How-to: Prepare for a lab (spreadsheets, FTW)

"They just didn't understand where Excel would be useful for them."

-Overheard a a recent district tech committee meeting by an individual who recently gave an Excel workshop.1

I, for one, have no problem finding value.

Exhibit A: Iodine Clock Reaction

The Iodine Clock Reaction demonstrates incredibly well the effect that temperature, concentration, and catalysts have upon the rate of a chemical reaction. The results are clear and the reaction itself is a fan favorite (watch it). As a result, I've always included it as a lab. However, it requires preparing a lot of solutions. Added on top of this are the calculations I had to do each year to figure out how much solution to make and the mass of all the reactants I needed. The calculations took almost as long as preparing the solutions (and I have to do them each time around since I have different numbers each semester).

I realized last year that although it would take longer to set up initially, if I could create a spreadsheet that automatically calculates all those amounts for me it would save me boat loads of time in the long run. This semester it took me a grand total of 5 seconds to do all my calculations for this lab. I updated it this year with some conditional formatting that makes sure the total volumes of solution it kicks out provide me with a little extra2.

Check it:

This is a copy of my original spreadsheet, so feel free to kick the tires and look under the hood. If you can think of a better way to do it, I'm open to suggestions. View it in Google Docs if you'd like to play around.

Exhibit B: WolframAlpha

I haven't (along with most of the world) been floored by WolframAlpha. It does some neat tricks, but it isn't (a) easy to use, and it (b) doesn't meet 99% of my searching needs. I used it now and then to find how long I've been alive or what time the sun sets, but that changed when I realized it did some nifty calculations for solutions. Want to calculate how many grams of potassium iodate you need to make 900 mL of a 0.2 Molar solution? Done.

900 mL 0.2 M KIO3


  • Handout for the iodine clock reaction lab


  1. There are all sorts of issues I have with this thought- probably are deserving of their own post. Seems like any workshop needs to start with why this skill/technique is something worth learning.     (back)
  2. You know, for those accidents and absent-minded students.     (back)

Take 2: Student produced video projects

I previously vented my frustrations about the losing so much time to preventable problems while doing my first video project, though despite these issues I decided to give it another go. I feel the project design is pretty strong, so I didn't want to just scrap it because of some technical issues. After today's "Grand Premiere" of student videos, I'm very glad I didn't give up on it.

Why did it go so much better this time around?

I'm not entirely sure, but I'm going to suggest it was mainly due to two factors:

  1. I was better able to anticipate where we'd run into problems. Last semester I was blind-sided several times leading to lots of scrambling and inefficiency. We ran into similar problems this time, but I already had a protocol in place for how to deal with these issues1.
  2. I had exemplars. I could point to some well-made videos from last semester to illustrate my expectations. More than anything, I was impressed by the overall increase of video quality this semester.

The Grand Premiere

I haven't always done a great job at championing my students' work. One thing I admire about Christian Long is how frequently he tells his students how awesome they are. (especially visible during the Alice Project & the 1984 project). I'm generally proud of my students, but I felt I needed to celebrate their work in a more special and obvious way.

Today I popped 12 bags of microwave popcorn during my prep and stitched together their finished video projects complete with introductory fanfare, the THX sound, an opening red curtain, and a fun intermission song. We spent about half the class simply watching each others' videos2.

The videos

Enough of me. More of them. Here are every one of my 2nd block's video projects. Feel free to leave comments on this post or on the the YouTube video pages. I'll be sure to share your comments (both praises & critiques) with my students.

(Update: This post has received a lot of attention by people doing Comments 4 Kids. While I'm grateful for that, unfortunately the kids really don't read this blog. My suggestion would be to leave comments on each video's YouTube page. That way the students are much more likely to see your comments. Thanks!)

Alkali Metals:

Alkaline-Earth Metals:

Transition Metals:

Metalloids & Semi-Conductors in Plain English:


Noble Gases:


  1. For a more detailed explanation, see my guest post over at the Free Tech 4 Teachers site.      (back)
  2. We later did, and are still doing, some self- and peer-assessments.     (back)

Launching "Science Cast"

I'm a little concerned by the word, "pilot."

I'm in the midst of ramping up my students for 5 solid weeks of self-directed learning related to climate change. Uncharacteristically, I cleared the proposal with my principal and the science curriculum director before going forward with the plan. I was given "permission" to pilot this program.

Despite all the recent "21st Century Skills" and "self-directed learners" talk around school, the standard-driven CAPT (our state standardized test) reigns supreme. My 9th grade Integrated Science class has a rather extensive list of content standards I'm supposed to cover. I know my 5-week self-directed unit won't cover as many official standards as 5-weeks spent teaching a traditional curriculum.

I'm attempting to more efficiently use class time by exporting some of the content delivery outside the classroom. I saw a video some time ago about chemistry teachers who did something similar, and was recently reminded of the video by a tweet from Ben Grey.

After playing with several options of how to record & publish the video podcasts (I found Wes Fryer's recent posts on LectureCasting very helpful), I created a new subdomain (, recorded video through UStream using CamTwist, then published the podcast to a WordPress blog & uploaded the video to Vimeo as a redundancy backup. I've submitted my podcast to iTunes so the video will be viewable on students' mobile devices1.

A few observations about the process:

  • It took longer to prepare, record, edit, and post than I would like. I know it'll get faster the more experience I have, but I'm not sure I have the time to do this for every section.
  • There were lots of failures. I can't tell you how many times I had to sit down and work through some issue I was having.
  • The end result is pretty boring. Some students said they parts of it funny or interesting, but I think they were just being nice. To be fair, it'd be boring in class, as well, right?

The first episode (The Periodic Table [& valence electrons]) is below. What do you think? Is this worth the effort?

The Periodic Table (and valence electrons) from Mr. Wildeboer on Vimeo.


  1. Update: The podcast has now been approved and is available on iTunes. I'm waiting to hear back from iTunes about its approval.      (back)

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)

Element card results

A big thank you to all of you who voted on my classes' element cards. In general I would say the project was a success. The front of the cards were generally decorated, though the backs of the cards were usually pretty lacking despite my appeals to make both sides visually appealing.

If you missed my earlier post where I explained the project please visit. I've also updated that post to include links to files of the handout I give students.

2nd Block

1st place: Plutonium


2nd Place: Carbon


3rd Place: Fluorine


3rd Block

1st place: Neon


2nd place: Aluminum


3rd place: Sulfur



4th Block

1st place: Potassium


2nd place: Calcium


3rd place: Tin


Now I just need to do this for a few more years until I get a complete set of element cards. 🙂

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:

Calming periodic fears

It's really not that scary, especially at the level high school freshmen need to know it. The periodic table, however, is something almost inherently deemed as incomprehensible by incoming students. To them it's something to be feared not something to be understood. After some ineffective periodic table teaching for a few years I realized I needed a better approach.

Sometimes you just get lucky

Students really didn't understand what an element's atomic number and atomic mass meant, nor how they could find the number of protons, neutrons, and electrons simply by looking at the periodic table. Our school had just gotten a couple laptop carts, and I figured I would try to create a little assignment utilizing websites that took students through the concepts of atomic number, atomic mass, reading a periodic table, ions, and more. What I created was this sheet. It is one of the very few online assignments I've ever created which hasn't needed major overhauls in order to be as effective as I'd like. I've never had a computer-based assignment be as instantly successful as this.This year was the fourth year I've used this. I look forward to it every year- it's a great "aha!" day. 😉

How I do it

I'm constantly walking around while they're filling this out. Whenever I see mistakes I ask students how they came to that number. It's a battle to fend off misconceptions from forming. I never give answers, I simply ask them to explain how they got their answer and ask them to verify their process against what they've looked up previously. This generally heads off 98% of errors students make.

The Sheet

  • Atomic Information Assignment (WORD) (PDF)
  • BONUS! A worksheet I drop a day or two (or more) after doing the initial sheet. It gives me a good idea how well they're picking it up.


Scream by marysia
Periodic Table image
from Wikipedia