Chemistry, condoms and the Colosseum

The Colosseum, Rome

The Colosseum, Rome

One of the most successful inquiry activities that I did this year wasn’t successful because of my careful planning or my skill.  It wasn’t successful because of expensive equipment or great lab space.  It wasn’t successful because of technology integration or guest experts.

It was successful because I took a chance.

It was successful because I said, “yes.”

I had wanted my Chemistry students to test the effects of acid on various materials.  I demonstrated for them the effect of sulfuric acid on a pop can (if you’ve never seen it, here’s a good video of it).  They read about acid rain and brainstormed a list of possible materials to expose to acid.  The students came up with things like wood, plastic, copper, aluminum, etc.  We brainstormed our scientific question as a class: “what is the effect of acid rain on different materials and why does it affect them differently?” or something like that – this question really isn’t important.  What’s important is what happened next.

I asked them to come up with their own subquestion under our class question and then gave them time to brainstorm.

When they called me over and said can we do _______? I said, “yes.” (Okay, so I asked a few clarifying questions first and made sure they had a clear idea but the gist of the conversation was, “yes.”)

One group asked if they could test the effect of acid rain on different types of building materials, using major world landmarks as their guide (the Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower, the Colosseum, the Great Pyramid, etc.).  I said, “yes.”

Another group asked if they could test the effect of acid rain on metal that had been painted, clear coated, both or neither (because they like cars).  I said, “yes.”

Yet another group decided to test the effects of acids on condoms.  That was a hard one to agree to, believe me, but I said “yes” anyway.  Nevermind the pile of open condom wrappers in the garbage, Mr. Custodian, it’s all in the name of science!

By saying, “yes” to their ideas, to their questions, I said yes to a lot of other things:

I said, “yes” to student engagement.

I said, “yes” to authentic inquiry.

Most importantly, I said, “yes” to LEARNING – both mine and theirs.

9 thoughts on “Chemistry, condoms and the Colosseum

  1. Great post! Lots of teachers fear what will happen when you let your students “go,” (going off script, losing control of the procedure, safety, etc). When you trust your students, and raise your expectations, they always meet (or exceed) them.

  2. I agree that fear plays a huge role in teacher resistance to inquiry. I’m not going to pretend that every student is perfectly on task all the time in my classes. However, I don’t think quietly dozing off during a lecture is on task either…

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  4. My son did an experiment much like this when he was in the sixth grade. He carved Easter Island heads from large chalk sticks and dropped vinegar on them over a period of time. He thought of it entirely by himself; I still have his hypothesis papers. Oh, and I agree completely with your post. Excellent.

  5. @Mamacita – thanks for taking the time to drop a comment!

    The beauty of this project is how much the students were able to learn about chemistry! They learned about reactivity, metals and nonmetals, acids, plastics, and so much more. They learned a lot more than I could have “taught” them in the same period of time about all of these varied topics!

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  8. Can I ask how you ran the tests to test the different substances? I am asking for procedures. As a third year teacher with my first year of teaching an integrated physics and chemistry course I have a lot to learn about different lab procedures. (I am an ecologist, specialized in botany, by training. Chemistry was not my strong point.

  9. b chase,

    Honestly, that’s the beauty of inquiry!

    The kids created their own procedures to do these tests. They did a lot of research and planning and I approved their experimental designs. I made a few suggestions here and there to steer them towards a productive path.

    Otherwise, all of the hard work was theirs!

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