CaseChem Winter - 2016

Winding down the First Semester, 1/18/16

First Things First...

Hi everyone!
This inaugural issue of my blog is part of a continuing attempt to provide a clear picture of Chemistry at Joseph Case High School. I hope especially that it helps parents of my students get a sense of their child's class and laboratory experience.

I'm grateful to have had the opportunity to meet so many Swansea parents this semester, and I believe sincerely that Case is an excellent option for your family.

This blog replaces the newsletter that I instituted last year. I welcome constructive comments and recommendations that can help improve its usefulness to you.

Here's a look at what we've been doing.

Dr. P.

(P.S. Select the photos to enlarge them.)
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The Wordle above shows many of the concepts addressed thus far.

Our year began with a major emphasis on careful and accurate measurement, along with appropriate manipulation and interpretation of lab data. It proceeded through a survey of key theories and experiments that led to our current understanding of the atom, nature's building block. To date, all first year classes have performed the following labs:

  • Determining Thickness of Al Foil (a balance, a ruler, and a calculator are used to estimate the thickness of aluminum foil)
  • Popcorn Weigh & Predict (a graph of mass vs. number of popcorn kernels is used to practice data interpretation)
  • Observation & Experiment (the scientific method is used to explore and explain a series of observations)
  • Moisture Content in Popcorn (statistical analysis is used to study the mass lost by popcorn when it is popped)
  • Observation of a Candle Burning (the class walks in Faraday's footsteps as it revisits some of his classic discoveries)
  • Chromatography Challenge (water and paper are used to separate the pigments in ink so that the manufacturer can be identified)
  • Flame Test Activity (students explore the relationship between electrons, color and the identity of different atoms)
  • Iron Gall Ink (steel wool, vinegar, hydrogen peroxide and tea are used to imitate the first permanent ink which is used to prepare 'old' letters)

In the classroom,

we discussed the development of the atomic theory, and the discovery of subatomic particles. We learned how an understanding of the way electrons can be arranged in an atom explains the colors we see in fireworks, and how we can know the composition of distant stars. We learned also that the outermost electrons determine how atoms react with each other, and we explored some of these interactions.

In the Lab

Each day at Case is unique, and I never know what to expect,

but we usually get where we're going, whether we are amused
Our most recent lab work involved

Iron Gall Ink

which was the first permanent ink, and is reported to have been discovered thousands of years ago by Pliny the Elder. It was used to prepare documents such as the Magna Carta, and our own Declaration of Independence.

Chemistry I students prepared this ink using steel wool, vinegar, tea, hydrogen peroxide, and gum arabic. Each student was assigned one of the elements, and prepared a 'trading card' that included appropriate pictures and information about that element. Students then pretended that they'd discovered that element, and used the ink to prepare a letter announcing its discovery. The letters were artificially aged by the application of tea and heat. (For some reason, the students seem to REALLY like playing with fire!)
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Our Current Challenge

is to master an understanding of the periodic table. Students participated in an activity that mimics Mendeleev's method of arranging the known elements in a pattern, and using that pattern to predict the properties of undiscovered elements. We're off to a good start, as several groups were able to complete the puzzle!
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Amanda returns from college, triumphantly reporting that the periodic table absolutely 'clicked' for her!

AP Chemistry

This is our first year of participation in the Massachusetts Insight program. Our students are working hard to master difficult content in the classroom and apply it in the laboratory. This second year of chemistry includes a brief review of Chemistry I topics, followed by topics typical for the second semester of General Chemistry at the college level.

Our focus has included learning how to interpret AP-style questions correctly, how to estimate numerical answers quickly and how to provide concise, accurate responses that require explanations. We achieve our goals together by:


As we head into this final week of the semester, first-year students will complete their study of the periodic table and its trends, while AP students will complete the current unit on thermodynamics. All classes will review for the final exam. While such a time can be stressful for students, I hope they remember that
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I recommend the following books If you are interested in

perusing some of the reference materials that I have used this semester:
  • The Chemical History of a Candle, by Michael Faraday
  • Uncle Tungsten, Memories of a Chemical Boyhood, by Oliver Sacks
  • The Disappearing Spoon, and Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from The Periodic Table of the Elements, by Sam Kean
  • Mendeleyev's Dream, The Quest for the Elements, by Paul Strathern

Faraday's work is a bit of a chore, due to the 19th century language style, but the others are quite readable. Sack's work is unique as it presents much of what we have covered thus far, but from his perspective as a young boy discovering chemistry on his own, at a time when some of the great scientists who contributed to our understanding of the atom were contemporary. Kean's work is best described by its subtitle, and is a very entertaining. Strathern's is a nice chronological history of our pursuit to learn about the world's building blocks.

Other Recommended Reading

The Wright Brothers, by David McCullough

This is the most recent book that I have read, and a really good look at two men who decided that 'learning to fly had much in common with using a bicycle - it was all about balance. Once one could balance and control movement in a glider, then adding a motor was a simple matter'. This is a remarkable story about two remarkable men.

Certainly, the brothers knew how to Dream Big and Reach High! I hope every student retains this sentiment upon completion of my class.