Monthly Archives: February 2015

What do Rubber, Morphine, Purple Dye, and Nylon all have in common?

This week I wanted to share my book that I read for our book talk papers.  Although the book is on the longer side I really enjoyed that it didn’t require me to read it all in a short period of time (so that I wouldn’t forget the plot).  Each chapter could stand on its own and that made every time I picked up the book feel like a totally new experience.  It’s thorough and interweaving historical accounts of chemistry provided me with a ton of valuable insight into how far chemistry has come since the beginning of modern science.  I don’t want to give away too much more though, so that my presentation isn’t totally ruined before I even start it!


Book: Napoleon’s Buttons: 17 Molecules that Changed History

Authors: Penny Le Couteur and Jay Burreson

Big Idea: Science is tentative, messy, and unexpected.

In Napoleon’s Buttons: 17 Molecules That Changed History by Penny Le Couteur and Jay Burreson, a central idea of the Nature of Science, namely the fact that science is tentative and ever changing is pervasive. The book discusses seventeen molecules that, in the authors’ opinions, changed the path of history significantly with their identification and induction into society. As more molecules are discussed in the book, more overlaps between the molecules become evident. Ties between quinine and picric acid and aspirin, for example, are laced throughout all three of the chapters, which speak directly about those compounds. Furthermore, because many of these compounds were discovered, isolated, and synthesized within a similar range of dates their overlaps must go beyond even the scope of this book.

While there are many similarities between a large number of the compounds on which Napoleon’s Buttons focuses, the book pays special attention to the struggles and obstacles that scientists encountered while trying to isolate, determine the structure of, and stereo-selectively synthesize the molecules in question. This point is one that I think is significant for my future students, and would provide real-life Nature of Science into my future classroom. These struggles highlight the facts that science is messy, and indeed even some of the molecules spoken about in this book were discovered accidentally, while a researcher was looking for an entirely different compound, or even as a result of tiny differences in molecules’ structures.

In addition, significant time is spent in the book discussing how the development and use of some of these “miracle” compounds turned out to be “nightmare” compounds. For example, at the time of DDT’s (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane) initial use for eradicating malaria and slowing the spread of typhus it seemed to be a positive, life changing molecule; but, DDT ended up having serious environmental impacts despite its efficiency at doing its main job and whose use has since been significantly reduced.

Overall, Napoleon’s Buttons speaks directly to the Nature of Science in a multitude of ways including its messiness and tentative natures. By reading even only individual chapters of this book my future students would get valuable insight into how sloppy, unexpected, and uncertain science can be. The connections between chapters, and thus reading the entire book, would provide students with an insiders’ look into science research and discovery; which would really uncover the collaborative and mysterious underpinnings of the development of our society, through the lens of science. In my own classroom, I could use this book in segments or as a whole, for the end results I stated prior, but could focus on the connections between seemingly unique compounds. Given the time to do so, a concept map of significant words in Napoleon’s Buttons would be cognitively challenging and profound for students to create, either for individual chapters or for the book as a whole, for which students could be responsible for individual chapters. For this task, the words in the concept map would go beyond just the compound names, by also include locations, dates, routes to discovery, origins, and so on. Through this exercise the interconnectedness of all corners of our current society could be made visible for learners.

This book is one that I would recommend to science geeks, learners, and all people in between in addition to anyone with an interest in history and the progression of modern advancements. In all, Napoleon’s Buttons is a book that can be enjoyed in single chapter segments or as a whole, but either way gives an insightful and descriptive account on seventeen history-changing molecules, many of which are very unexpected choices.



Le Couteur, P., Burreson, J. (2003). Napoleon’s buttons: 17 molecules that changed history. New York, NY: Penguin Group.

Grappling with the Nature of Science

Jo Ann recently sent around the NSTA Position Statement on the Nature of Science and I wanted to talk about one of the pieces of it more specifically and the challenges that, I would imagine, come along with teaching students that portion of the statement. The statement is below:


A primary goal of science is the formation of theories and laws, which are terms with very specific meanings.

  1. Laws are generalizations or universal relationships related to the way that some aspect of the natural world behaves under certain conditions.
  2. Theories are inferred explanations of some aspect of the natural world. Theories do not become laws even with additional evidence; they explain laws. However, not all scientific laws have accompanying explanatory theories.
  3. Well-established laws and theories must be internally consistent and compatible with the best available evidence; be successfully tested against a wide range of applicable phenomena and evidence; possess appropriately broad and demonstrable effectiveness in further research.


Now, I realize that this fact of science isn’t new news to any of us, having studied science for 10+ years (if you count from 7th grade on). But I would assume that this is a really difficult idea for most young science learners to wrap their heads around, especially the first few times they come across this.

Obviously my instincts want me to talk from a Chemistry perspective so some topics where this idea would come through include might be within atomic theory specifically with the evolution of the atomic model and within ideal gas laws. I think there would be more opportunities for this piece of the nature of science to be taught in other content areas like within evolution or many of the major physics units but my main struggle with teaching this concept centers around when learners grapple with the concept the first few times they encounter it. This mostly is because this idea that theories explain laws but not all laws have theories is contrary to most other areas of school, and really life.

What experiences have you all had that directly covered theories and laws in class and how did you find students did working through the struggles of theories not ever becoming laws despite evidence that proves them true and how not all laws have partnering theories to explain them? I’m mostly interested in how students responded to this unique part of science and what helped them think through all of these idiosyncrasies of science.



NSTA. (2015). NSTA Position Statement: Nature of science.

The Nitty Gritty on my Poopsock Model

Last week, on my first day of student teaching at this placement I taught my students about the digestive system. I used Ceb’s idea from STARS and created a model of the digestive system, through which my students would teach themselves about each organ in your digestive system. This ended up fitting really well with my school’s philosophy of the students constructing their own knowledge and allowed me to do something really hands on for my first day.

Unfortunately I wasn’t able to take any pictures because I was so preoccupied with all of my other demands but I do have all my materials that I used to share with you all.

Before we started the lesson I had students complete a bridge that asked them to chew an unsalted saltine cracker for three minutes while taking observations every 30 seconds. By this I was trying to start the discussion of digestion, specifically that digestion is both a chemical and a mechanical process.

From here my students were responsible for coming up for a class definition for the responsibility of the digestive system in our bodies and labeling all of the organs that make up the system. After this I introduced the levels of organization for the human body (cells, tissues, organs, organ systems, human body).

After the background knowledge was formed we moved into the digestive system model. During this piece of my lesson I would first describe the actual mechanics of the model; for example, ripping the bread or adding the vinegar, and then the students (in their table groups) would actually do that “organ” in the model. I expected that after they had physically completed that section of the model they would come up with what that organ did to the food that a person actually digests.

I did each organ individually, where each table group would perform the actions needed to model that organ, after which we would come together as a class to combine our explanations so everyone was on the same page. Breaking it up this way seemed to work really well because it gave the students time to investigate the model on their own but didn’t give them too much time to get lost or overwhelmed in the process. At the conclusion of the model we came up with definitions for chemical and mechanical digestion that each student was responsible for recording in his packet.

I’ve attached my 4.1 Digestive System Workshop packet and can email you my SmartNotebook pages if you want (the blog won’t let me upload them). Below is the materials and explanations to create the model for a single group. I had my students digest a single slice of white bread, which did (admittedly) make my room smell like Elmer’s glue by the end of the day for some reason but was simple and not as gross as it could have been.


Materials for each organ:

  • Mouth
    • Quart size ZipLock
    • Water
  • Esophagus
    • Balloon (animal balloon style)
    • Plastic beads
  • Stomach
    • Gallon size ZipLock
    • White Vinegar
    • Baking Soda
  • Small Intestine
    • Knee high stocking
  • Large Intestine
    • Mid-calf tube sock


If you have any questions I’ll answer them below or in person.

Goals and Updates

Updates from last week: the poop sock digestive system model was a huge hit! My students either loved it or were super grossed out by it but they all seemed to really absorb (haha, get it?) the material because the lesson as so unique. Also, I’ve hit a milestone and got my first student to legitimately throw up from one of my lessons, so I’m marking that as a huge point in the win column. My first week went well, I guess you could say, and each day I teach I get more comfortable with the discipline policies. I’m still not perfect but I’m improving. The first week also started off with my first teacher snow day; and, I have to say, the rumors are true, snow days as a teacher are way better than as a student.


And now, onto my new thoughts; I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about how I’m going to maintain my sanity through another couple years of madness as I settle into my teaching career and realize I probably need to start setting goals for now and for the future. And, yes I am taking Julian’s blog idea here. #HatersGonHate. So without further ado, here they are.

First short term,

  1. Stop watching Netflix in bed. This is a trap I get myself caught into on an almost nightly basis. I bring my computer to my room, get in bed, and watch some wild prison or drug lord documentary (weird choices, I know). This is not a terrible thing because I usually only do this when I’m going to bed early. However, this documentary usually runs about an hour to an hour and a half long and once it ends most normal people would shut their computer and go to sleep. That’s (obviously) not what I do; see, I have this pre-bed routine that I like to run through that includes Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Buzzfeed, CNN, and at least a dozen ThoughtCatalog articles. Each month this routine seems to get longer, and I’m going to attribute that for the most part to the number of ThoughtCatalog articles I read increasing each time I go on, by now my pre-bed ritual is about half an hour to 45 minutes long. That takes an hour-long documentary to a two-hour ordeal by the time I turn my lights off. That’s too much, and especially with how busy I am during the day it’s something that needs to stop, or (at the very least) be cut down.
  2. Start eating real dinners. I’m just going to come out and admit that last night I ate brownies and pretzels with a side of ginger ale for dinner. Gross. And, even worse is I did actually have the time to cook something and the food to cook something with actual nutrition in it. I currently feel like I’m getting sick and I’m going to go out on a limb and say its because I haven’t been eating great so I haven’t been getting enough of all the good stuff to keep me healthy… Or I guess it could be that my CT has the flu. Either, or.
  3. Work out when time allows. Jill and I did really well this past summer with going to the gym before class and I really started to notice a difference in my energy levels and my strength from doing it; I was actually really making progress towards getting back into good shape. However, as I’m sure we can all relate to, as soon as school, STARS, and class started we stopped (understandably). Now that I’m only in two classes (instead of five) and have kind of gotten the hang of writing lesson plans I have slightly more time on my hands. This extra time has been, for the most part, spent in a horizontal position on Jill’s couch or mine. Now, I’m not saying that hanging out and doing nothing is a bad thing, because it is probably one of my favorite things but between that and my brownie dinners I’m losing any fitness that I once had. This time last year I was working on Wall St. and commuting two hours each way to work; that meant my 9-hour workday was really a 13 to 13.5-hour day door-to-door. Now that really left me no time to work out so I bought a yoga mat and started doing some serious Pilates to make up for not going to the gym. I still have that mat in my apartment and I have a ton of index cards with body weight workouts written down that I used then and over the summer with Jill. My plan is, on the days that I don’t have class, to get one of those workouts done before I go to bed. Between that and eating real dinners I should make some progress back to the summer.

Now for longer-term goals,

  1. Start making classroom management and organization plans. I’ve gotten to see a few styles of running a classroom at this point and have several different options to use or build off of for next year. I need to start making some general plans that can translate to whatever and wherever my classroom may be next year. I know that things may be slightly different depending if I’m in middle school or high school, especially because chemistry students tend to be much older than middle schoolers, but there are some general things that will be very similar. As for organization, I’m not very organized by nature (Jill has helped with changing that recently) so I need to consciously start making moves towards having an organized classroom so that I can avoid having five units worth of papers on my desk.
  2. Start creating general unit outlines for my content areas. I realize this is a huge task to bite off, however, that being said I am only going to be in one class this summer (besides creating my portfolio) and should have the time to at least get the major topics for the year down and decide on an order that flows. Now, ideally I’ll know where I’m teaching before the day before school starts so that I only have to do this for one content area, but worst comes to worst it won’t necessarily be a bad thing for me to have a plan for chemistry and middle school.
  3. Start paring down my possessions and donate/sell what I don’t need. I have a pretty big apartment, in my opinion, and I have three closets, one of which is the size of a small office. All three of my closets are stuffed with clothes, things, and boxes. Now, the boxes were intentional because I know I will be moving soon but everything else is really starting to (literally) pile up. I currently have enough dinner and silverware to feed approximately 24 people with real (not plastic) stuff. I also have three vacuums and two air conditioners. So, needless to say, especially because I’ll be moving in with Jill at the end of the summer (baring any unforeseen catastrophe) and will have to combine my stuff with her stuff into an similarly sized, maybe even smaller, apartment. And that definitely sounds like something that would stress out a Jillian.

Thank you, and goodnight.