The rich history of chemistry is often reduced to a mere chapter, topic, section, or lecture in most chemistry classes and presented at the start of the year. Students are expected to take all the chemical developments of the past 2500 years for granted, fully comprehend it, and then apply it for the rest of the year in future topics of study. Unfortunately, students often ignore the significance of the historical development of the body of knowledge of chemistry, because it is presented as a mere set of facts based on the conclusions of others. Students regard it as disconnected from the rest of the content they will study in their chemistry courses, and thus it becomes meaningless.
Although students cannot reproduce all of the historical experiments that led to the chemistry discoveries we know today, what is it about telling them what happened in the past that gives it context to them today? How do we make it something other than a story for which “you had to be there?” This is where an alternate framework to the chemistry curriculum could benefit students. Instead of compressing all the history into a single set of memorizable facts and foregone conclusions, an entire introductory chemistry course can be fully taught through the historical lens and using the timeline of historical development to make concepts more meaningful. This is where a model-based approach to teaching chemistry finds its purpose.
The curriculum design for Modeling Instruction in Chemistry Program was influenced by the CHEM-Study approach which first appeared in the early 1960s. This approach to chemistry instruction makes particle models used to describe matter and the treatment of the role of energy in change more explicit. This is the methodology that I employ to teach chemistry for high school students. I have found that it does not “water down” the chemistry content, but rather it helps students to take a more in-depth exploration of chemistry and understand it as being a more cohesive science discipline. Students study the topics of chemistry in the order that matches their discovery and based on the model development. This allows them to build an understanding of chemistry as continuous instead of chunked and unrelated. Much like the original chemists to whom many of these discoveries are attributed, students keep a reflective digital journal that helps them to chronicle their learning. Through student-designed experiments and problem-based learning, students are active constructors of their understanding in chemistry. More on the modeling method can be found at the AMTA website.