Creating Confident Chemists

Ellis Chemistry students kick off the school year with an algebra lesson. This may come as a surprise for some of these aspiring scientists, who perhaps were picturing bubbling beakers or mysterious solutions instead of sorting out equations. But, according to Chemistry and AP Chemistry Teacher Lynne St. Hilaire, as students fuse their math and science knowledge and begin to see how the two disciplines intersect, they’re mastering foundational skills that will empower them to become more confident chemists.
“Chemistry can initially be a tough class for students because they don’t yet fully see the connection between math and science,” Ms. St. Hilaire explains. "By mid-year, once they’ve refined their math skills and strengthened their understanding of why and how they’ll be using math and science together every day, students start to enjoy the application of it and become more comfortable with it.”

Over the course of the year, Chemistry students build a toolkit of fundamental knowledge and expertise that will serve as a springboard for the rest of their science experience at Ellis and beyond. Along with digging into their algebra review, students spend the first trimester exploring the structure of the atom, developing a robust understanding of the periodic table, learning about chemical bonding, and getting hands-on experience with 3D molecular structure by building models of molecules in class. By the second trimester, students are experimenting with chemical reactions and tackling more in-depth chemistry content. They also participate in interactive labs throughout the year, investigating the reactivity of metals and engaging in a flame test lab (a class favorite), where students use bunsen burners to heat various elements and observe how each gives off a different colored light. 

As students are growing their chemistry knowledge, as well as becoming more proficient at taking thorough notes and interpreting scientific data, they’re also preparing for the next step in their journey as chemistry students at Ellis, which for many is AP Chemistry. Chemistry is a required course for Ellis sophomores, and while taking AP Chemistry is not mandatory and an A or A- in Chemistry is a prerequisite, 95% of Ellis Chemistry students advance to the AP course as juniors—an impressive statistic. Ms. St. Hilaire believes that confidence plays an important role in this high percentage.

“Once students have that strong foundation in general chemistry, they feel confident progressing to the next level,” says Ms. St. Hilaire. “They’ve become more comfortable using algebra, being able to convert between units—they’ve done some of these things before, but this is when it finally clicks for them and they know they can move forward and take these skills with them. They believe in themselves, they’re passionate about the class material, and they’re ready for the challenge.”

And a challenge is exactly what AP Chemistry delivers. Preceded by a rigorous summer assignment, the class is comparable to a full year of general chemistry at the collegiate level, building on what students learned in Chemistry but diving deeper into the content. Students participate in more advanced labs that focus on collecting and analyzing data, and, in preparation for the AP exam at the end of the school year, they enhance their scientific literacy, bolstering their ability to interpret and answer questions about complex information and use the skills they’ve acquired in class to help them think through problems and scenarios they’ve never before encountered. The science the students learn is crucial—as is the self-confidence and real-world experience they gain. Taking AP Chemistry familiarizes students with the quick pace and academic rigor of a college course and teaches them the value of not fully grasping concepts on their first try.

“I see AP Chemistry as a journey in learning content, mastering skills, and growing more confident in yourself,” says Ms. St. Hilaire. "The first trimester is coming to terms with the fact that you can’t be perfect and that science is really learning from your mistakes and progressing to a new level of understanding. Once we reach the second trimester, students are actually willing to make mistakes so they can then learn and grow from them. This class introduces students to a whole new way of thinking, and it’s beautiful to watch them face that challenge, get through it, and have their confidence in science grow so much.”
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