Developing Student Understanding

High-school students develop the ability to relate the macroscopic properties of substances that they study in grades K-8 to the microscopic structure of substances. This development in understanding requires students to move among three domains of thought—the macroscopic world of observable phenomena, the microscopic world of molecules, atoms, and subatomic particles, and the symbolic and mathematical world of chemical formulas, equations, and symbols.

The relationship between properties of matter and its structure continues as a major component of study in 9-12 physical science. In the elementary grades, students studied the properties of matter and the classification of substances using easily observable properties. In the middle grades, they examined change of state, solutions, and simple chemical reactions, and developed enough knowledge and experience to define the properties of elements and compounds. When students observe and integrate a wide variety of evidence, such as seeing copper "dissolved" by an acid into a solution and then retrieved as pure copper when it is displaced by zinc, the idea that copper atoms are the same for any copper object begins to make sense. In each of these reactions, the knowledge that the mass of the substance does not change can be interpreted by assuming that the number of particles does not change during their rearrangement in the reaction. Studies of student understanding of molecules indicate that it will be difficult for them to comprehend the very small size and large number of particles involved. The connection between the particles and the chemical formulas that represent them is also often not clear.

It is logical for students to begin asking about the internal structure of atoms, and it will be difficult, but important, for them to know "how we know." Quality learning and the spirit and practice of scientific inquiry are lost when the evidence and argument for atomic structure are replaced by direct assertions by the teacher and text. Although many experiments are difficult to replicate in school, students can read some of the actual reports and examine the chain of evidence that led to the development of the current concept of the atom. The nature of the atom is far from totally understood; scientists continue to investigate atoms and have discovered even smaller constituents of which neutrons and protons are made.

Laboratory investigation of the properties of substances and their changes through a range of chemical interactions provide a basis for the high school graduate to understand a variety of reaction types and their applications, such as the capability to liberate elements from ore, create new drugs, manipulate the structure of genes, and synthesize polymers.

Understanding of the microstructure of matter can be supported by laboratory experiences with the macroscopic and microscopic world of forces, motion (including vibrations and waves), light, and electricity. These experiences expand upon the ones that the students had in the middle school and provide new ways of understanding the movement of muscles, the transport of materials across cell membranes, the behavior of atoms and molecules, communication technologies, and the

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