Monthly Archives: June 2016

SBG Presentation

I have been doing a lot of presentations on standards-based grading lately and I thought this might be a good place to post the slides I have been using. Feel free to borrow, implement and ask questions!

PDF: HSTW-Making Standards-Based Grading Work for You


Chemistry, more like cheMYSTERY to me! – Stoichiometry

At this point in the year, the curriculum is getting more difficult and is building to what I call “the top of chemistry mountain.” I call stoichiometry the top of chemistry mountain because it pulls together the big picture of chemistry: chemical reactions, balanced equations, conservation of mass, moles and even gas laws! One of my students depicted the harrowing climb below:

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Let’s recap the climb from Unit 7 before we jump in:

  • Molar masses on the periodic table are relative to 12 g of Carbon-12 or 1 mole of carbon
  • There are 6.02 x 10^23 particles in a mole
  • Empirical formulas represent the simplest ratio in which elements combine and can be calculated using mole ratios
  • Molecular formulas represent the actual number of atoms of each element that occur in the smallest unit of a molecule. This may be the same as the empirical formula.

This unit is long so you might want to pack a snack!

I start Unit 8 with an activity my students always beg me for from the first time they use Bunsen burners: making s’mores. Of course, those s’mores cost them some chemistry!

S’mores Stoichiometry

S’more stoichiometry is a fun and easy activity to introduce students to the idea of reaction ratios and even limiting reactants. A s’more can be made with the balanced equation:

Gm2 + 2Ch + Mm –> Gm2Ch2Mm

Where Gm is the diatomic element graham cracker, Ch is chocolate and Mm is marshmallow. Students go through a series of calculations converting between mass of ingredients and number of ingredients (mass of reactant to moles of reactant) and then to quantity of s’mores (moles of reactant to moles of product). Students even complete a limiting reactant problem when given a finite amount of each ingredient. The reward for all this math? Delicious, gooey, Bunsen burner s’mores.

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Now that they have gotten the marshmallow roasting out of their systems, it is time to start the final ascent to the top of chemistry mountain!

BCA Tables

I love a lot of things about the Modeling Instruction curriculum, but BCA tables might be my favorite. If you are not familiar with BCA tables, check out the ChemEdX article I wrote here. BCA tables are an awesome way to help students think proportionally through stoichiometry problems instead of memorizing the mass-moles-moles-mass algorithm. I introduce BCA tables giving students moles of reactant or product. I add mass, percent yield, molarity, and gas volumes one by one as “add-ons” to the model.

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Percent Yield Lab

The first “add-ons” are theoretical yield and percent yield. Students react solutions of sodium carbonate and calcium chloride (mass and mixed by students) to form calcium carbonate. Students gravity filter (I do not have aspirators in my room for vacuum filtration) the precipitate and dry it. img_0504 (1)While waiting for the product to dry, students calculate their theoretical yields. This calculation requires students to realize they need to convert their masses of reactants to moles before using a BCA table and then convert the moles of product from the BCA  table to mass of product. After drying, students are able to calculate their percent yields and discuss why this is an important calculation and what their possible sources of error are.


The next “add-on” to the BCA table is molarity. This can be saved for after limiting reactant, depending on how your schedule works out. Students learned about molarity back in Unit 7 but it never hurts to review before you jump into the stoichiometry. Again, the key to keeping this simple for students is molarity is only an add-on. Only moles can go in the BCA table so calculations with molarity should be done before or after the BCA table.

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Limiting Reactant PhET

Now that students are stoichiometry pros when given excess of one reactant, it is time to “adjust to reality” as the Modeling curriculum says. This year, I introduced the concept of limiting reactants with the “Reactants, Products and Leftovers” PhET. Students started by making sandwiches with a BCA table and then moved on to real reactions. This activity helped students visualize what it looks like to have left over product. The key to using the PhET is to connect every example to the BCA table model. Before switching from sandwiches to actual reactions, I have a quick whiteboard meeting to introduce the term “limiting reactant.”


Limiting Reactant Practice

After the PhET, students work on the “Adjusting to Reality” worksheet from the Modeling Instruction curriculum. This worksheet starts by giving students reactant quantities in moles and then graduates them to mass values. The BCA table helps students easily pick out the limiting reactant and helps them see how much reactant is leftover and how much product is produced in one organized table.

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I then have students work on a worksheet I call “All the Stoichiometry” because it has all types of problems with all levels of difficulty to make sure students can discern when to use the different tools they have collected.

Chemistry Feelings Circle

When I have a really challenging problem that I think would take too long for individual groups to solve, I hold a chemistry feelings circle. I arrange all of my seats in a tight circle and place a pile of whiteboards and markers in the middle.

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Every student must sit in the circle and the class must solve the problem together by the end of the class period. I act like I am working on something else but really I am taking notes about their conversations. Once all students have signed off on the solution, they can elect delegates to present it to me. This year, I gave students a zombie apocalypse challenge problem involving the 2-step synthesis of putrescine. Students had to determine whether they could synthesize enough putrescine to disguise all of their classmates. Spoiler alert, there is not enough!

Ideal Gas Law

With limiting reactant under our their belts, it is time for another stoichiometry add-on, the last one. It is time for the ideal gas law. I return to gas laws through the molar volume of a gas lab. Students know how to convert mass and volume of solution to moles. What about gas volume (I may bump this back to the mole unit next year)? That question leads to the challenge of determining the volume of 1 mole of gas at STP. I usually use the traditional gas collection over water set-up but this year I was gifted a class set of LabQuest 2’s and I wanted to try them out. I used the Vernier “Molar Volume of a Gas” lab set-up instead.

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I am not sold on this procedure but it got us the data we needed. With the molar volume of gas at a STP, we can derive PV=nRT and calculate R (the universal gas constant).

Grab-bag Stoichiometry

At the top of chemistry mountain, I give students a grab bag of stoichiometry problems. They may have to convert reactant or product mass, solution volume/molarity or gas volume to/from moles in addition to completing a BCA table. I give students a flow chart to fill in to help them sort out the process.

Unit 8 Practicum

Once students reach the top of chemistry mountain, it is time for a practicum. I use Flinn’s micro-mole rocket activity for the practicum but I leave it very open ended. I show students that hydrogen gas reacts with oxygen gas to form water and this creates enough energy to power the rocket (pipet bulb). From there, I set them loose to figure out what volume of each gas they need and where to mark their rocket so they can fill the gas volumes correctly. I also have students do some fun (not the word my students might use to describe them) stoichiometry calculations (see below).

Stoichiometry Coding Challenge

I usually end a unit with the practicum but I really wanted to work a computer coding challenge into this unit. Asking students to generalize the math they have been doing for weeks proves to be a very difficult but rewarding task.

For the coding challenge, I ask students to write a series of cumulative programs in Python that build to a stoichiometry calculator. First, students write a simple code that converts between mass and moles.


Then they write similar codes that convert between solution volume and moles and gas volume and moles. Students then combine those codes to create a calculator that converts any unit to moles. Once students have the front end of the stoichiometry calculator, they can add in coefficients. Finally, students build the back-end of the calculator, theoretical yield. You can read my ChemEdX blog post here.


By the end of this unit, students are about ready to jump off chemistry mountain! Luckily, the rest of the year is a downhill ski.

Let’s see what we added to the model so far…

  • The coefficients in a balanced equation represent the molar ratios in which elements and compounds react
  • The theoretical yield for a reaction can be calculated using the reaction ratios
  • The percent yield for a reaction is based on the quantity of product actually produced compared to the quantity of product that should theoretically be produced.
  • The reactant that runs out first is called the limiting reactant because it determines how much product can be produced
  • The pressure, volume, temperature and moles of an ideal gas can be related through the universal gas constant






Chemistry, more like cheMYSTERY to me! – The Mole

We are just chugging along in chemistry this year. On to Unit 7! First let’s recap Unit 6:

  • Chemical reactions can be identified by a change in color, temperature or odor or the formation of a precipitate or a gas
  • Particles can rearrange during a chemical reaction but mass must be conserved (total number of particles does not change)
  • Chemical reactions occur in predictable patterns
  • It takes energy to break bonds and energy is released when bonds are formed
  • Exothermic reactions release heat when the chemical energy of the system is decreased. Endothermic reactions absorb heat when the chemical energy of the system is increased.

We have finally arrived at the mole! I know this ordering of units is a little strange but I have found that students do much better with stoichiometry if they are coming right off the mole unit.

Packing Peanut Challenge

The beginning of my mole unit is based on the concept of relative mass. I start by presenting students with this large bag of packing peanuts, a balance, and a small sample of packing peanuts and say “figure out how many packing peanuts are in here, you can’t open the bag.”


It takes students a few minutes to formulate a plan but eventually they realize they need to use the mass of their sample of packing peanuts to set up a proportion. This establishes the idea that we can count by massing. This technique is really useful when you have a large amount of something or when you need to count things that are very small (in the case of atoms, both!).

Relative Mass Activity

The packing peanuts challenge leads nicely into a more in-depth relative mass activity. I adapted this relative mass activity from the Modeling Instruction materials because I didn’t have any hardware but I did have paperclips, metal shot and pennies. In the activity, students are given vials with the same number of the aforementioned objects in each vial.


Students complete a series of calculations converting between mass and number of items. The activity ends with students calculating the relative masses of the items and comparing those relative masses to numbers on the periodic table. At this point, I make the connection that the atomic masses on the periodic table are all relative (first to hydrogen, now to carbon). Since scientists could not measure the mass of a single atom, a common sample size of particles was needed to compare masses of different elements: this is the mole. Right now, it does not matter how many particles are in a mole. All we need to know is the atomic mass on the periodic table is the mass of one mole of an element. Hence, we call this the molar mass.

I extend this discussion with a bean challenge. I give each group a vial of 50 white beans, a vial of 50 red beans, a vial with an unknown quantity of bean compounds (2 white beans and 1 red bean) and an empty vial. Students are given the challenge to determine how many bean compounds are in the mystery vial. This task requires students to find the mass of 2 white beans and 1 red bean (like finding the molar mass of a compound) and then set up a ratio to determine the number of bean compounds in the vial (like calculating the number of moles in a sample when given the mass). Students are generally able to then quickly make the connection between calculating the mass of a bean compound and calculating the molar mass of a chemical compound.


After completing these two activities, students can very easily move to practicing mass/mole conversion calculations.

Once students have relative mass down, we can figure out exactly how big a mole is.

Size of Mole

I start the discussion about the size of a mole by asking students to measure out a mole of water. This takes a little bit on thinking initially but eventually students remember from Unit 1 that the density of water is 1 g/mL so 1 mole of water would be equal to about 18 mL of water.


I then ask students “how many particles of water do you think make up that 18 mL by order of magnitude?” Students usually guess around the order of magnitude of one trillion to 1oo trillion. They are always very surprised to learn that they grossly underestimated. I follow up this discussion with some fun, size of a mole calculations to put that giant number in perspective. Did you know that a mole of basketballs would fit in a ball bag roughly the size of the Earth?

Students are then able to complete mole/particles conversion calculations and two-step conversion calculations. While students complete these calculations, I also have them working on the multi-day nail lab.

Nail Lab

I use the nail lab to introduce the concept of empirical formula. Students observe the reaction of an iron nail with copper (II) chloride, only they do not know which ion of copper was used. Students figure out how much copper was produced and how much chlorine was used, and then calculate the mole ratio and find the empirical formula. This lab takes 3 days (set-up, collect the precipitate, dry and measure the precipitate). Since each step does not take a whole class period, I do this in conjunction with mole/particle conversion calculations. I have also used the synthesis of magnesium oxide lab for determining an empirical formula which can be done in one class period (not counting the discussion).


Empirical and Molecular Formulas

After the nail lab, I jump right into calculating empirical and molecular formulas. For next year, I think I will make a more distinct transition from empirical to molecular formulas as this year my students had some trouble delineating the two. I use hydrogen peroxide and glucose as my poster child examples for the difference between empirical and molecular formulas.

To practice with empirical and molecular formulas, I have students play a round of whiteboard speed dating (see Kelly O’Shea’s blog) with a crime scene problem. The FBI has analyzed a white powder and they need to know if it is Tylenol (like the suspect claims) or cocaine. Students analyze the data and decided what to report back to the FBI.

Additionally, I have students work on “The Strange Case of Mole Airlines.” This activity was originally published in the Journal of Chemical Education and can be easily found with a quick Google search. This activity provides a wealth of practice with empirical formulas and also gives students the chance to form some conspiracy theories! Next year, I hope to set up a whole crime scene for students analyze!


Unit 7 Practicum

As will all units, I wrap up Unit 7 with a practicum. I had students calculate the formula of a hydrate. Students came up with the general lab procedure as a class (evaporate off the water and calculate the change in mass) and completed the experiment and calculations within their groups.


The practicum puts a wrap on Unit 7! Let’s sum up what we added to the model so far…

  • Molar masses on the periodic table are relative to 12 g of Carbon-12 or 1 mole of carbon
  • There are 6.02 x 10^23 particles in a mole
  • Empirical formulas represent the simplest ratio in which elements combine and can be calculated using mole ratios
  • Molecular formulas represent the actual number of atoms of each element that occur in the smallest unit of a molecule. This may be the same as the empirical formula.

That unit sets us up well for what I call the top of chemistry mountain, stoichiometry!