Understanding atomic structure and subatomic particles is imperative for understanding chemistry concepts such as bonding and chemical reactions.
This understanding provides the foundation for understanding how atoms combine to form molecules, which in turn form the basis of materials and living things.
Unfortunately, learning about matter at the atomic level can be boring for students. When students were bored, I was bored. Teaching can be a lot of things, but boring is usually not one of them.
That’s why I was determined to make learning about atoms engaging for my students. But how?
The key to engagement for abstract chemistry concepts for middle school students is accessibility. One of the ways to make content accessible is to provide students with customized worksheets.
This post provides an overview of the importance of customized atoms worksheets that can make these often abstract concepts accessible to all students, regardless of their English language proficiency and/or current reading level.
Students’ Understanding of Chemistry
“Miss. When are we gonna blow things up?” My students typically associated chemistry with explosions.
While we as teachers know there is so much more to chemistry than that, we can leverage that excitement and use it to get at the concepts such as Bohr diagrams, the structure of an atom, and electron configuration.
Something useful in making those basic chemistry concepts (such as the smaller parts of the chemical reaction that are just as important to understand) more engaging to our students is first understanding why students tend to struggle with (and are bored with) learning about atomic theory, the atom of an element, and its electron shells.
Can’t be Seen With the Naked Eye = Abstract
As a science nerd, I’ve always gravitated toward human biology. Why? Because it was a tangible science concept. I, as a human being, have a human body.
Therefore, when taught about my beating heart (that I could actually feel in my chest), the breath coming in and out of my lungs, and the muscles that felt sore after an extraneous workout, I was engaged and receptive to learning information.
I didn’t need an engaging activity to get me prepped for learning. The content itself was relatable and, therefore, more engaging.
But what about these tiny particles called atoms, that students can’t even see with a basic classroom microscope? And then there’s the even smaller nucleus in an atom with its positive charge, and the electrons floating around the nucleus with their negative charge.
The inability to see the different ways the parts of the atom determine the physical properties of the elements, which in turn determine chemical bonding and reactions, can hinder students.
Abstract thinking and middle schoolers
Fortunately for middle school teachers, our students do have the ability to think abstractly. According to Piaget’s Stages of Development:
Children develop abstract mental processes as early as age 2. By age 12, children learn more sophisticated rules of logic and then use those rules to understand abstract concepts.Medical News Today
While our middle schoolers’ brains can process abstract concepts, it is a skill they are still developing. Therefore, there are things we as the teacher can do to help them to understand abstract concepts.
The Importance of Prior Knowledge
All students come into our classrooms with prior knowledge and experiences – no matter where they are from, socioeconomic status, special needs, or English language proficiency.
The times in which I honored my students’ prior knowledge and structured my instruction to build on said knowledge, I saw a huge difference in student engagement and comprehension of abstract concepts. This was especially true for my English learners.
According to the Virginia Tech Center For Excellence in Teaching and Learning
Activating Prior Knowledge Through a Stations Activity
An example of a great way to activate prior knowledge in a middle school chemistry classroom is by using items commonly found in most kitchens to begin a unit on matter and atoms.
While starting with atomic structure, subatomic particles, and reading the periodic table can be a recipe for disaster with 30 middle schoolers, starting with what is familiar to them not only engages students but also enhances students’ understanding by giving them something to “attach” their new learning to once they are introduced to the more abstract concepts mentioned above.
An example is Lit Science’s Chemistry Examples in Everyday Life Stations Activity. In this activity, students travel to different stations to make observations and inferences about different substances. The stations allow students to activate prior knowledge about common physical and chemical properties, chemical symbols, and physical and chemical changes.
Here is an example of what students will explore at each station:
- 1. Properties of aluminum foil
- 2. The differences between hydrogen peroxide and water
- 3. Mixing vinegar and baking soda
- 4. Introduction to the chemical formula for table salt
In addition to a printable worksheet packet for students, station tent cards, reading materials, and two differentiated versions (complete with embedded visuals for English learners), this resource includes teacher lesson plans and an answer key.
The different station science activities expose students to the complex chemistry content they will learn throughout the unit. However, they are introduced through a low-stakes and engaging activity they can use to help them attach their existing knowledge to with new information you’ll teach them.
Therefore, you get to focus on what you do best, teaching your students.
Matter, Atoms, and Elements (The Science)
In science, matter refers to anything that has mass and takes up space. Matter can exist in different states, such as solid, liquid, gas, and plasma.
At the microscopic level, matter comprises atoms and molecules that can interact with each other.
While this basic definition may seem simple enough to us as science teachers, we must consider how to make it engaging and accessible to all students.
Matter and Atoms (The Teaching)
So after students activate prior knowledge through the Lit Science’s Chemistry Examples in Everyday Life collaborative stations activity, they are ready to continue to build schema around the concept of atoms and matter and practice their new learning.
In Lit Science’s “Matter – Guided Notes” lesson, students define matter and classify things as matter and non-matter.
Through guided notes, a card sort, and a reading anticipation guide, students are given a strong foundation in matter and atoms and ample chance to collaborate and practice.
Parts of an Atom
Understanding the parts of an atom and subatomic particles is important in chemistry, other sciences, and other subjects.
In the physical sciences, knowledge of an atom’s parts helps explain the properties and behavior of different elements.
For example, the number of protons in an atom determines its atomic number and position on the periodic table, which can provide insights into the properties of atoms.
In Life Science, the parts of an atom are fundamental to the structure and function of essentially any living thing in several ways.
For example, DNA comprises carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, and phosphorus atoms.
Science aside, teaching the parts of an atom can help students develop critical thinking skills and scientific literacy. It encourages them to ask questions and seek explanations for natural phenomena, an essential part of scientific inquiry.
Despite its importance, the relationship between atoms and elements can be difficult for students to understand because of its abstract nature, complexity, lack of familiarity, and lack of effective visualization tools.
In the What are Atoms and Elements resource, students learn about and practice what they learn about subatomic particles through guided notes, a classification activity, and a fun crossword puzzle.
Reading The Periodic Table of Elements
Once students understand the basics of matter, atoms, and elements, they can learn how to read the periodic table(including calculating protons, neutrons, and electrons).
Through these FREE worksheets, students can learn about and practice using the periodic table to identify the atomic symbol, atomic number, and atomic mass of different elements.
In addition to a printable PDF, these worksheets include a digital version to assign to students through Google Classroom.
Hands-on Learning & Creative Projects
One of the ways to make abstract concepts come to life is through hands-on and creative projects. In addition to engaging students, hands-on learning helps students to retain more information.
According to The Thinking Kid,
Hands-on learning better engages both the left and right sides of the brain. On the left side of the brain, listening and analyzing processes occur. The right side handles visual and spatial processes. By using multiple styles of learning, the brain creates better connections and can store more relevant information.https://www.thethinkingkid.org/post/the-importance-of-hands-on-learning
Lit Science has several hands-on and creative projects to engage students in chemistry.
Each of these keeps students accountable to the standard while simultaneously engaging students. They also serve as great assessments.
As with all Lit Science resources, the resources described above are differentiated and scaffolded with English learners and developing readers & writers in mind.
Customized Atoms Worksheets
More than just worksheets, Lit Science’s resources are student-facing activity guides that allow students to follow along for each part of the lesson, step by step.
This is incredibly valuable for English learners, students with special needs and developing readers and writers.
While it may seem like students should be able to take notes on a topic as you teach it, this can be challenging for students learning the language. Therefore, providing students with everything they need to engage with the lesson, removes the cognitive burden.
In other words, students who benefit from the additional support can focus on the content rather than rushing to listen and write notes while information is presented.
While providing students with customized, scaffolded, and differentiated worksheets is ideal, we here at Lit Science also understand that a teacher’s time is valuable.
You cannot (and should not) spend every waking hour creating the resources your students need to succeed.
As Lit Science grows, we look forward to providing you with no and low-prep middle school science resources accessible to all students, regardless of English language proficiency or reading levels.
Save time and money by purchasing The Middle School Chemistry Bundle Here.