A Homeschooling Guide To Doing Chemistry
    By Enrico Uva | December 26th 2012 08:00 AM | 4 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Enrico

    I majored in chemistry, worked briefly in the food industry and at Fisheries and Oceans. I then obtained a degree in education. Since then I have...

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    Although I've earned a living because of parents and other adults who think otherwise, some people believe they can do a better job teaching their own children. Parents who convert their homes into schools have to be respected. They do sacrifice money---one parent usually works on a part-time basis or doesn't earn a salary at all. But there's far more. Many teachers complain about a society that only pays lip and financial service to education while not being intellectually committed to it. Well, here's a group taking action on a daily basis, devoting themselves to making their children literate and numerate.

    When the movement first started, it was small and parents were mostly left wing. Now the majority of homeschoolers are not only worried about the 3R's but are motivated to provide their children with a fourth R, religion. Whether the motivation is hippie-ish, fundamentalist or anywhere in between is none of my business. What I'm worried about is that there is not enough guidance for those parents whose home-schooled children take an active interest in a subject like chemistry. 

    The more successful homeschoolers form networks. Hopefully the network will include a stay-at-home parent with a physical sciences background who can, to paraphrase P.W. Atkins, bridge molecular concepts with what our senses perceive.  Luckily, the average home hosts a number of pure compounds that could launch a thousand investigations.

    For instance the combination of a candle's paraffin and the content of some of Faraday's classic lectures could inspire the parent to ask his child questions like:
    • When a candle is lit, is the wick the only thing burning? How can we demonstrate otherwise?
    • Can you reignite an extinguished wick without touching it with a flame? How does that happen?
    • Are gases released? If so, which ones? How can we reveal that through a simple experiment?
    •  Is soot produced? How can a glass of water help collect some of it?
    • Why is the flame multicolored and shaped the way it is?  (Does a free fall environment affect the shape?)
    •  Will pieces of paper ignite as quickly, no matter where they are placed around the flame, as long as the distance from the flame is the same? Or is there more to it?
    •   How do you use a candle to estimate the percent of oxygen in the atmosphere?

    There are children who learn to produce and test for oxygen at home years before their first chemistry course. For decades it was included as a try-at-home experiment in children's encylopedias. They were instructed to cut open a dry cell (wear gloves and eye goggles because base could squirt out out of an alkaline battery) and use the black powder(MnO2) to speed up the dissociation of hydrogen peroxide from the medicine cabinet. If collected in a small bottle, the oxygen that fizzes out of the hydrogen peroxide can reignite a glowing splint. What's shown far less often is that the remaining liquid will no longer fizz if a piece of potato is added. Why something in a potato(or liver or blood) should play a role identical to that of the black powder is a great way to show the common thread between inorganic and biological chemistry.

    Conceptual threads are as important to a chemist as physical ones are to a tailor. The danger of focusing science education exclusively around demonstrations is that when they're left without further investigation, they become reduced to entertainment. It's important to revolve them around most of chemistry's key concepts:
    1. The conservation of mass in chemical change ties into the idea that all matter consists of atoms. Conservation's the reason equations are balanced--it's not just a mathematical game.  
    2. All of nature's 4 fundamental forces affect atoms, but the most important one to basic chemistry is the attraction between a positively charged nucleus and the negatively-charged electrons. 
    3. Each element's atoms are unique. The periodic table organizes the elements into families whose members behave in a similar way. The rows and patterns also hint at atomic structure, which paves the way for bonding.
    4. Without bonding, there's nothing to hold molecules and ionic compounds together, and there is no chemistry. It's crazy to leave that concept out a first course, but I've seen it done! Don't wait too long to apply Lewis structures and 3D-models to hydrogen-carbon-based compounds. Without a knowledge of orbital hybridization, they could still get a good feel for the type of molecules that make up the most important ones in our bodies, in pharmaceuticals, plastics and petroleum.
    5. Concepts 1 and 3 tie in to the idea of a mole. Without them you can't cook in the sense that you won't know how much of each chemical to mix and how much product will be yielded.
    6. Concepts 2 and 4 tie into the idea of potential energy and its influence on whether a reaction is suited for a cold or hot pack. Tie in 5 and 6, tossed in with a simple calorimetry formula, and your child can do a simple experiment to discover how many calories are in a peanut, assuming he's not allergic.
    7. The energy of motion is directly affected to temperature, which is the basis of collision theory. Molecules need to have successful accidents to react. The angle of attack and their speed are essential. This ties into the concept of rates, to why certain reactions are slower than others and why we cook our food.
    8. Two competing reactions can proceed at the same rate in opposite directions, the essence of equilibrium. Acid-base and other aqueous reactions can be centered around that concept. A home experiment * with hardware-bought lime, a straw, some ashes, vinegar and one's breath can simulate the important carbonic acid equilibrium which is involved in egg-shell and seashell formation, buffering in our blood and in the earth's carbon cycle.
    9. Some substances totally give up their electrons; others accept them. The latter are oxidizing agents; the former, reducing agents. Without this electrochemistry, there would be no respiration or photosynthesis and no batteries or corrosion. Since copper sulfate(CuSO4) is a fungicide, nurseries carry it. Add a nail to a solution of  CuSOand watch a simple but elegant electrochemical reaction at work and also apply key concept 5 to it.
    Recently, school systems have used online technology in attempt to accommodate homeschooling. Articles such as this one and a site like Science 2.0 in general can certainly help too, but in chemistry it's important that kids get their hands dirty and experience the errors involved in designing real experiments, and not merely see mere simulations and youtube videos of them. In the same way that no one can better bring a bedtime story to life as a parent, no one can animate chemistry better than an actual chemist who is motivated to share his craft, which is why I also encourage parents to bring their children to visit a university or industrial laboratory. 

    * In my procedure, replace NaOH with ashes; acid with vinegar. The limewater can be made by filtering a solution of lime(CaO) and water. Instead of bromothymol blue, use a pH indicator from a swimming pool testing kit.


    Thank you for your informative article. While I can't speak for all homeschoolers, I can certainly say that I will seek outside help when it comes to subjects that I don't know much about. We are working to build a community of friends, and we also take advantage of the local nature center and other community centers. As my young children grow, we have many sources at a nearby university that I plan to tap into, especially when it comes to my children's interests. And I'll bookmark articles like this too. I especially want them to explore science, and as they get older, we're going to do many science experiments at home!

    All the best, Shelli. As I've stated, I'm impressed by the determination shown by parents such as yourself. It's great that you have university sources, and I'm always glad to be bookmarked!
    Home schoolers can also have problems with math, once they leave the comfort of junior high school. I suspect many parents just abandon math because they've reached the limits of their own knowledge.

    (I was called in to help some friends because they weren't able to home teach their son high school math. I found it great fun, and a challenge.)

    Home schoolers can also have problems with math, once they leave the comfort of junior high school. 
    They probably do. But according to the Vanderbilt study, the home-schooled have the same average overall SAT scores as those from regular schools. I don't know if the verbal scores are higher, offsetting possibly lower math scores. It's probably in the study, but I've only read a summary.