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High School Chemistry part 1

As our children get older, we are being faced with teaching upper level science at home.  Do you have reservations about doing science at home?   This post can help you approach high school science with confidence.  Science is the subject most mentioned by parents in my seminars as the reason parents send children back to regular schools.  And yet, science may be one of the best subjects for homeschooling because of the flexibility possible at home.  Let’s discuss some of the many options available for learning high school level chemistry at home. 

Chemistry is a difficult course.  In regular schools, students either take a minimum level introductory course or no chemistry at all.  The homeschooled student is different, however, and many are taking difficult courses like calculus, physics, law, logic, and world philosophies.  Homeschoolers should not be afraid of chemistry, either.  Some of that fear can be removed by learning about chemistry, what is involved in learning it, how a homeschooler can do chemistry lab at home, and how to plan ahead for chemistry.

What is chemistry and what is studied in high school chemistry?  Chemistry is the study of the matter that makes up the universe and the changes in that matter.  In a high school course, the student should learn about the structure of matter, the periodic chart, chemical reactions, the chemistry of life, nuclear chemistry, and some basic lab techniques.  Who needs chemistry?  Every student should take some type of chemistry.  Those students who will go on to college should take a more rigorous course and those who may never go on to college should at least take a foundational course that emphasizes real-life application of chemical principles.  Both of these groups should have lab experiences although the labs may be somewhat different.  Whether your student studies chemistry for one semester or for four semesters, he should be able to apply what he has learned to life.

What are the fundamentals of a high school chemistry course?  For a list of traditional topics normally covered in high school chemistry, check this blog entry.  For students using a non-traditional method of learning chemistry such a list can be a valuable help to keeping on track.  Check off topics as they are studied so that the student does not have to repeat topics already learned.  An example of this: suppose the student has studied the structure of matter, atoms, molecules, and compounds in 8th grade.  He should not have to repeat topics if he already knows the information.  So, he checks off those topics and during the first quarter of the year, reads over the material already studied in a quick review.  He then spends the remainder of the semester studying electron configuration, the periodic chart, and bonding; fundamental concepts he has not yet learned.  By doing this, the student has more time to learn the new material and, at the same time, is getting ahead of the normal schedule allowing him time for the more complex topics at the end of the book.  When you study the theory of chemistry you should not leave out the practical aspects of the subject.
Many students never really make the connection that chemistry is something they will live with for the rest of their lives.  They do not connect events in the laboratory with events in the garage or the kitchen.  The application of chemical principles to real life is very important to every student because in understanding these principles the student understands many events in the “real world”.  To help make chemistry real for your student, use a good plan for laboratory.

A homeschooler can easily have a real chemistry laboratory at home. There are several lab manuals on the market that use materials which are available to the average homeschooler and which will do an excellent job of teaching chemistry.  Check out the resource list in part 3 of this blog post for suggestions.  The materials do not cost a large amount, either.  In fact, if you buy a good chemistry kit (with glassware rather than plastic) when your children are young, you will get many years of use out of the materials.  Kits may contain the chemicals necessary to do the experiments, or chemicals can be bought at the grocery store or hardware store.  Have your student keep a lab notebook that describes the experiments he or she has done.  The best plan for building a home lab is to:

  1. Buy your equipment early
  2. Buy a lab manual and read it for materials required
  3. Make your purchases, ideally purchasing or borrowing only what you need to complete the prescribed labs
  4. Ensure the student keeps a lab notebook as the labs are completed.

Now, you have a list of topics for chemistry and a plan for getting your lab set up.  The next step is putting it all together.  This means choosing a text, a lab manual, and perhaps a few references.  These choices must be made based upon the goals, reading level, and math level of your student.  Remember, you do not necessarily have to do the teaching.  The primary role of a parent at the high school level, anyway, is facilitation (that’s where you provide the money and the wheels for your children.)  Your student should be able to do the reading and problem solving solo, or nearly so.  You may be needed to help interpret the text, discuss the material, and be curious; or, on the other hand, you could have another friend do these things.  One homeschooling mom from Colorado told me that she thought that the beauty of homeschooling is that the children learn to learn on their own.  Even struggling with hard things helps them learn so much better.  So, be encouraged; you can do this!

Each student learns differently and so, will need a different kind of chemistry course.  Here are some suggestions for different students:

Planning for chemistry for the non-science major who will probably not ever consider college is not difficult.  The concepts he should know are the fundamentals, the basic principles of chemistry upon which our lives depend.  A good text might be Usborne’s Illustrated Dictionary of Chemistry.  These books explain things simply and concisely.  Use Chemistry Experiments by Mary Johnson for lab. 

Your non-science major future college student will need a bit more rigorous course.  The A Beka text, Chemistry: Precision and Design, is very good and the explanations are excellent.  Chemistry in the Community (ChemCom) by the American Chemical Society is a great text and the labs are within the text itself.  Choose a kit from The Science Project Store, Science (for ChemCom), or use Experiences in Chemistry from Castle Heights Press. 

If you have a student who is in 7th grade and very interested in chemistry, go for it.  Take out the list of fundamentals; get an introductory text, like Bob Jones’ Physical Science or A Beka’s Science of the Physical Creation, and just do the chemistry part of it.  Do the first part of Experiences in Chemistry for the lab.  When the child is older, just dive right into a high school level book and complete the laboratory activities already begun.  If you choose Science of the Physical Creation, you can do many of the lab activities at home provided you have a good lab kit. 

Your older college bound science lover can complete any of the usual high school texts or he or she can go right into the General Chemistry text by Umland for a rigorous start on college level material.  Remember the information is not different, there is just more of it.  For lab do Experiences in Chemistry, or a Chemistry kit from such as the Chem C2000.  After the text is complete have your student take the Advanced Placement test in May.   If your student has used the normal high school level texts have him or her take the SAT II: Chemistry in the spring.

What about the parents who simply want a worry-free experience for their students?  Go to the local junior college and have your child take the general chemistry course.  It will be two semesters and the labs will probably be integrated into the course.  Don’t be afraid of night courses.  My son took one and the instructor was a retired chemical engineer who taught a great deal about vat chemistry in industry.  My son loved it. 

Now you know something about what is taught in high school level chemistry, you know how to plan for a laboratory at home, you also know several options for putting together a good chemistry course.  Learning chemistry requires effort, but is an excellent way to learn about God’s universe and the way it is put together.

Part 2: Myths About Teaching Chemistry!

Part 3: Resources for Teaching Chemistry.