Digital Media for Today’s Chemistry Classroom

This post originally appeared September 15, 2014 on the American Association of Chemistry Teachers’ Blog

Chemistry has the distinction of being the only science with iconography. A periodic table hangs in every chemistry classroom and laboratory around the world. Most people who have never taken any chemistry can point it out the same way everyone understands that the golden arches mean McDonald’s. It is ironic then that chemistry is the only science that has no practical way to show students evidence of the things we, as chemistry teachers, talk about every day. Biology teachers have microscopes to reveal the cell and physics instructors need nothing more than a ball to show projectile motion. The beakers full of liquids and jars of white powder in chemistry need help to identify what they really are. Even in everyday life most people, for example, associate the well-known chemical caffeine with a dark liquid, not a double-ringed structure made of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, and oxygen.

Fortunately for today’s chemistry teacher, we live in the golden age of internet-based resources that can provide the visual heavy lifting. The American Chemical Society’s (ACS’s) “Reactions” series (previously “Bytesize Science”) has been a welcome addition to my classroom for a number of years now. I love these videos for their high-interest topics, their expert commentary, their succinct storytelling, and of course the visualizations. There is even a video about caffeine.

I teach adults high school-level chemistry, and the first ACS “Reactions” video I showed my class was on the chemistry of champagne shortly after New Year’s Eve 2011. It shows the structure of glucose, fructose, carbon dioxide and ethanol. The short cartoon lends these chemicals a reality in the familiar context of bubbly. It may not be appropriate for every teacher to highlight the science of an alcoholic beverage in their classroom, but for me it was a fun way to get my students’ heads back into chemistry after a long break. Luckily, most of the “Reactions” videos are suitable for all ages.

Beyond visualization, I use these videos because they are engaging. Nothing breaks up a boring class like showing a five-minute interlude on a related topic. This gives my lessons a “Sesame Street” quality. It allows students to reset their brains back to the concept they are discussing or the math they are doing with a fresh perspective. For example, around mid-November, as the snow is starting to fall, I teach polarity. Just as eyes are glazing over, I show “The Chemistry of Snowflakes,” then we connect the six-sided nature of snowflakes we saw in the video to the uneven sharing of electrons we were just learning about. As an added bonus, I have often noted that students tend to buy-in to a concept more after they’ve heard it and seen it in a video or animation.

Another important reason I like to include resources like ACS “Reactions” videos into my lessons is that they are exactly the type of digital media students today consume on a daily basis. I encourage my students to use their mobile devices for learning, and this is content provided by “Reactions” fits that philosophy. I want my classroom to reflect the wider world, and so I welcome electronic resources, which enhance my teaching and also make studying and learning more like entertainment.. I love when a student tells me they posted something I showed in class on Facebook or watched it with a classmate on the bus ride home. No one has ever told me they went home and asked their friends to turn to page 37 in their textbook to see something cool (sorry textbooks). Short, digital media are used by newspapers and magazines, organizations such as TED Talks, and even late-night talk shows to drive interest to their material. The resources created by the ACS “Reactions,” and now the American Association of Chemistry Teachers, do just that for chemistry. They help me to reach students in ways I couldn’t just a few short years ago. Videos such as “The Chemistry of Sriracha,” “The Chemistry of Fireworks,” as well as topical shorts for various holidays and events like the World Cup are all fun, shareable, and social media-ready. This is our students’ language. It helps me make chemistry accessible and relatable to everyone in my class.

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One Comment on “Digital Media for Today’s Chemistry Classroom”

  1. eileen burchill says:

    Wait … are you implying your classes are boring??????
    Keep going with the awesome work.


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