Upper Grades Chemistry

Working with a Waldorf approach to science in the home is extremely difficult. A Goethean approach, one which is empirical, holistic and creative, can be very frustrating to achieve as soon as one leaves the natural sciences behind. And chemistry is especially challenging as it can be very difficult to present it in such a way that it doesn’t seem to be disjointed or unrelated to life.
A further challenge with chemistry at home is getting the materials – one can go a certain distance with kitchen chemistry, making bread and root beer, for instance and observing the effects of the yeast on the soda or bread. Getting  water testing kit and/or a soil testing kit can also ground chemistry in the world around us – and I certainly recommend that one begin ones explorations into chemistry with ones child with just those kinds of things.
But to do “real” chemistry, one has to get the equipment. And that means acquiring chemicals and paraphenalia which is not found around the house!
Just this last month (March 2007) I did a three week main lesson in chemistry with my 8th grader and a friend. The friend is a tenth grader at the high school where I teach who opted to skip his scheduled main lesson to join us instead. Using Thames & Kosmos Chem C3000 chemistry kit (google it and you should be able to buy it for somewhere between $150 and $180) I put together an extremely successful main lesson that was educational, enjoyable and, most importantly, enabled us to do real chemistry experiments.
The manual that accompanies the kit is extremely thorough and well written. Unlike many sad science kits my sons and I have bought over the years, this one actually had instructions that were both easy to follow, clear and had a relationship to the actual materials!! One small hiccup was the fact that I could not find one of the test tubes of chemicals. I phoned Thames & Kosmos’ very helpful customer service department and the woman was able to tell me that I did have the necessary chemical – but that the label only had the German name! With a bit of quick translating, we were able to proceed.
And, of course, not all the experiments turned out as they were meant to. But that is a normal part of chemistry and allowed the boys and I to talk about variables and about duplicating experiments. I should emphasize, though, that most of the experiments turned out perfectly and were really very enjoyable and interesting to do.
The other really good thing about the manual is that it puts all the experiments into context (for instance work with sulfur came within a discussion of acid rain). There is also a really well presented progression which runs through the course and which ties them together in a way that ensures the student gets a really good grounding in the sense of chemitry and does not merely play with a series of disjointed phenomena. And back to our Waldorf approach, the more one can present before reading  about what one is doing and the more one can help relate the experiments to one another and to life, the closer one gets to something of a Goethean approach. So for the boys, I kept ahold of the manual and often did not tell them what we were about to do. Instead, I gave them the instructions to set up the experiment and then asked them to observe. Then we talked about what we did and saw (and smelt or heard!) and only then did I read the text to them.
Our main lesson lasted for only three weeks because of the 10th grader’s schedule constraints – really, we would need a good 6 to 9 weeks to have worked properly with this kit (and my son and I will return to the kit before school finishes in the summer).  We spent a solid hour and a half each morning focused on the experiments. If one adds in time to study the periodic table and atomic theory (both are mentioned in the manual but need additional resources to work with properly) and perhaps a few cooking experiments, then one has about 12 weeks of chemistry here. In other words, one could do at least three good, solid main lessons spanning 8th through 11th grade based on this kit.
A few highlights for us so far were:
making oxygen
making a mini fire extinguisher
seeing close-up lab effects of acid rain
making crystals
understanding catalytic converters
making hydrogen
burning metals
doing experiments which illustrated electron transfer
making silver cleaner from calcium hydroxide and ammonium chloride
desalinating water
and much more….!
Almost everything is included in the kit and though the amounts of chemicals one uses and the equipemt supplied is all on a small scale, it never feels like dolls’chemistry. Indeed, with all the health warnings throughout the manual (including clear instructions for disposing of dangerous materials) one has a very real experience of chemistry! There are a few things not included in the kit, mainly because of safety issues. You can get the ethyl alcohol (rubbing alcohol) for the burner and the hydrogen peroxide easily enough from a drug store. But to get hydrochloric acid and sodium hydroxide (crucial for many of the experiments with bases and acids) you need to contact Caroline Biological Supplies (www.carolina.com) and tell them that you are a school…. they will ask for your school’s name so be ready….
The other tricky thing is that in Germany they must use different potencies of chemicals. So the manual calls for hydrochloric acid in 2 mole strength but Carolina sells only 1 mole or 3 mole. So I bought both and cannot see that there is any difference in any of the experiments. In other words, you can probably get away with just the 1 mole strength.

Posted on April 16, 2007 in 7th Grade, 8th Grade, High School, Older Children, Science

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