An Independent School • Grades 5-12
The “try” in chemistry: Exploring open ended, inquiry-driven investigations
The “try” in chemistry: Exploring open ended, inquiry-driven investigations

The “try” in chemistry: Exploring open ended, inquiry-driven investigations 

December 2021

Director of Communications Amanda Darling sat down with Upper School chemistry teachers Eshwar Ramanan, Nickie Wallace, and Sarah Wardlaw to talk about how they design open-ended, inquiry-driven investigations that capitalize on students’ curiosity about their world. Pictured clockwise from top left: Nickie, Eshwar, Amanda, Sarah.

Q: What should people know about the chemistry program at Lakeside?

Sarah: One thing to know is that how we teach chemistry now is not the same as how chemistry was taught when parents and guardians (and the three of us!) were in high school chemistry. Our emphasis is on students’ experiences and connecting them to the material.

Q: What is this other, more student-centered way of teaching?

Sarah: A formal, pedagogical name for what we are doing is an open ended, inquiry- driven investigation. It involves using an entry experience to get students curious and connected to the material. Then, you present them with a question and something to solve. In a recent lab, we gave them a white solid and asked, “What type of chemical bonding is in it?” Students practiced with known chemicals to develop a series and sequence of tests and asked themselves what series of tests they would perform to determine the bonding of an unknown chemical. Then they did the test to determine what that unknown chemical was. 

Eshwar: We use an anchoring phenomenon, a hook, that gets students interested. In chemistry, our hook is often food because it’s relatable to their everyday life. For example, when we talked about separating mixtures, we did an experiment to take the iron content out of cereal. In the classroom, we introduce students to the main ideas that they’re going to explore, and then every key idea is combined with a lot of activity. Most of the time, students are doing the lab without actually having the prior knowledge necessary for it – and that’s critical because then they make the mistakes they need to make and learn from their reflection.

Q: That’s interesting: So, they are doing the work without having the content knowledge?

Sarah: The work is part of the motivation for learning. What are you going to do with that content knowledge? You’re not learning it for the sake of memorizing it for a test – instead, you’re solving a problem or question.

Q: How do students react to that? I know this type of learning (and others that force students out of their comfort zone) can be intimidating for students who usually do well in a traditional classroom.

Sarah: Yes, there’s a lot of fear in it. What if I do the wrong thing? Well, you’re going to learn from it!

Eshwar: Fear and discomfort are the main features of this class. [Everyone laughs.] In a good way! I think the point is to get over the fear and embrace the discomfort.

Q: Why is it good for students to experience fear and discomfort in the classroom?

Nickie: I had a conversation with a university professor of ecology and marine biology, and she said that the best thing you could do for high school students is to give them opportunities to fail. What we’re really trying to do is prepare students for that moment when they don’t know what’s going on. Uncertainty, fear, and how you handle fear – that builds resilience. Which is one of the competencies we’re trying, as a school, to get kids to grapple with. Students need to explore: What are the things I need, so that when I am faced with the unknown, I know how to take the next step. Even if it’s going up to someone and saying, “I’m really unsure what to do.” 

Sarah: To actually push and challenge yourself into learning something new – you should be feeling uncomfortable. You shouldn’t feel paralyzed, but it should feel hard. It’s a transition – and we recognize it’s hard for students to do that.

Q: Most students are juniors when they take chemistry. Can you talk about what students are ready to do junior year that they might not be ready to do before that point?

Eshwar: One of the things that juniors bring to this class is executive functioning and time management. For the most part, they are ready to come into the classroom and engage with the content without struggling too much. But even within the junior class, students bring a wide range of skill sets to the classroom, depending on their prior experiences with science. We try our best to sort through those skill sets and differentiate in the classroom.

Q: When you ask students what they enjoy or are looking forward to about chemistry, what do they say?

Sarah: When we asked them [at the beginning of the year] what they were looking forward to in chemistry, it was “Labs!!!!!”

Nickie: “Labs, experiments, hands-on work, investigations.”

Eshwar: Being in the lab with their friends. It was all about that.

Eshwar: We’re giving them a lot of practice in lab skills, very common sense things that are not practicable in a virtual environment. Going into a chemistry lab, dealing with glassware, measuring things – those things are highly challenging. It takes a certain amount of skill, practice, and motor coordination to hold a beaker in one hand and open a tap and fill the beaker with a certain amount of water.

Nickie: I always tell our students, glassware in our budget is called a consumable because we expect it’s going to break. If you break it, own up to it, apologize, clean up after yourself, and get a new one.

Sarah: While it’s fun, it’s also challenging. You make mistakes, you see things break. Part of the challenge is moving away from a theoretical outcome: You can plan for what you’re going to do in a lab and what you will expect to find. But once you transition to the lab setting, things won’t go according to plan. There will always be some kind of error. And we do see juniors going through that reconciliation, realizing, “I’m not going to get this perfect.” That can be a new type of challenge for them in the lab.

Q: Lakeside doesn’t follow an AP curriculum, which means that most of our classes (including chemistry) are not a pathway or preparation for the AP exam. What is the benefit of not following AP?

Sarah: Not subscribing to a preordained, outside curriculum means we have more freedom to explore different topics. We wouldn’t be able to do the culminating project on climate change – one of the most relevant problems and questions we could focus our attention on, and the reason many students are interested in learning chemistry – if we were following the AP curriculum, where there is a mandated pace, a mandated schedule, mandated content. We wouldn’t be able to get to things that are directly relevant to students’ lives.

Q: Can you tell me more about this culminating project?  

Nickie: Small groups of students are given a very specific questions about a subtopic of climate change. For example, what is the effect of climate change or global warming on ocean acidification? They get five to seven weeks to investigate their question and become the experts. Then they teach their class a lesson, with a lecture, an activity, and a facilitated discussion. They also provide a summary document and a reference list for students to look at for things like exams. As part of the project, students have to connect with either a scientist or a legislator (or both) about their topic. Most were terrified to talk to people, but they all did it and a lot of them said connecting with someone was the best part of the experience.

Q: All three of you are relatively new to Lakeside: How is this different than what you’ve done before, or what you’ve seen in other schools? What makes it interesting and exciting for you?

Eshwar: These two! Hands down. A lot of the struggle with curriculum building is agreeing on stuff. We just have a really good working relationship and the right balance. There is overlap in the way we approach teaching, pedagogical philosophies, and content interest, but enough difference between the three of us that we each bring something different to the table. It’s magical.

This interview has been edited for length.

The following video shows a portion of an Honors Chemistry student group presenting and leading a class discussion, before sharing closing thoughts and a class activity.