My Introduction to Intro Chem

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               It was a Thursday evening as I was relaxing post-workshop and gearing up for summer research when I received a text from my colleague asking if I wanted to teach the summer intro-chem course. I immediately jumped on the opportunity since I have always wanted to get my hands on a chemistry for non-science majors course... the only drawback? The class started that following Tuesday and I have never taught intro chem before! Despite that little set back, I was eager to start planning my learning outcomes, lessons, demonstrations and labs; and was feeling energized after a week long workshop that focused on active learning. To set the scene for you: the course was only 6 weeks long, met every day for an hour and a half for ‘lecture’ and twice a week for lab. The text we used was the ACS Chemistry in Context (9th Edition, text and lab manual) where we covered Chapters 1 through 5, 8, 10, 11, 12 and 14.  The students ranged from rising sophomores to graduating seniors who majored in disciplines ranging from education, business, math, and philosophy.


At the start, I worked 2-3 hours each night to prepare carefully crafted powerpoint lectures with active learning break outs (more emphasis on the powerpoint lecture).. I believe I found myself relying on more traditional teaching methods because of my lack of confidence in teaching this material. But I quickly noticed the students were having a hard time paying attention and were drifting off.. who can blame them? Who wants to be ‘talked to’ for nearly 2 hours a day every day. After their first exam where grades ranged from low F’s to high A’s with an average of 68%.. I decided I needed to change things up and decided to shut my mouth and flip the course immediately. (This was actually inspired by a book I was reading at the time titled “Teaching with your Mouth Shut” by Donald Finkel.. read it, its great!)

I didn’t make lecture videos, I stopped wasting time making power points, and instead allowed the text book to lecture for me by assigning readings associated with each class meeting. I then could spend most of my planning time and efforts in researching and choosing in-class activities that we spent 100% of the time on in class with students working in small and diverse groups. On exam two, the class average was a full letter grade higher than the first exam (76%), which was maintained in exam III and the final.


         Students worked in small groups on various in-class activities described below.

Because I found it so challenging to find and research the resources I used, I wanted to take a moment to share with you the materials I found helpful and also ask and see if you have an activity, book, demonstration or other resources that you find especially helpful for an intro chem course (Comment below!)

Introduction Chemistry: A guided Inquiry (POGIL, 1st Edition) by Michael Garoutte and Ashley Mahoney published by Wiley.

I really wish I had this book from the very start! I requested the exam copy right when I found out I was teaching the course and it took a couple weeks to get to my desk but I was so happy when it arrived! While it wasn’t an all-inclusive resource, it was really valuable and we used a number of activities from the book in class such as the Acid/Base, Molecular Shapes, and Rates and Energies of Reactions activities. The only drawback to this text? It wasn’t put into a real-world context which was the emphasis of the ACS text book and the class. But I did hear lots of “Ah hah!”s  throughout the class meetings.


For our nutrition and cooking with chemistry unit, we made pop rocks, rock candy and dipping dots in order to discuss phase changes, recrystalization and how the rate of freezing effects the creaminess of ice cream.

Solving Real Problems with Chemistry (2nd edition) by John Goodwin, David Hanson and Troy Wolfskill; published by Pacific Crest.

This is another POGIL-like workbook that incorporates guided reflection on the actual learning process (which unfortunately the students would skip unless somehow incentivized). What I loved about this book (in addition to the reflective process) was the incorporation on intro chem/gen chem concepts into a real-world context. On days that we worked on these activities (such as “Time of Death – When did it Happen” (integrated rate laws) and “Keeping Warm with Carbon-Based Fuels” (enthalpy and heats for reations) I overheard a number of side conversations that related the chemistry to their daily lives in terms of retail, public policy, and CSI! Again, it was a great resource, but didn’t 100% line up with the text/material I was covering so wasn’t an all-inclusive resource.


In our forensics unit, students got to test money for trace amounts of drugs and isolated unknown compounds for TLC analysis in order to link a suspect with a murder case.

Calculations in Chemistry (2nd edition) by Donald J. Dahm and Eric A. Nelson, published by W. W. Norton.

This was an absolute fantastic resource for my class as the major determining factor for success in my course turned out to be the ability to solve mathematical word problems. I utilized this book as a supplemental tool and aligned sections from this book with the ACS text book for students to use as additional practice. I felt it was well written with lots of guidance and the cost is very effective! I think in future courses I will make this a required resource for the course and wish I had started utilizing it earlier. The students could have really benefited from me spending a day or two at the start of class learning and practicing basic word problem analysis and dimensional analysis without necessarily going straight into chemical concepts.

Other various online resources

I pilfered several other various resources from the web such as the new ACS Reactions Video Series (this is a great tool for engaging and contextualizing chemistry for folks with no science background and I am constantly sharing these videos through social media), the Legacy High School Chemistry POGIL activities, and for our forensics unit the Mixed Reception Activity by the ChemCollective. We also used the PhET simulations in class as well to demonstrate balancing reactions and phase changes.

Student feedback on the course:

" I feel much more prepared and really learned a lot"

" The class was enjoyable and related to our daily life so we felt we would actually use this information... I found the worksheets helpful"

"She created an environment that was comfortable to ask questions and dig deep into certain areas that were not understood well or people were interested in"

"Class structure of handing out worksheets and learning in groups how to do them on top of her guidance was probably the best way for me to learn"

"Less lecture, more practice seemed to work well in this class"

Again, by no means is this meant to be an exhaustive list of useful tools for intro chem and I would love to hear your own preferences and ideas. But after writing this post... I am left with one question: Wouldn’t it be nice if we had one all-inclusive resource that was flexible and incorporated context-based active learning for our students? By no means can I require my students to purchase 1 text book, 1 lab manual, and 3 work books for a 6-week course.

What say you? I’d love to hear your feedback, comment below:

About the Author
As an educator, researcher, wife and mother, I am dedicated to developing and assessing innovations in chemistry education, medical diagnostics, and the biophysical characterization of non-helical DNA structures found in the non-coding regions of the genome. Website: