The Big Picture
The first challenge for me was creating an overarching story that would serve as the main game – and the primary mechanism for exploration and learning throughout the entire year. This is particularly difficult in chemistry. While the fundamental concepts in the course are all driven by the structure and interaction of matter at various levels, the individual units within the curriculum do not follow an obvious chronological or thematic linear path. I would need a scenario that would encompass the basics of the scientific method and measurement, atomic structure (including nuclear chemistry), electron configuration and bonding, the periodic table, stoichiometry, and properties of gases and solutions.
My thinking in developing a theme was influenced by two key factors. First, I am a lifelong fan of science fiction and space exploration. Second, I have used, created, or adapted a number of classroom activities over the years that either have or could easily incorporate aspects that would allow them to fit into this genre.
The idea that I settled upon was a fictional mission to a real destination – a potentially Earth-like planet called Trappist-1F. Here is a very general overview:
The time is set in the foreseeable future. The Earth Space Agency has sent probes to investigate a number of potentially life-supporting planets outside our solar system. The probes are equipped to make planetfall and take readings on the surface. If the preliminary results are within predetermined parameters, the probe has the capacity to begin fabrication of a habitable outpost to support a follow-on, manned mission.
The probe sent to Trappist-1F has completed its initial scan and sent back an “all-clear” signal. Construction of the outpost is underway, and a crew needs to be trained to undertake the long journey to begin the human exploration of the planet. The students in this class have been selected to carry out this historic mission.
While the fictional nature of the story offers a considerable amount of creative license, it also provides a platform that encompasses a wide range of real-world, practical applications of the scientific concepts within the curriculum. I t also allows for both a year-long story arc, as well as a more episodic (unit-length) structure. The initial scientific measurement unit, for example, will take the form of mission orientation and training. The first level “boss battle” (unit assessment) will involve calculations required to design the ship’s solar sail.
The second major phase of the course will be built around the actual (fictional) journey to Trappist-1F. Concepts of atomic structure, nuclear chemistry, reactions, and stoichiometry will all be addressed within the context of maintaining the ship and dealing with issues that arise along the way. The third and final phase of the mission will involve the arrival at Trappist-1F itself. Topics of gas laws, solutions, acids and bases, and equilibrium will be incorporated into the exploration of the habitat and identifying the source of a series of problems that the habitat has experienced. The exploration will also uncover a mystery that will lead to the final boss battle (year-end exam).
Those are the broad strokes of the story. Along the way, there will be activities and assignments whose inspiration will come from historical events, predictions founded in current scientific theory, as well as science fiction. There will also be a level of flexibility to both the story itself and the ways in which the students will choose to approach their own learning. More on that next time.