Chemistry projects in high school

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    The educational value of projects is well established and their use is not a new thing. Probably most teachers, not only science but others, have used them to good advantage a t some time or another. There are a number of good reasons why projects are not used more, some of which are the following: no appropriate time; course of study too crowded; inability to keep all students busy; inability of poor students to do such work; and lack of equipment and reference material.

    I generally have a few students in every class who do some project work after school and a t odd times. In most cases this work means more than the regular laboratory work as it requires much more initiative and ingenuity on the part of the student to find out how to assemble the apparatus for a given project. But all students cannot spare the time in this manner as the modern high school now demands eight hours or more daily of the average student. The projects as mentioned are done only by the better students who do not necessarily need them from either the interest or credit standpoint. The poor students are the ones that need them for both.

    This year we tried a new plan which gave us the appropriate time. The Chemical Essay Contest, conducted by the American Chemical Society, gave us the cue. Until this year, the chemistry students who entered the contest had to write their essays a t the same time the other few were doing their projects. This did not seem like a fair deal to either the essay writers or the students who were doing the outside work as both were learning more chemistry a t their special task than they would learn in the same time in regular classwork. Of course, both were receiving the necessary encouragement, guidance, and help. In order to give them the needed time and also an opportunity to the rest of the class to really use chemistry once, we decided on a project and essay week. The week chosen was the last full week in February as the essays had to be in by March first. That allowed us to progress as far as possible with the year's work before beginning pn the essays and projects.

    The essay contest had been announced and explained much earlier. The plan was announced about six weeks before time and since the whole week was to be devoted to essays and projects, each student was required to entertheessay contest or choose a project for the week's work. The projects proved much more popular, in fact, too much so, as would probably be ex- pected. At first, no one wanted to write an essay, but with a little personal &ort and explanation, six members chose the essays, leaving eighteen for the projects.

    The essayists were given a few days to select their subjects. The search for material then started. When the appointed time arrived, the outlines

  • were well along and most of the material at hand. A special room with tables was provided so their material could be left without disturbance. Full cooperation was given by the English department, both in correcting the essays and in giving extra credit to the contestants who were enrolled in composition courses. The other members of the class were allowed to choose their projects, so long as it was appropriate for the allotted time and our equipment. As suggestions, the following list was posted and i t hap- pened that each student chose his, from the list, although some of the more ambitious wanted to do such things as prepare artificial diamonds: The list included:

    1. Photography-taking pictures, developing negatives, and making prints. 2. Making lantern slides. 3. Making enlargements. 4. Finding alcoholic content of drugs. 5. Preparation of charcoal, wood alcohol, and aceticacid by destructive distillation

    of wood. 6. Preparation of inks. 7. Preparation of esters-banana oil, ethyl acetate, etc. 8. Preparation of silver nitrate from silver alloys. 9. Preparation of potassium carbonate from wood ashes.

    10. Identification of rocks and minerals. I Etching glass and metals. 12. Recovery of gold and silver from old jewelry, pens, etc. 13. Silvering mirrors. 14. Electroplating. 15. Chemical cleaning of silverware. 16. Water testing-distilled, cistern, well, etc. 17. Measuring hardness of water. 18. Preparation of calcium chloride from marble. 19. Analysis of different brands of vinegar. 20. Analysis of different brands of ammonia water. 21. Analysis of petroleum-per cent and B a u d gravity of gasoline, kerosene,

    gas oil, and fuel oil. 22. Analysis of alloys. 23. Analysis of milk. 24. Analysis of cod. 25. Finding per cent of cotton, wool, and silk in cloth.

    The projects had to be chosen a week or more before the work was to start so that any needed material or chemicals not in stock could be procured in time. The students were required to have a good idea of the methods they were going to use before time to start. Seventeen projects from the above list were carried out by the class, some members doing two or three of the shorter ones. The ones not chosen were numbers 6, 14, 15, 16, 19, 24, and 25. Most of the projects selected were common chemical applications, but a few deserve special mention.

    Probably the most difficult project was the destructive distillation of

  • wood. On account of the amount of wood required for a sample of methyl alcohol, an iron still was made from a three-inch gas pipe about 15 inches long, fitted with two screw caps, one of which was tapped for a quarter- inch delivery tube. This was easily charged and heated so the dry dis- tillation did not take very long. The separation and partial purification of the alcohol and acetic acid were more tedious procedures. Waste oak blocks from the manual training shop were used for charging stock. This project required more time than any other one.

    One of the most successful ones from a teacher's standpoint was the preparation of potassium compounds from wood ashes. With practically no suggestions or help except the few general statements in the text, one of the country boys prepared and purified potassium carbonate. From i t he made samples of the hydroxide, chloride, nitrate, and sulfate, and used some of the nitrate in preparing some gunpowder.

    Practically all of the glass etching was done with liquid hydrofluoric acid rather than the gas. Some rather artistic designs were skilfully made on watch crystals, water sets, mirrors, and auto windows. Most of the metal etching consisted of putting designs on book ends made of sheet metal, mainly copper and brass.

    In preparing calcium chloride from marble, the student noticed that his solution was colored and wanted to know the cause. After being informed that the color was due to certain impurities and what ones were probably causing it, he tested for them and found them. From a few more sug- gestions, he cleared up his solution, much to his delight.

    One of the boys brought a sample of crude oil from a new oil well near his home and ran an analysis on it. While one of the poorest students, he worked out the per cent of gasoline, kerosene, gas oil, and fuel oil with the Baume gravity of each in a very creditable manner.

    Wherever possible, exhibits of the projects were prepared by using the raw and finished products with a brief description of the process and the student's name. These certainly will do more toward advertising the trne nature and value of chemistry to the students and patrons than the over- emphasized fumes and gases. The students' own work will also appeal more to others than would that of industries or experienced chemists.

    One of the essay writers suggested that they be given a chance to learn of the work that was done so each student gave a report of the work that he did. This was worthwhile to the others that were in the laboratory as they did not have much chance to investigate others while they were work- ing. Some of the essay writers and others kept working on the projects after their week's assignment was completed.

    The apparatus required for any project was left set up until the project was completed. A school having more than one chemistry class or one that uses the room regularly for other classes would be handicapped some in


    this respect although very few required anything more complicated than that of ordinary experiments. I can also add that there is seldom a time when we are without one or more specia1"set-ups," which are left from one to three weeks. The extra equipment and chemicals needed were bought by the chemistry department from a fund which is raised by charging each student a fee of one dollar for the year. This fund was used for the direct benefit of the class in buying standard tests, periodicals, and other supplies that will he used during the year.

    Project week was a revelation to both students and teacher and certainly not a vacation for either. It represented the greatest amount of con- scientious work on chemistry by each student that I had ever witnessed. Most of them spent time outside of school and several study periods out- side of the regular class hour. It was a question of keeping them out rather than getting them in. I had to remind some that they had other subjects- a procedure which is a little out of the ordinary, especially for a chemistry teacher. The work progressed well with some unusually good and some negative results, as far as the primary purpose was concerned. The same would be true, even with experienced chemists. Probably the great- est feat was going through the week without an explosion or even a single burn.

    Most of the objections to such work vanished. The time was well spent by every student without exception. The poor students received the greatest individual good as the whole thing was new to them and they were actually enjoying the use of their hard, dry subject. All showed more initiative than was expected. This is also a change for a teacher as it gets him out of the beaten path for a few days and incidentally gives him a new perspective of his field. He probably learns considerably more than his students.

    This is no attempt to give the idea that everything worked out perfectly. There were failures and enough to show the class that results are not always according to theory. The latter represents a lesson which must be learned sooner or later by all. However, the results as a whole were satisfactory, much more so than were ever expected. Many defects were noticed but some of them can be avoided next time. Personally, I think the projects should come at least a month later hut that is impossible if they are to be run simultaneously with the essays.

    Next year I hope to get a variety of foreign raw products for demon- stration work and projects by exchanging our raw product, crude oil or pe- troleum, for them. I intend to write out the laboratory method, as used by the refiners, for petroleum analysis and have it mimeographed. Then I will be ready to express a gallon of crude oil, with directions for analy- sis, in exchange for a peck of sugar beets or for samples of important ores and minerals or for various other things that different ones want to ex-

  • change for crude oil. While general methods are given in the texts, a few detailed laboratory instructions may be a great time saver, something of much importance when about twenty different projects are to be carried on a t the same time by beginners.

    As is well known, industries and even home processes are depending more and more on chemical science. Men and women without any training in chemistry are required to do certain chemical procedures, such as soften water, test the hardness, alkalinity, and causticity of treated and untreated waters, use carbon dioxide recorders, mn analysis on flue gases, test the acidity of cream, and do various other things of like nature. High-school chemistry is going to be a great help in doing these things. Since that is all that many of the class will get, they ought to get a little experience in their class work. The project gives the opportunity.

    With all the advantages as given, the projects cannot take the place of regular class and laboratory work but they certainly make an important adjunct.