Why Balance Chemical Equations?

A Thinking Exercise For My Students

It's one thing to explain and lecture and teach an idea, it is another for the student to create meaning of the idea. The post herein is an activity I am about to give to my students. We have practiced balancing equations and dabbled in stoichiometry, but now are going to delve into the stoichiometry world more deeply. To do this, students must understand the relationships of the balanced equation ratios. Students have passed the "spit it back to me" test of worksheets and exams; now it is time for them to construct an analysis of why balance chemical equations. I have chosen a creative application so that students do not regurgitate from readings. I will analyze results and report back after the students have completed their entries.

Roald Hoffman, poet and Nobel chemist, has said that his creative process works not by "pursuit of great ideas but small ones that begin to connect to each other."  He further stated:
I just love solving little problems—I don't work on big problems like the mechanism of memory or the cure for cancer—but I believe that if you solve many problems and keep your mind's eye open for connections, you will understand the world. It's like seeing the world in a drop of dew. ~ Roald Hoffman
Dalton’s atomic theory helped explain the law of conservation of matter by stating that atoms could not be created or destroyed. In class we are working on balancing chemical equations, which apply this law. Basically, you must have the same number of elemental atoms when a chemical reaction completes as were in the reactants at the beginning. We will then use balanced equations for predicting the outcome of chemical reactions. You see, when elements are combined and react chemically something known and specific will happen, and the outcome of the reaction can be predicted based on what the elements are and the quantities involved. This is what stoichiometry is about: the mathematics of chemistry.

Task 1: Warm-up
Begin this exercise by reading  The Irony of Prose: Chemistry and Poets, by Julie Niklas.  Note how she uses chemistry vocabulary to give you a visual image of the tension of writing poetry.  What emotions does this writing evoke? Why do you suppose she used chemistry terms? After you have read it at least once, leave her a constructive comment.

Task 2: Creating Meaning
The second thing you are to do today is relay your understanding of why we balance equations, and perhaps how, using a creative medium or expression.  A “creative medium” could be a poem, story, cartoon, graphic illustration, song lyrics, recipe, etcetera.  Use analogies or metaphors as you desire. Mala Radhakrishnan, author of Atomic Romances, Molecular Dances and a biophysical chemist, has said that "...at the molecular level chemistry is just a soap opera going on".  In addition to the warm-up reading above, there are several other links below to help you find inspiration.Use these ideas to spark your own creativity. 
Assessment Points For Task 2, Portfolio Post
  • You publish a creative though accurate expression of the balancing of equations in your portfolio that is “suitable for world-wide publication”.  It is self-directed work that you are expected to complete on your own.
  • Your post is clear and compelling and shows complex interactions. Apply your language arts skills to this work and use the assigned vocabulary words.
  • You communicate your idea with language choices that are vivid and precise. Again, you are applying your language arts skills.
  • Reminder: make sure you include “tags” when publishing.

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