iPad chemistry apps, GCSE reform and the mole

Talk Chemistry

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Topics discussed on Talk Chemistry so far this year include extracting copper metal from copper carbonate and using electrochemical cells to power light bulbs. 

However here are some highlights from a request for help from Catherine Smith

I was just wondering if anyone out there was lucky enough to have a class set of iPads and could give me some suggestions of how they are used. 

Carrie Wakerley said: 

The modern foreign languages department use a class set for instant feedback and recording lessons for students to access later etc. 

I have been looking to see if we can get some and they can be turned into datalogging devices with temp/pH probes etc which I think will be good.

A quick suggestion from our David Sait

3D Molecules Edit & Drill may be worth a look. We reviewed it in the September 2012 issue of Education in Chemistry. 

Leonard Winning added his experience: 

I spent a long time playing with one and trying out various apps. I think they are great for accessing the web and thus make it easy to bring information into the classroom. However, be warned that some things (eg RSC Gridlocks) are written in code that Apple products won't run. 

I have to say that I found that most chemistry apps didn't seem very suitable for school use - they fell broadly into three groups: 

1) trivially simplistic / games that have only a tenuous link to the subject; 2) just replacing things easily looked up in a book, such as ionisation energies; or 3) too complex for school use, though ideal for tertiary courses. The latter category was very frustrating - a mechanisms app would, for example, include several reactions that were on A-level 10 years ago, but aren't there any more. I tried out several drawing / 3D structure apps too, but none really seemed that easy to use and, pretty though the double helix is, you don't learn that much from watching it go round and round. 

Someone suggested to me that I consider using them in class to video experiments, but I've yet to learn that they are heat, acid, water or organic solvent proof and I don't feel like being the one responsible for actually proving they aren't. 

So my view is that they could have a place in some contexts (particularly if you struggle to get your classes into a computer room) but the chemistry-specific stuff out there is not so good, I'm afraid.  


There has been discussion about a number of Education in Chemistry articles across a variety of groups on LinkedIn this month.

GCSE reform 

Quick off the mark in February was Simon Nance. He commented on our article on the recent speech by Michael Gove announcing his current plans for GCSEs and draft programmes of study for Key Stage 4 (see What now for GCSE science?): 

Looking at the chemistry component of the draft specifications, there are some extra bits there compared to as now, but nothing too major. Mainly a little bit more top-end stuff, for example moles calculations for volumes of gases (not sure if PV=nRT or just the 24 dm3 approximation) or calculations of Ar from isotopic percentages. Most of those bits are early A-level material. 

Looks like tweaks, rather than anything radical. I'll be interested to see whether the current Core/Additional/Triple setup changes and any knock-on tweaks to the A-level specification for 2016 ish. 


Our article It's not all about fuel (January 2013, p22) attracted Robert Ellmore's interest: 

This is a fantastic article, summarising the current situation and showing how the problems with biofuels have evolved. I used this article as a comprehension exercise for my Y9 students and they grasped the main points. We had a school trip to Ironbridge power station yesterday and they are in the process of converting from coal to wood pellets (from Canada). Apparently many other coal fired stations will follow, to avoid carbon tax. Things are moving forward! 


Over in the High School Chemistry Teachers group, our article Demystifying the mole has been very popular. The author, David Read, reports on a study that looks at the problems caused by the language used in textbooks to explain the concept of the mole. Mark Neidorff was first to respond: 

It is a problem of basic understanding by the teachers. It is also a problem of a lack of clear and simple explanations. 

The picture presented points to the exact problem. A mole of a substance matters in the context of a reaction. It is useless to explain moles by showing petri dishes of some compounds and saying 'Here is a mole. This is a wonderful thing. Now do 25 boring conversion problems.' Better to understand by reacting 25.0 g of X with 25.0 g of Y and having the students develop the understanding that there is a much more convenient and useful unit for chemical reactions than grams. 

This comment was followed up by David Hembroff: 

I have some samples of various elements and compounds massed out to one mole to show the students. Then I like to have the students measure a standard aluminium soda can and calculate the number of moles of Al used to make the can. 

As for Avogadro's number, the big exponent scares most of my high school students. I introduce that concept by using more familiar terms like dozen, ream, gross, etc. 

There have been many interesting suggestions from other teachers that are worth a look, however here is the last one for now, from William O'Malley: 

In response to kids being 'scared' by 1023: I always explain it like swimming. If a student can swim in water that is 2 ft over their head in a pool, it is no different than swimming in the middle of ocean where the water might be 2000 ft (or more) over their heads. The overall steps and calculations are the same, they just need the practice, reassurance they can succeed and support to gain confidence in their abilities. 

The notion of eliminating or softening concepts that intimidate students robs them of the experience they need to trust their abilities and gain the confidence they need to succeed. 

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