​​​​​​​Engaging students in more authentic chemistry
Lisa Fitzgerald, High School Faculty and Chemistry Teacher

Heat Lamps, ice blocks, and sea salt. Oh my!  

The chemistry lab was bustling this week with young chemists performing sea level rise experiments that they designed themselves. Focusing on different variables, they collected data to determine why sea levels are rising faster on the East Coast rather than on the West Coast of the United States. In the process, they applied their knowledge of Kinetic Molecular Theory, experimental design, and countless other skills. 

Often chemistry focuses on the small elements, things we can’t see with the naked eye. It can seem like chemistry is a bunch of numbers and incomprehensible words, unrelatable for students in their everyday lives. By engaging in authentic assessments, students applied their learning to real-world problems in order to find tangible solutions. As a result, we linked the small stuff to the bigger picture.

Research suggests that engaging students in authentic assessments, instead of traditional tests and quizzes, creates deeper learning. These authentic assessments include a decision-making component where students decide the best way to apply their learning to the complex scenarios. 

When my students designed their own sea level experiments, they collect data to see if their chosen factor was contributing to sea level rise. At the end of their experiments, students evaluated whether their factor was indeed a contributor to sea level rise, but also whether they created a valid test of this relationship. Because students designed the experiments themselves, it gave them ownership of their learning and greater meaning in the outcome. In the end, the entire class benefited from the different variables that each pair tested. 

In conclusion, not all of the students’ experiments elicited a pattern. Some groups’ had inconclusive results. This is another benefit of not doing scripted experiments, because this happens to scientists in real life. Not all experiments give good results. Indecisive results are part of lifelong learning and leaves space for self-evaluation of whether students reached their goal. It can be a lot more fun than taking a test.