Monday, October 20, 2014

Gravimetric Analysis: Is it worth the wait?

Waiting for the precipitate to settle!
One of the sixteen recommended labs in the AP Chemistry curriculum is a gravimetric analysis (GA) experiment using a metal carbonate to analyze the amount of calcium in hard water.  I read over the lab handout in the kit (Gravimetric Analysis of Calcium and Hard Water- Advanced Inquiry Laboratory Kit) and decided that I needed a lab that would be quicker than the guided inquiry version.  So I went to my "go-to" lab manual (Laboratory Experiments for Advanced Placement Chemistry, Guided-Inquiry Edition - Teacher Edition), which has all the classic AP Chemistry labs in the more traditional format, with detailed procedures and data charts to fill in.   I found the companion GA lab, but this time the metal carbonate is the unknown and the calcium carbonate product is used to determine the identity of the original alkali carbonate.  This version of the GA lab seemed like a nice and quick approach to teach my students the GA technique.

Waiting and more waiting! 
So we started the lab on a Tuesday, when we meet for a single block.  Each group received a sample of an alkali carbonate (either potassium carbonate or sodium carbonate) that they would identify using the GA technique.  The first step in the experiment was to dry the solid in a crucible because the alkali carbonates are hygroscopic.  Yes, you heard me, we dried the solid first.  So on the first day we heated and massed, then heated and massed some more, and then again.  By the end of the period everyone had dried, massed, and then dissolved their unknown alkali metals.  As the bell was ringing each group added the calcium chloride solution and barely had time to notice the precipitate that formed.





These two are very proud of their white precipitate.
On day two, the kids came in to see that their white calcium carbonate precipitate had settled nicely to the bottom of the beaker.  Now they had to decant and filter their solid.  Once again, the progress was slow and frustratingly tedious.  To get good results, we had to use quantitative filter paper, which by the way, filters really slowly.  Oh, did you remember to measure the mass of the filter paper before you started?!  Even AP students forget the basic steps, which is why they need to do these experiments so they can learn how to think like a chemist.  The kids decanted off the supernatant liquid into a waste beaker and started filtering the precipitate.  Everything was going along smoothly, but just very slow!  The bell rang on day two as the students rushed to get their wet filter paper into the drying oven and get out the door for their next class.

Here are the solids drying in the oven.
Day three started with a buzz in the air as the students opened the drying oven to see their products.  The white powdery solids were thoroughly dried and ready for the final mass.  The rush to get the solids out of the oven and onto the balance may have put us into a bit of a frenzy.  That's when tragedy happened:  one of my kids dropped his filter paper on the floor.  The calcium carbonate powder scattered into a fine dust all over the floor.  The boy was devastated.  He was on the verge of tears as he swept up the solid and loaded it into a weighing boat for a last-ditch effort to get an answer to their unknown identification.  His partner was incredibly kind even though he had just lost two days of lab work on the floor.  The excitement was replaced with a hush throughout the room and a "walking on eggshells" feeling.  None of the other groups wanted to lose their product on the floor; they were carrying the filter paper around like it held precious gems.  Day three ended with all the groups huddled together crunching the numbers, trying to figure out which solid they started with on Day One.

Is it over yet?  No!  On day four, the groups turned in their results and their identification of their
An analytical balance would be better, but we got good results.
alkali metal.  Everyone got it right, except for the group who dropped the product on the floor.  The experiment certainly wasn't much quicker than the guided inquiry version in the kit.  Was it worth the time?  My answer is yes.  How can you learn to think like a chemist if you don't do chemistry?  And, the lab accident taught us all to take good care of our experiments.  We all learned an important lesson about patience and careful lab technique along with the technique of GA.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Nomenclature: it's all in the cards!

Using the cards and cut outs to write chemical formulas
Nomenclature is a difficult topic to teach new chemistry students because of all the rules.  Is it ionic, molecular, multivalent, polyatomic, or a common name?  Sometimes the hardest part of this whole process is teaching kids to recognize the clues that tell them which rules apply to a a compound.  Nineteen years later, I have finally found a way to teach nomenclature that really works and is fun!  I have a series of card sets that I use to teach kids how to name ionic and binary molecular compounds that makes this lesson so much easier for everyone.

I love my demo sized ion cut outs.
I start the lesson with the basic definition of ionic compounds and binary molecular compounds.  I use a video for this part; the students watch it as homework.  Identifying Ionic and Molecular Compounds The next day in class I present the kids with a set of cards.  The green cards have the names of a variety of compounds, and the purple cards have the corresponding chemical formulas.  First they sort them into to two piles, and they spread out the set of chemical formulas cards.  I ask my student to sort them into two groups:  ionic compounds and binary molecular compounds (there are only four of the molecular and 12 of the ionic compounds).  Once they have sorted the stack, I tell them to find the correct name to go with each compound.  This is pretty easy for them because all the compounds have different elements or polyatomic ions (pais).  (They have a list of common pais on the back of their periodic table for quick reference.)   Once we have all the names and compounds correctly matched, we look for patterns in the names.  I ask the kids questions like "What do all the molecular compounds have in the names that make them different from the ionics?", or "Where are the metals with roman numeral located on the periodic table?" and the classic, "How do you know that a compound contains a pai?"  The light bulbs start to go off over everyones heads as they sort their pairs into groups and begin to see patterns in the nomenclature rules.  We follow up right away with some white board practice to drive the new ideas home.

An example of a compound from the ion cards and ion cut-outs.
Next we have to tackle writing the chemical formula from the names.  This is another tricky lesson to teach because there are so many pieces of information to evaluate with each compound the kids encounter.  Once again I turn to my cards for help.  This time I start with a set of  ion cards.  I made up cards with a wide range of cations and anions in the set.  To go along with the ions, I also have a set of ion cut-outs that the students can use as a visual aid to help derive the chemical formula of ionic compounds.  I ask my students to make a stack of cations and a stack of anions.  They draw a card from each pile and put them at the top of their white board.  Next they find the shapes that represent these two ions.  Using the shapes, they determine what ratio of cations and anions is necessary for create a neutral compound.  The final step is to write the correct chemical formula.  They also practice naming the compounds as they work through the cards, just to keep that skill fresh in their minds.  I tried to include every kind of ion that they would encounter:  ammonium, multivalent, pais, and main group elements.  Once the make it through the stack, they can reshuffle and have a whole new set of compounds to write.

A heated round of the Nomenclature Card Game.
The final piece of the nomenclature puzzle is writing the chemical formula from the name.  I have one more card game for this part of the lesson.  This time I use a card game that I made up that requires the students to recognize if a name represents part of an ionic compound or a molecular compound.  The cards in the deck have one half of the name of a compound.  For example, a card might read "nitrate" or "dioxide", or "carbon".  The students get five cards in their hand.  On their turn, they flip over the top card in the deck.  Let's say that card says "sodium".  The student has to make a complete (and correct) compound name by using a card in their hand.  Sodium is the first half of an ionic compound, so the student must put down a card with the name of an anion.  You can score a point by making a complete compound name using a card in your hand.  The second point comes from writing the correct chemical formula for the compound you made.  If you get the chemical formula wrong, another player can steal this point if they can write it correctly.  I give the winner of each group a prize from the coveted prize beaker.

Cation Cards
My progression of matching cards, ions cards, and the nomenclature card game have helped to make nomenclature a lively unit in my classroom that I enjoy teaching.


Anion Cards
I have a set of acid cards too to teach the kids how to name acids.  I throw that in the mix too.  The cards are especially helpful with acids because the naming rules are so different than the other compounds the learn.
Names and Chemical Formulas Cards





The acid names and chemical formula cards.











Wednesday, October 1, 2014

What's in Your Brass?

The copper solution from the brass and nitric acid reaction.
My AP Chemistry students just finished a fun spectroscopy lab to determine the amount of copper in a sample of brass shot.  This lab is a new twist on the classic "copper cycle" lab that AP Chemistry students have been doing for years.  The transformation from the classic copper cycle lab into a guided inquiry lab is part of the revised AP Chemistry curriculum which has a strong emphasis on application and inquiry-based problem.  (Experienced AP teachers, please don't start throwing things at your computer right now.  I know how much longer it takes to do these labs.)  We used the lab kit from Flinn Scientific called "Percent Copper in Brass:  AP Chemistry Big Idea 1, Investigation 2", publication #7643.

I added the nitric acid in the fume hood.
So we started with three pieces of brass shot.  We poured concentrated nitric acid (yes, the very nasty stuff) over the brass and watched as brown mustard gas was produced.  I want to take this moment to give a shout out to Tony who bought me a fume hood over the summer!  This lab would not be possible without it.   We lingered at the fume hood as we admired the beauty of this chemical reaction.

Eventually, once we all got our fill of watching copper oxidize, my kids went about the task of preparing standard solutions for a calibration curve that will allow them to determine just how much copper was in their brass sample.  The class worked cooperatively to prepare four solutions with concentrations ranging from 0.05 to 0.40 M of copper(II) nitrate.  Beer's law tells us that there is a linear relationship between the absorbance of a solution and the concentration.  No, there were no alcoholic beverages served in this experiment!   The quantity of the copper in the reaction mixture, and thus the brass shot sample, is calculated from the equation for the line in the calibration curve.  The data for this lab was so wonderful.  We got r-squared values of 0.99 and even a 1!

The reaction between copper and nitric acid is fun to watch.
After the reaction was done (it turns out we had to leave it over night to completely react), the only thing left to do was to dilute their reaction mixtures in the adorable 100-mL volumetric flasks and measure the absorbance of the solution.  So simple!  Three days of lab work led to the conclusion that the brass is around 70% copper, and that spectroscopy really isn't that bad!
One of the calibration curves from the lab, very nice.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Classification of Matter "Sandwich"



Watching the Iron and Sulfur reaction.
Classification of matter (COM) is usually the first "real" chemistry topic we tackle in a new year.  This  year I decided to make a "Lab Sandwich" with my classification of matter unit.   I also like to think of this unit as a pyramid, a swimming reference that seems to fit the symmetry of the unit.

To open the unit, I gave my students a mixture of iron, salt, sand, and pebbles to separate.  The lab groups made a flow chart with a detailed plan for obtaining pure samples of each of the four components.  As an extra challenge, I asked them to collect enough data to calculate the mass percent of the parts of the mixture.  I love starting the kids off with an inquiry lab that they really can't mess up.  This particular mixture demonstrates several different physical properties and gives them a chance to learn some basic lab techniques.  This lab is loosely based on Separation of a Mixture found in Flinn ChemTopic Labs:  Volume 1, Introduction to Chemistry.
The pure samples of iron, rocks, salt, and sand (green and brown sand).


Students working through the "Classification of Matter" POGIL
The meat in my COM sandwich is a POGIL that makes the transition from macroscopic observations of matter to the molecular level of matter.  I love this POGIL because the students get an introduction to chemical formulas and a hint of nomenclature along with a particulate perspective on elements, compounds, and mixtures.  This great activity is found in POGIL, Activities for High School Chemistry by Laura Trout.
Sorting the "samples" into elements, compounds, and mixtures.

Watching the iron-sulfur reaction.
The final layer, the icing on the cake you could say, is the famous Iron and Sulfur lab.  The Iron Sulfur Lab This lab is a classic, and we consider it a rite of passage for our chemistry students at Pomfret School.  In this lab, the students study the mixture of iron and sulfur and then they react the mixture to form the compound iron sulfide.  This is also an exciting lab because it's the first time the kids get to use the Bunsen burners.  The comparison of the physical and chemical properties of the new compound and the mixture of the elements is a wonderful culmination to the COM unit.
My labs are all over instagram!

The smell is all part of the experience.





Monday, September 15, 2014

Getting to Know You!

Students are looking for the mystery person on the card.
This year I decided to try a new "ice breaker" activity with my students to help get the students interacting with each other on the first day.  I handed out a 3x5 index card to each student in the class. The kids  divided the card into four sections by making a line down the middle in both the x and y direction.  In the top left they wrote their hometown and their dorm.  In the top right they wrote their favorite subjects in school.  In the bottom left corner each student wrote a word to end the sentence "I'd rather be...".  And the most challenge part of the card was the bottom right:  a random fact about yourself.  At this point there were no names on the cards.

When all the cards were completed, I collected them, shuffled the deck, and passed them out randomly
"Is this you?"
to the kids (only one person got his own card back all day, it was a lucky day!)  Here's where the kids had to get up and mingle; they were charged with finding the person represented on the card.  Once they found the correct student, I asked them to introduce themselves and talk about the facts shared on the card.  My students looked around the room for a few moments, wondering if they really had to stand up to do this activity.  I encouraged them all to get out of their chairs and mingle, and begin the search for the mystery person on their card.  With a little prompting, my students stood up and began talking to each other.  In about five minutes, the kids had all identified their mystery person.  At this point, I asked all the students to write their names in big letters on the back of their own card.

Our international students have so many interesting experiences.

The final part of this activity was to use the cards to find two other students in the class with similar interests.  Each self-selected group had to have something in common, using the information on the cards as a launching point.  As the kids divided up into groups, I checked in with them to learn what they had in common.  One group of three boys teamed up because they were all the youngest siblings in their family.  Another group formed because they all played musical instruments.  Three girls formed a group because they all love the beach.  I really enjoyed watching kids try to find common interests to form a team.  Once all the students had identified a group with similar interests,  I announced that this was their first lab group of the year.  The teams each received a sample of a mixture (iron, salt, sand, and rocks) that they had to separate and determine the percent mass of the mixture.  They were excited to learn that their group was staying together for a lab project.
Who can disagree with these favorite classes?

Over the next few days, I used the cards to practice the kids' names while they conducted their experiment.  I took advantage of the information on the cards to ask questions about each student's interests and hometown.  It was so nice to have a conversation starter to begin developing a relationship with each kid.

On the first quiz at the end of the week, I used their cards to make a "Who Am I" extra credit question.  Using the cards once again, I wrote a statement describing each kid in the class.  Everyone got at least their own clue correct on the quiz, but more importantly, the kids asked around to identify their classmates from the clues when they got their graded quiz back.  I included a different clue about myself on each quiz too.

Using this simple get-to-know-you activity has started the class off on a positive note.  The students got a chance to learn about each other, and I layed the groundwork for  a positive learning environment by taking time to meet each of my students.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Worthy of Mr. Wizard

Thank you to Linda Goodwin for writing my first guest blog post and to Jim Goodwin for providing these wonderful pictures of the event.

Linda is feeling the force from a spinning gyroscope.

The group of science enthusiasts at the Pomfret Library.

My husband’s idea of the perfect science teacher is Mr. Wizard from 1950s TV. He performed chemistry experiments with ordinary household substances and made it all fun. Sharon’s demonstration last night at the Pomfret Public Library was definitely worthy of Mr. Wizard. 

It was the culmination of the adult summer reading program with a science theme.  

Brian demonstrating rotational inertia.
Her husband Brian presented some physics demonstrations about magnetism and sound waves, and Sharon focused on acids, bases and pH, with hands-on participation. 
Interacting with a gyroscope.

She kept us mashing and liquefying while using cabbage juice as the baseline pH indicator. We then tested other natural substances to find their usefulness as indicators.  Kids as well as adults joined in.
Sharon and Micaela make the pH Rainbow with Red Cabbage Juice
When that was finished, we adjourned to the outdoor deck to see a long tube fill with gentle flames over a votive candle and from Brian more flames reacting to sound waves in music.
Testing the pH sensitivity of natural pigments.

Sharon prefaced her presentation by saying how much she liked to do community outreach. This is the third time I’ve seen her in action and I can truly say she conveys the message of science as an enjoyable and useful subject, just as a science ambassador should.

Monday, August 4, 2014

A Week Immersed in AP Chemistry at Goucher College

Now that it's the first week of August, it's time to get started on my planning for the fall.  I'm so grateful for these wonderful teachers I met at the AP Summer Institute at Goucher College in June.  Together we dove into all aspects of the AP Chemistry curriculum.  We had a lot of fun and we learned so much together.  I wish that all of them were close enough to meet for coffee during the school year!