Teaching at D.Tech High School: Chemistry (Part 3)

I enter the classroom after Greg Fenner has begun the lesson. Thirty-one students sit at eight scattered tables in a large room adorned with the essential Periodic Table of Elements. A cart filled with tablets sits at one side of the room. Each table seats four students comprising a team for activities and homework that the teacher assigns during a lesson.

Sporting a trim beard and mustache, Fenner wears jeans, blue T-shirt and tan desert boots. He also has a cloth shoulder strap holding a small pouch.  Perched on his head is a pair of goggles. A graduate of a Bay area university’s teacher education program, this is Fenner’s fourth year at d.tech. He lives in San Francisco and often bikes to the city train station, rides to a stop a few miles away from d.tech high school and completes the commute on his bike.

Today is lab day.  Students will be studying chemical reactions using hydrochloric acid and baking soda. They follow instructions in their textbook, Chemistry in the Earth System, a text linked to Next Generation of Science Standards adopted by California.

Lab workbook exercise

A table near where I am sitting holds eight lab trays filled with a thermometer, flask, measuring cylinder, filter paper, beaker, and one pair of goggles. Fenner explains what the strength of the acid is and the importance of being careful when using it in the experiment. He explains students will mix it with sodium hydrogen carbonate (baking soda). He gives safety instructions to the class before one student from each team comes up to get a tray to bring back to the table. As team members come up to the table, he repeats that students carrying trays should say aloud “I am behind you” and not to make sudden moves.

There is also a Teacher Assistant in the class who is a senior. John took the course last year and wants experience helping students in the course as they do lab experiments. He is seeking a summer internship in a university chemistry lab. As Fenner does, John moves from table to table to see that students have all of the equipment for testing the interaction between acid and a carbonate. They answers student questions about the experiment.

Within a few minutes each team is at work as outlined on the sheet in the book. At a table near me, one student dons the goggles, another picks up the flask of hydrochloric and measures the temperature of the acid. Another does the measuring of the hydrocarbonate. One student takes notes that will be used to complete the assignment. They follow the step-by-step instructions determining the reactions, weight, and temperature of the mix of two ingredients.

Fenner and John move from table to table observing each team’s progress in following directions. They ask and answer questions. As I scan the class, every team seems engaged in carrying out the assignment.

Fenner interrupts the teams to put on whiteboard the chemicals being used, their interaction using familiar equations. He explains the rationale for the experiment and its linkage to the rest of the unit on mass and energy. Many students jot the equations down.

Teams return to task and I watch another table near me as students complete each step, write down the answers, discuss among themselves what the reactions were and any changes they noticed. I do not see any cell phones being used or students off-task.

Fenner reminds students to turn in electronically the results of each team’s investigation. Students pack up and leave class. There are no chimes or bells. A few students linger to ask Fenner questions. I move onto the next teacher’s lesson.

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