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Catalyzing Change in Chemistry Class

By: Brandon Yu

Photo by Brandon Yu

Apart from the light coming through the door’s window, the classroom was completely void of light. As quiet music played from the speakers, students looked around at each other in confusion as chemistry teacher Greg Fenner announced the addition of daily mindfulness sessions to his class. The students put down their backpacks and listened to Fenner’s instructions to put their heads down and close their eyes, but there was one question on everyone’s mind: “What was going on?”

Moments like these have helped to reinforce the idea that Fenner is the teacher whose class “always brings big, new changes almost every week” as junior Ethan Yu put. When asked about what his favorite part about Fenner’s chemistry class, junior Jordan Duong said, “Each week brought something different to the class. I’m still not sure what those mindfulness sessions were all about I think most people just went along with it because they liked taking a nap.”

In response to receiving results from a survey that indicated students felt there was a lack of engagement in the class, Fenner has restructured his class numerous times since moving to the Oracle campus. The drastic changes to how students receive worksheets and do lab procedures have been met with with mixed reactions, and some students have been left questioning why Fenner made the changes in the first place.

The most significant change to Fenner’s class was a structural change in the class’ weekly schedule. Prior to this semester, the class was very similar to how it was last school year. Students would work through an initial activity, meant as an introduction to the new concept, and complete a worksheet after a presentation from Fenner. However, after receiving feedback that his class was as engaging as students would have liked, Fenner “totally revamped the whole syllabus when [students] got to the new campus” said sophomore Jemma Schroder. Fenner began giving lessons at the beginning of the week, would review the concepts by having students take a CC, then would lead a lab experiment at the end of the week.

Not everybody loves the restructure. Some students said they’re unable to complete the lab procedures because the worksheets, now reduced, were their main learning materials. Sophomore Zach Nemirovsky said, “I think Greg tries really hard to get going on a curriculum that people are happy with, but then switches things up because he got too excited by a different idea. That makes it hard to know what’s happening in the class.” Junior Ryan Harsono shared similar opinions when asked about how the new changes have affected the class, saying, “This semester, we have had too little lessons with too many labs where we don’t understand the concepts being shown.”

But other students like the change because of the addition of more labs and hands-on experience. Schroder, along with other students who learn best having hands-on experience said, “I can read something and get a pretty good understanding of it. But for it to really cement the understanding, I need to have some sort of hands-on experience. I really like having more labs in chemistry.” Junior Erik Tyryshkin agreed with Schroder, saying, “Having more labs is nice. It’s better than just doing worksheets.”

Fenner uses a curriculum called Living by Chemistry that provides lessons that can be used to cover a wide range of first year high school chemistry concepts. In the past two years, he has tried to structure those lessons around a framework called the 5E Instructional Model which helps teachers create lessons that are designed with the 5 phases in mind: engage, explore, explain, elaborate, and evaluate. When asked about the changes he has been making in the past weeks, Fenner responded, “It is not easy to implement it at d.tech in a way that meets the needs of all students.”

While it is clear that students have mixed opinions about the changes, it is too soon to tell whether the changes will increase engagement and be embraced by the students. Fenner is aware of the students’ opinions of the chemistry class’ current structure and is currently finding new solutions, such as giving students the option to opt into SAT chemistry subject test groups, which will help address some of the students’ concerns of not having enough information to complete assignments and labs.  

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