Posted in Digital Technologies, Professional learning, Teaching and Learning

Re thinking Chemistry (identifying ions) with Computational Thinking

When I first ‘meet’ computational thinking about 18 months ago at a presentation by Lisa Anne Floyd, I was hooked!! I wanted to dive straight in, and as such my first few attempts at using computational thinking frameworks kind of fizzled with my classes. (you can see my earlier post on computational thinking HERE) It has taken a while for my understanding to percolate and over the course of the last 18 months I’ve done some reading, some talking (thanks Nikkie and Kevin mostly) and some teaching and come to realise that you don’t need to do all the parts of computational thinking at once. For example, as part of the yr 7 digital technologies course I am teaching, we focus on algorithms and data representation (so a little pattern recognition, we might need to make this more explicit) with very little on decomposition and abstraction. As the new digital technology curriculum in New Zealand has a focus on computational thinking, I’ve been wondering how I could incorporate this more into my science classes. I was original thinking solely of juniors, at mostly around some add in activities such as hacking STEM lessons, or some maker space activities, or using MinecraftEDU. But have decided to be brave and have a go with my Level 2 NCEA Chemistry class with the AS 91162 identifying ions in solution standard.

I’ve decided this after learning a little bit more about computational thinking. some of this comes from being in digital technology class with Kevin teaching the yr 7’s. In my own learning, some of the resources I used included this great wee course aimed at kids via the bbc bite size site. Then there is the Computational Thinking course on the microsoft educator community, which had a link to this blog piece written by Janette Wing (and a link to the original viewpoint article, which is 10 year old)

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An excerpt from Jeanette’s Article

Google also has a good computational thinking resource…. Which has some specific Science examples around Genomics for algorithms, bouncing balls for algorithms, and classifying for finding patterns which also goes into decompositions. Funnily enough, I had never really thought about 20 questions being decomposition, but in this example it works well, and made me more tolerant of my L3 chem students playing it when they should be doing other things!

This article from American Scientist (it is jargon rich, but well worth the read) talks about experimenters and theoreticians and how computers now mean they work more closely together than ever before – with scientists often designing new software and algorithms for make new models and predictions. This article from EDUtopia is much more user friendly.  HERE is another jargon filled example leaning towards STEM.

There were also some videos I watched, while a little ‘cheesey’ this was a favourite… the idea of sorting puzzle pieces appealed to me, I always sort the edges first, then colours or a pattern.

But what it took for me to finally get my head to get to this point was a conversation with Nikkie about teaching kids to read, and using pattern recognition to identify words. The next night, I was with my Mr 5 as he read his story book and he read in his book look, looked and looking (On a seperate topic, my goodness kids books are insanely dull at times…).

I had an mini epiphany. It was simply that simple, and I had been making it too hard in my head. Not everything needed to be done at once.

So, what might this mean for my Level 2 Chem class and identifying ions.

Usually, I teach this by starting out with the solubility rules which make up a flow chart the students can follow during the internal to identify the ions. Depending on time, we might have a play with the solutions and see what patterns we can find, and what ions form precipitates with others. Generally though, I rush this step, so I can spend more time on balancing ionic equations and the justifications around the steps which students require for excellence.

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Students get a flow chart like this one in the assessment to help them identify the ions in different solutions – this is for cations, and there is another for anions.

Because I had finally gotten my head around (decomposed perhaps) the idea that I didn’t need to do ALL of computational thinking to teach computational thinking, what could I include?

The obvious one is algorithms – as there is already a flow chart in place.

But I wondered why I couldn’t let the students design there own flowchart…. maybe not to use in the assessment because I’m not sure it would pass moderation…. as a way of learning how to use a pattern to make an algorithm. And exploring the patterns of solubility (for time I might get a group to do everything with Cl-, and another group to do everything with I-, and then compare notes) we can do a fairly good job of pattern recognition. This group activity might also fit nicely into knowledge building and collaboration, and hits all the nature of Science stuff.

I was talking this through with Kevin and of course he said – well, you could make some sort of scratch program based on the flowchart – a series of yes/no questions to find the ion. So I will put the option to the students – there are a couple who are also in Kevin’s Robotics class – that if they want to make a program, they can. Again, I’m not sure they would be able to use this in the assessment, but if it works, I might find out more about this for next year…..

So I am starting smaller this time, and aiming for pattern recognition and algorithmic thinking. Students will work in groups over a lesson or two to identify which of the required ions for their assessment react with what. We will compare data and look for trends (and then compare to the solubility rules). Then design a flow chart to determine for an unknown – which might need some iteration along the way. And of course, as they are working on this, I’ll throw in that they have to write the correct balanced ionic equations for precipitates and for the complex ions formed. I’m really hoping that by asking the students to write their own flowcharts, they will ace the part of the assessment where they need to justify their ‘choice’ of ion, as they should develop a thorough understanding of the idea behind it.

I’ll also give the option of the scratch program. And if time allows (it probably won’t…. sigh) I would like to go more into the pattern recognition of why some salts are more soluble than others, linking back to atomic and ionic structures and energy….. oh the places we could go

Wish me luck


Posted in random ramblings, Teaching and Learning

Myth busting Napoleon’s buttons

I am sometimes reminded of how small things can be so important. Making connections, learning new things and questioning things said can make such a difference to learning, engagement and interest, including mine. So this a wee story about some buttons, some exploring, some learning and some fun.

Recently the Science Learning hub posted a tweet about Napolean’s armies and how their coat buttons succumbed to ‘tin pest’.

I didn’t know that Tin did this, and was immediately intrigued – as were a couple of my L3 chem students I talked to about it.

So I tweeted back, and we put some tin in the freezer

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But nothing happened….

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and got this reply

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So…. we left it for a bit longer…..

But after a weekend at -19 C, it was still just tinScreen Shot 2018-06-15 at 12.01.32 PM

So then we melted some tin 🙂

But it still wasn’t enough….

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In the middle of this discussion, the plot thickened with some more information about tin pest and solder…..

So of course melted some solder to make another ‘button’

And some discussions around purity of tin

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Then Science learning hub popped in again with some more ideas and some more people to contribute

And the best upshot from my kids point of view was when my students went into the university as part of 3.1, they got to play with some dry ice….

The current update is the tin is in a -80 C freezer somewhere – or maybe still on Dave’s desk.

So in a very busy couple of weeks, with internal assessments, report and all sorts of chaos and disappointments, this was just awesome. My students and I were ‘chatting’ with world class chemists, doing some experiments, having an explore, in no way related to credits. It was awesome – we skimmed over history, weather, complex chemical structures, alloys and physical properties related to structures, more history learning about expeditions across Antartica, pipe organs and archeological digs. My students loved it, and so did I.

And we will let you know what happens with the tin 🙂


Posted in Minecraft, Professional learning, random ramblings, Teaching and Learning

Lighting fires with the Chemistry Add in for MinecraftEDU

As part of the inquiry section of my yr 8 Home Chemistry unit, some of my students explored the Chemistry add in for MinecraftEDU. (You can find out more about the Chemistry Add in HERE at the MinecraftEDU site.) We have a subscription for MinecraftEDU at my school to use with the year 7 digital technology unit and I have been looking for different ways to integrate MinecraftEDU into more learning areas in Science. The Chemistry Add in is pretty kick arse, with lots of possibilities for different learning. Some of my students were super keen to have a look around as they already love playing Minecraft at home, so I essentially gave them free reign in the prebuilt world and then got them to teach me how to use it 🙂

The upshot was the students LOVED it. They had a great 3-4 lessons just poking around and seeing what they could do. It lead to some great discussions, and some great practicals too 🙂 They showed me what they were doing, so I learned the ins and outs super quick 🙂 If there was the opportunity I jumped into the worlds they were playing in and had a look around with them. It was a great way for me to learn about it.

So, starting at the beginning – the game leads you into a set path , where you can make element and compounds

With no real prior knowledge, the students were able to make up a variety of different elements, and got a basic idea of atomic structure. In the New Zealand Curriculum, we used this model for the atom right up until NCEA level 3 chemistry where we introduce spd notation, so it works pretty well. In future, I would love the ability to make ions, I can see this would be a super useful tool to show students the impact of changing the number of electrons…. but as an element constructor it was still pretty amazing.

You could then go and make compounds, the tutorial takes you through making sodium acetate, which you then combine to make an ice bomb – which the students loved using to freeze the pond outside.


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I tried to freeze the water fall, but the water just flowed over it….


This lead to a discussion if this would work in real life, which it kind of does and kind of doesn’t, put I have promised we will have a go at making some sodium acetate towers at the end of the topic

By the time the kids got to this stage, they had ditched the tutorials in favour of just having a look. They quickly discovered a spot where you could  make Helium filled balloons that you could attach to animals and make them rise up into the air. There was a convenient ‘cage’ of animals, and a crafting table to make the balloons nearby.


The real highlight though was when one of the students found the lab book, and saw all the amazing recipes on there. They were super keen to make the torches…

lab book

So away they went, first of all we had to make the elements. Which meant looking up a periodic table and found out how many protons, neutrons and electrons each element has.

And then we made the compounds – the students struggled a little with getting the correct number of chlorides to each metal. It was great teachable moment around chemical compounds – a bit hard for yr8, but because there was a context the students ate it up

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We then took the chloride salts and crafted the lamps…. and it was awesome

The coloured lamps rocked

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So, of course we had to make some coloured flaming torches for real….


So the Chemistry add in for MinecraftEDU is pretty freaking sweet. I’ve only scratched the surface so far, and it is awesomesauce, especially for the juniors. I loved that we could remake the torches in real life, and can make links between what the students saw in the game world and the lab. I’m looking forward to exploring a bit deeper into what it can do.

Posted in Professional learning, Teaching and Learning

Making holograms – Molecular shapes

Watching Hack the Classroom on Sunday, I saw ‘a hack’ on how to make hologram videos. The hack was by Tomas Milicka, and he used a combination of office paint and powerpoint to make his own (or to get his students to make their own) hologram videos. I didn’t quite see the potential at first, but then I remembered some GIFs of 3D shapes I made using ChemSketch at a Peter Hollamby workshop in my first year of teaching (8 years ago) and I wonder if they could be used to make some holograms of 3D chemistry shapes that are required as part of the L2 and L3 NCEA Chemistry curriculum. Visually molecule shapes in 3D from a 2D drawing if often a challenge for students, so any hook or tool to help them is AWESOME.

So I had a play, and success. I inserted the gifs and aligned them changed the background to black, and then made a slide recording with no sound. Then exported the slide recording as an mp4, loaded on to youtube and away we went.

Screenshots of the powerpoint slides in production

I am STOKED with how they have turned out, and how easy they were to make. So now I have another tool when trying to demonstrate the 3D nature of molecules, which some students do struggle with.

And I’m stoked I found a fun wee idea I could run with, it will really only be a ‘hook’ for my classes, but it was a really nice motviational boost for me at the time of year when I feel like all I am doing is EXAMS EXAMS EXAMS. So a massive thanks to Tomas for sharing this idea, it gave me the wee boost I needed to do something fun and learn something new.

Feel free to use this videos in your class, there are loads of websites that show you how to build the ‘viewer’ including this one. I will keep adding more shapes as I make them.

I’ve made them into a playlist on youtube, so you can find them all HERE

Have fun