Review: Middle School Chemistry

Middle School Chemistry from the American Chemical Society is my favorite homeschooling find of the year for the 2010/11 school year.  It’s their free offering to schools and individuals, and it is science education at its best.  After a rather ho-hum run through Real Science 4 Kids Chemistry I (which I reviewed here), my younger and I were looking for more chemistry to learn.  He wanted plenty of hands-on time but without the dangerous chemicals (sulphuric acid, hydrochloric acid, and other nasties) the older boys were using for their high school chemistry class.  I was in agreement and actively searching for the next step when the ACS Middle School Chemistry curriculum appeared on an email list.

Middle School Chemistry is inquiry based science, meaning that rather than starting a lesson with terms and definitions, each lesson starts with questions.  Generally, a demonstration follows that leads to further thinking on the concept, which is followed by an experiment, sometimes requiring the child to make decisions on the design.  In the second lesson, a discussion of variables and controls provides language for experiment design.  Additional experimental design guidance appear throughout the following chapters.   Terms and concepts are discussed after demonstrations and experiments.  Nothing is taught out of context.  For every concept, the student has watched the result of the concept and experimented with the process.  Thus a student has working knowledge of the concept even before it has a name.  This is not, “Oh, look at that!” science.  Rather this is, “So that’s how that works!” science.

That’s the idea of inquiry learning.  What does it look like in practice?  Chapter 2.3 focuses on condensation.  By this point, the student understands that molecules are in motion and that increasing heat increases molecular motion.  They’ve experimented with these principles and watched brief animations of simple diagrams of molecules in motion.  In the lesson on state changes (going from solid, to liquid, to gas and the reverse), the student first watches the state change occurs in an experiment demonstration.  In this lesson, a glass of ice water left on the counter is compared with a glass of ice water enclosed in a plastic bag with much of the air pushed out.  The student can observe the higher level of moisture on the outside of the glass exposed to the air and can surmise that water came from the air.  Simple stuff, right?

But the focus of the unit is molecular movement and energy transfer.  As the water molecules in the gaseous state lose energy to the cold glass (heat transfer/energy transfer), they move to the liquid state.  Often the movement of molecules is left until higher level chemistry.  So while a younger child may memorize the order of the state changes, the idea that the varying speed of the molecules (and more) is what determines a solid, liquid, or gas, is often omitted.  But not in Middle School Chemistry.  In this lesson, condensation examples are elicited from the students and discussed.  The process is observed as well.  After discussing experimental design, the student does an experiment to determine what temperature conditions accelerate condensation.  Online short animations model the molecular motion at each stage, and knowledge can be extended to water purification experiments and exploration of other factors that influence that state change of water. Plenty of questions for the student to answer on paper or aloud as the lesson proceeds gives sufficient opportunity to process and retain the new information.  Since each lesson builds on the one before, older information is continually used and expanded beyond.

This isn’t science as it is usually taught.  It’s certainly not science as I learned it in school.  The National Research Council defines inquiry science this way:

Scientific Inquiry refers to the diverse ways in which scientists study the natural world and propose explanations based on the evidence derived from their work. Inquiry also refers to the activities of students in which they develop knowledge and understanding of scientific ideas, as well as an understanding of how scientists study the natural world. (From Doing Science:  The Processes of Scientific Inquiry — this link takes you to an NIH curriculum supplement on Inquiry Science for grades 6 – 8.  I’ll review those supplements later.)

This isn’t science as recommended as by The Well Trained Mind and other classical education models.  And it’s not the process of teaching science used by any homeschool science programs I’ve found (although Nebel offers a fine elementary curriculum for grade K-5).  Singapore Science does contain some inquiry, but the labs are somewhat challenging for homeschoolers.  ACS’s Middle School Chemistry is chemistry taught from the roots up, with molecular motion and activity at the core.  It’s by far the best accessible chemistry program I’ve seen for elementary or middle schoolers.  And it’s free.

All the materials can be printed or read from their online side or downloaded to any device that reads PDF files.  I print out the student pages (4 to 7 pages per lesson) and teach from the book on my iPad.  Alas, the demos aren’t viewable on the iPad, so we head to the Mac or PC laptop for that.  There are also 6 to 10 pages of printable text for the child for each of the six chapters, which I’ve assigned my son to read at the end of the chapter.  These short, illustrated chapters are fine summaries of the material learned and supplement the lessons nicely, and they are designed to do just that — summarize what has been learned during the inquiry and discovery lesson.  This is a teacher/parent intensive program (meaning you can’t just hand it to your child and let them plug away — discussion is part of the game), but preparation is minimal.  Most importantly, my nine-year-old is learning chemistry in a deep, meaningful way.  He’s learning to design an experiment to answer his own questions, complete with correctly identified variables and controls.  He’s learning a number of lab skills at an early age.

I’d recommend the American Chemical Society’s Middle School Chemistry to anyone with a later elementary or middle-school aged child who is willing to walk together with their child through chemistry.  I’d guess plenty of parents can learn quite a bit about matter and how the molecular world works, and this program makes it fun.  While it’s written for the 6th though 8th grade crew, it could definitely be used younger with a quick learner interested in science.  It’s suitable for co-op use.  There is a small amount of math involved in the course, but comfort with fractions and decimals (needed when figuring densities) is sufficient.  There is sufficient material to spread the course over a year, as one might in a co-op setting, although we preferred to devour it more quickly (“Can we do Chemistry, Mom? Please!”).

Middle School Chemistry from ACS uses simple, safe, and easily obtainable materials.  While these lists may seem long, you probably have many of the ordinary materials on the second list on hand.  All the materials on the not-so-ordinary list can be used for later chemistry studies.

Not-so-ordinary materials (beyond items found at craft stores and grocery stores)

Ordinary materials:

  • Styrofoam cups
  • Isopropyl alcohol, 70%
  • Clear plastic cups
  • Styrofoam balls, 1″ (4)  and 1.5″ (2)
  • Salt
  • Sugar
  • Epsom salts
  • Mineral oil
  • M&Ms
  • Food coloring
  • Corn Syrup
  • Club Soda
  • Pipe Cleaners
  • Cornstarch
  • Talcum powder
  • Instant hot packs (2)
  • Instant cold packs (2)
  • MSG (Accent flavoring is MSG.  It’s available at Asian groceries under other names.)
  • Baking Soda (sodium bicarbonate)
  • Tea light candles
  • Vinegar
  • Alka-seltzer
  • Household ammonia
  • Hydrogen Peroxide, 3%
  • Glow sticks (2)
  • Cream of Tartar
  • Tincture of Iodine
  • Cornstarch
  • Vinegar
  • Popsicle sticks
  • Citric acid (try the canning section of the grocery store or a natural food store)
  • Balloons
  • Toothpicks
  • Quart-sized ziploc style bags


10 thoughts on “Review: Middle School Chemistry

  1. Great review. I don’t think Daniel’s math skills are quite there yet, though they are coming along. I may look for it in the future.

  2. I’ll check it out- see if there is anything we use with Ki. His math skills are no where near ready for the high school chemistry his brothers are doing. I do some of the less-mathy sections with him, we find demonstrations & experiments online, etc.

    • The math is minimal and could be taught along the way or actually just demonstrated. Density is what comes to mind, and that can be taught with plenty of words and less numbers if need be. Breanna, I think Daniel would eat it up.

  3. So my 9th grader is finishing up your Highschool Biology- we really enjoyed it. I wished that all my kids had studied biology this year – so we could have crossed over some of the great resources. I’m really thinking we will use your Highschool Chemistry. (maybe its up for you again next year??) Will ACS work well for my 8th and 6th grader. I don’t want to teach 5 different science subjects next year – got a little crazy. So, will ACS match up with your HIghschool at times? What would you reccomend for my 3rd grader? I agree that inquiry based is the best! I’ll be looking at this and the one you mentioned for elementary in this review. Any thoughts would be helpful.

  4. Could you comment on how you schedule this. One day a week? Spread over 4 days? How much time a week for experiment part for reading part? Other?

    • We didn’t spend even an entire semester on the course, instead just finding time a few days a week. It’s been several years, so that’s be best answer I can give you. The reading was independent and the labs were explored together. Prep time is minimal, and I think you could easily extend the ideas with some living books or just go through what’s there. I can’t imagine stretching it over more than a semester, however, and even that would be a reach.

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