Creating stories in chemistry

Our brains lock onto stories. Our experiences are one story after another, each contributing to the long story we call life. As such, our brains are used to comprehending things presented in the format of a story1. Using a story format to present information to our students seems like a natural way of engaging students in what may otherwise be pretty dry content.

I recently re-did a couple presentations that go over some basics of chemical reactions. I decided to try crafting the information into some sort of story format. I won't say this presentation is a great story, but I think it's a definite improvement on simply throwing the information up on the screen and saying, "This is how it is."

I'd like to continue the meme (of sorts) started by Darren2 and continued by Damian of opening up these presentations to public comment and critique. What would you do to improve upon them? What stinks? What works?

Chemical Reaction Basics

Types of Chemical Reactions


  1. I thought I had several articles speaking to the brain's special liking for stories cached away, but when it came to write this, I couldn't find them anywhere. If you know of any please leave a link in the comments.(back)
  2. and thanks to Dan for bringing it to my attention. I notice this meme has a pretty strong correlation with names that start with the letter "D." (back)

Nearly text free (and loving it)

I used the following presentation to go over how and why to balance chemical equations with my 9th graders:

Balancing Chemical Rx

View SlideShare presentation or Upload your own. (tags: chemistry chemical)

The concept itself isn't complex, but instruction often gets bogged down in providing students with a list of specific steps to follow (First, count the number of atoms, second...).  Suddenly it goes from being a simple concept to a complex procedure which almost requires students to actually memorize the specific steps.

I started with a quick review of the Law of Conservation of Mass (matter cannot be created or destroyed, though it can be rearranged), and then jump into the teeter-totter analogy to explain why unbalanced equations violate this law. We then worked through some examples together.

With each repetition I increasingly withdrew my support. By the third example students could go through and balance equations without me around. They didn't need to follow a prescribed set of steps. They knew that you can''t have more oxygen atoms on one side of the reaction than the other and worked through to figure out the balanced equation.

As for technological savvy to create the edited images of the sign: I did all image editing in PowerPoint itself; which is to say it's pretty basic and pretty crude.


Artifacts #2- Chemical reaction primer

Part 2 of the Chemical Reaction Artifact series. Part 1 describes what an artifact of learning is and why I use them.

I'm not someone who really enjoys being the center of attention. I don't enjoy talking for longer than 5-10 minutes a time during class and yet I found myself being the center of attention talking much more than I would've liked during my classes. I had had enough. The dissonance between how I operate best and how I was actually operating led to the following project.

The idea

Students go through the unit on chemical reactions creating a different artifact for each of the three sections in the unit. The artifact must clearly communicate their understanding of the required content. They were free to choose whichever format they felt most comfortable using- most students gravitated towards a wiki-page, PowerPoint presentations, or some form of a newspaper/textbook document.

Documents given to students on day 1 of the project:


I decided early in the planning phases that I would avoid the perhaps more typical model of teaching the material traditionally (notes, lecture, review, etc.) up front, then having students work on a project as the assessment. I wanted the learning process to be wrapped up in the process of creation. However, I needed to support the students' learning. I couldn't just give them the rubric and tell them to get busy- they needed (and desired) some support. I decided to implement two support structures in order to help students while still keeping much of the onus of content learning on them.

Quick & Dirty Overviews. I did a brief (10 minutes max.) explanation of the required content broken down into three sections based upon how I broke down the content in the rubric. In addition to this, on the wiki-page for the project, I embedded an old presentation that I had used several years ago as notes for this section. I explicitly told students that these overviews covered only the bare-bones basics. It was their job to flesh these ideas out, provide examples, images, diagrams, and really show that they've mastered these ideas. These overviews served as a safety blanket for many students. The artifact was big and scary, and the overviews were just a touch of that style of teaching they'd grown used to over their schooling career.

Collaborative Groups. I placed students randomly into groups of three. At the conclusion of each day they worked on their artifacts, they met in their collaborative groups. Their requirements in the groups were to: (1) show each other what they have done of their artifacts so far, (2) help each other find resources for information/images/video, (3) check that everyone is citing their sources appropriately, (4) check that each others' information is correct.

Students were somewhat resistant to meeting in their collaborative groups. They wanted to keep working on their own artifacts, not waste time seeing what other people are doing. Students didn't do a great job of sharing useful links with each other and the thought of (in the future) getting students to use common tags in delicious or diigo crossed my mind. However, I'm unsure whether the time required to get students up to speed on social bookmarking would be worth the possible benefits. What was a major success was simply getting students to see what each other are doing. Getting to see how other people used images, organized their information, cited their sources, and so on seemed to be very helpful to many students.


It'd just be wrong to not have a couple labs when learning about chemical reactions. This section included two labs.

Exothermic and Endothermic Reactions. Students create two chemical reactions; one exothermic (adding yeast to hydrogen peroxide) and one endothermic (dissolving ammonium nitrate into water- it's not really a chemical reaction but it does get very cold).

Types of Chemical Reactions. Five reactions that demonstrate the five basic types of chemical reactions. Clicking the following links takes to you photos taken of the reactions as students performed them:

In the end

Students will upload their completed artifacts to the class wiki for all to see. At the time of this writing, students have completed their artifacts, but the upload process will happen this Monday (12/8). When they're all up I'll be sure to share.

My goal is to begin using the class wiki somewhat like a portfolio for student work. Each student will have a page on which they post their artifacts and other assignments completed throughout the year. I'm starting a little late on this for the current semester, but I hope to improve the practice in the future.



Part of the Chemical Reaction Artifact series of posts:


Image Sources: