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Tips for Teaching Chemistry in Physical Science

chemistry in physical science

While I am a life science girl at heart, chemistry was one of my favorite courses in high school (most likely because I had an amazing teacher for it who saw me all the way through from Chem 1 to AP Chem). But if I am perfectly honest with you, I was intimidated by teaching chemistry in physical science as a course, even though I personally love chemistry. I may love it and it may make perfect sense in my brain, but that doesn’t mean I would be good at teaching it!!

And what I found the first year I taught physical science was that I wasn’t. I really wasn’t good at all at teaching chemistry. It was almost as if it came too naturally to me for me to understand my students who DIDN’T understand the content if that makes sense.

But I’ve learned a lot over the years about teaching PS, and in particular, teaching chemistry in physical science. Although I went into teaching thinking I would only teach biology and other life science-y courses, my admin let me know right away that isn’t how the school system works – ha! And what started as 1 random section of honors physical science to 9th and 10th graders turned into years of teaching physical science, both general and honors, to 10th graders all the way down to 8th graders.

Even more so, I somehow became the chair behind writing the physical science curriculum and training other PS teachers at my most recent teaching gig. Looking back, I laugh at how naive I was to think I would only have to get through 1 semester of teaching the course 1 time – ha!

But I truly am grateful because teaching physical science has really challenged me as an educator and stretched me to really meet students where they are, and continually find new and creative ways to make chemistry in physical science, especially, make sense for students it is entirely abstract for. So I want to share with you 4 key tips I’ve learned over the years for teaching chemistry in physical science (and if you need help with the physics portion of physical science, I’ve got you covered here!!)

Tip #1 for Teaching Chemistry in Physical Science: Take it slow.

chemistry in physical science

I like to keep the pace of my classroom moving. I’ve found that a lot of whole-class classroom management issues can be prevented when every minute of a class period is planned, and students feel like no time is ever wasted. I lesson plan with immense intentionality and purpose to keep rigor high and students consistently challenged.

But what I learned from 6 years of teaching chemistry in physical science to 8th-10th graders is that chemistry is one of the science disciplines that students REALLY have had no exposure to previously. Most of their prior science education has been in life science, earth and space science, and VERY introductory physics concepts. Other than maybe an understanding of what an atom is, students are coming in with virtually no prior knowledge of chemistry.

Because of this, I found I REALLY had to majorly slow down the pace with which I normally teach. I started treating chemistry as if I was teaching a foreign language of a country they’ve never even heard of because that was basically what it was.

Also, of all the science disciplines, chemistry is also the one they least see outrightly in their everyday lives (don’t fight me, chemistry teachers!! I know there are plenty of real-world connections and applications, I am just saying, they aren’t as obvious as what students are experiencing on a day-to-day basis with say, biology or physics.)

The best way to set my students up for success was to really narrow down what I was planning to cover with them so that I had the time to actually move at a pace that was reasonable for them. Now I know this isn’t possible for everyone due to state standards and/or end-of-course testing requirements, but if you have some flexibility in the content you cover for physical science, simplify what you plan to cover.

In most states, physical science (aka integrated physics and chemistry) is an introductory course for students who will later go on to take a full semester of chemistry or physics. This helps take the pressure off covering every single thing because it is better to give them a super solid foundation on a few things than an overwhelming and confusing flyover coverage of a lot of things.

But how do you know WHAT exactly to focus on teaching then?? That’s where my next tip comes in.

Tip #2 for Teaching Chemistry in Physical Science: Partner with the chemistry teacher in your science department!!

chemistry in physical science

I know I said this in my tips for teaching the physics portion of physical science post, but I will say it again because it is that important – TALK TO WHOEVER TEACHES CHEMISTRY!!! Because physical science is an introductory course, that means students will later go on to take chemistry – so find out what is MOST important for them to be previously exposed to!

(And if that teacher is you, think about what would be MOST helpful for your students to have prior knowledge of when they walk in your door!!)

After talking with the chemistry teacher at my school, I learned he REALLY wanted me to focus on the following with my students:

  • Mathematical literacy – this is why I make sure to cover dimensional analysis and scientific notation with my physical science students, especially!
  • Atomic structure – ensuring students really understand the subatomic particles and how they determine the identity and bonding characteristics of the atom. This is why I take the time to cover isotopes and have students draw Bohr models to really visualize the atoms and see the patterns in the periodic table. Speaking of the PT…
  • Familiarity with the periodic table – I was asked to have students memorize the elements’ and most common polyatomic ions’ names and symbols. Even though students will always have access to a periodic table on tests and even the AP exam, my chemistry coworker found it helpful and time-saving for students to know these, which is why I implemented element mini-quizzes.
  • Nomenclature – Naming and all the various exceptions can be an overwhelming skill for students. To REALLY be taught it in its entirety twice (once with me in physical science, and again later in chemistry) helped students so much.
  • Balancing chemical reactions – This is a skill that students will strengthen with time and practice, so starting it sooner with my in physical science benefitted them greatly in the long run.

This list significantly impacted how I structured my units and the content I covered with my students when teaching chemistry in physical science, and I am grateful for his wisdom and partnership and coming up with this list together!

So take a few minutes and set up a lunch meeting or coffee date with your department’s chemistry teacher and see how you can partner to serve your students best and set them up for success for taking chemistry 1 later on!

Tip #3 for Teaching Chemistry in Physical Science: Create opportunities to visualize what they are learning.

chemistry in physical science

Chemistry is INCREDIBLY abstract. I learned that what makes sense in my brain naturally with chemistry does NOT make sense in a lot of my students’ brains. Just like I will never be able to discern what is and isn’t a foul in lacrosse (my husband has coached for years and I have sat through countless games and still can’t get it right), some students just cannot get chemistry to click in their brains.

The best way I have found to serve those students is with opportunities to very clearly visualize what they are learning. Any time you can do a demonstration, engage students in lab stations, or incorporate an activity that goes with the content DO IT!! These visuals are important for every science subject but ESPECIALLY for chemistry. Here are a few of my favorites:

  • I took some of my favorite demos and made inquiry-based stations for classification and properties of matter.
  • I have students create a mini periodic table of the first 20 elements by drawing Bohr Models in my Atomic Structure unit. This helped them SO MUCH to see the patterns that exist structurally in the elements of the periodic table!
  • To see the impact of how bonding chemically changes elements in a compound, I use a superhero project that gets them really thinking creatively about the elements, while also making them laugh. It is one of my favorites every year!
  • I created an inquiry activity with candy in my Reactions unit to help them visualize balancing chemical reactions before I taught them the specific steps in the process.

You don’t need access to a bunch of fancy simulations to help your students see chemistry in action. You can do a WHOLE lot with a whole little! Speaking of which, that brings me to my final tip!

Tip #4 for Teaching Chemistry in Physical Science: Don’t feel like you have to use all of the chemicals for it to be “chemistry”.

chemistry in physical science

One of my biggest fears with teaching chemistry in physical science was using chemicals, gas, and fire with a bunch of 8th-10th graders. Luckily for me, most of my teaching career thus far has been in a non-lab space, so it wasn’t even an option! I was kind of “forced” to figure out how to do labs without any traditional lab equipment or chemicals.

The best ideas come from when we are forced to be creative though, right?? I found my students LOVED visualizing the law of conservation of matter by popping popcorn in my class – and we could do it easily with a few beakers, popcorn kernels, and hot plates.

I couldn’t do a lot of chemical reactions for my students either, but I could help them to experience the factors that impact the rate of chemical reactions using something perfectly safe – sweet tea. My sweet tea reaction rate lab is a favorite every year with students, and something they refer back to on their final exams when answering questions about reaction rate, further proving how the visual helps it really stick!

So don’t be discouraged if you either (1) don’t have access to a lot, or (2) are scared to use the chemicals you have access to. You can still teach chemistry in physical science really well and give your students tons of hands-on lab experiences without using all of the chemicals or having access to full lab space.

These are my best tips for teaching chemistry in physical science. If you are still feeling a little overwhelmed about taking on this subject, DON’T! I PROMISE you can do it!! If I can do it, I KNOW you can!

Veteran chemistry teachers – anything I missed? Let me know here!

Still stressed about lesson planning for your physical science course? I’ve got you! You can check out my entire physical science curriculum in my TpT store here or my resource shop here.

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