – and this is where Catalyst Magazine is useful: https://www.stem.org.uk/resources/collection/3137/catalyst

Here are my recommendations for worthwhile reads:

Fake News – how to become a more discerning reader

From orange peel to chewing gum – chiral chemistry and flavours and more in this infographic

Medicinal plants

There are lots more which you can select to suit your particular discipline and interests. How you choose to develop these into a resource will depend on the target audience and how what is required as remote learning evolves.