Comparing Atoms, Elements, Molecules and Compounds

 "The assignment was to use the base 10 blocks to create a model of each of the 4 elusive words:  Atoms, Elements, Molecules and Compounds."


 As a science teacher I love teaching new concepts.  I love hands-on investigations and science lab days.  However, one day in these first 9 weeks (yes already), I was faced with a challenge that every educator has to deal with at some point:  reteaching a concept after a massive test failure! I was dreading it!  How was I going to reteach a concept that is so abstract?  A concept that 85% of my students did not get?  A concept that most students struggle with every year! So I reached into the depths of my brain and into the back of my lab supply cabinet to see what I could find.  Out comes my Wipebook Flipchart and my base 10 blocks.  I have used them before to teach chemistry concepts, but due to COVID they have patiently been waiting to be called to duty.An idea had hatched, so then it just needed to develop.






Compare and Contrast



As a middle school student in the state of Texas you are required to understand the differences and similarities between Atoms, Elements, Molecules and Compounds.  Some of the concepts that we learned throughout the grading period were:


  • Define Atoms, Elements, Mixtures, Molecules and Compounds.
  • Demonstrate how to tell if a substance is an element by using the periodic table.
  • Which of the following are pure substances:  Atoms, homogeneous mixtures, Elements, heterogeneous mixtures, Molecules and Compounds.


Despite starting at what I thought was the beginning, group projects and even labs, they just could not understand that:


  • An element was one type of atom and a compound is two or more different atoms
  • An element is represented by a symbol and a compound by a formula
  • Both are pure substances.
  • Molecules and compounds are very similar but molecules can have two or more of the same atoms or different atoms, but compounds must have two or more different types of atoms.






Wipebook Flipchart Anchorcharts



Even though my students completely understood the concept of mixtures, they struggled with the more abstract.  The tiniest of the tiny.  The matter that you cannot actually see.  The assignment was to use the base 10 blocks to create a model of each of the 4 elusive words:  Atoms, Elements, Molecules and Compounds.  To set this up I took all of the graphics that they struggled with off of their 9 weeks test and created a google doc of them.  I removed all of the questions and answer choices and gave them only the graphics.  





Each group of no more than 3 students got 1 flipchart sheet, a set of 40 base 10 blocks (10 of each different color), wet or dry erase markers to match the block colors and a printed copy of the google doc with the graphics on it.  After a rousing discussion of the similarities and differences of the four types of matter, and the four different particle types, I demonstrated a few ways they could format their anchor chart, discussed the definitions and set them free to design and learn.



Final Results



Most of my students decided to follow the same format that I started with, which was a basic four square design.  They then created their block models and had no trouble modeling and drawing the atom and the compound. Elements and molecules, however, were much more difficult for them. As they were working I made  my way around the room and explained the concepts as needed.  The result: a much deeper understanding of the words and the ability to model, draw, and describe the four words as well as decode the graphics and analyze which graphic or description from their test fit with which of the four words.




Danya Bridge, Science Teacher, Pettus Secondary School.



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