Gas station without pumps

2013 August 12

Homeschooling chemistry this year?

Filed under: home school — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 21:31
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My son needs to take chemistry this year.  He doesn’t have much interest in the subject, but one of his top choices for college (Harvey Mudd) requires entering freshmen to have had chemistry, and it would be easier to take it during the school year than to scramble to try to fit it in next summer.

Originally, we had planned for him to take a community college chemistry course, so that they could deal with the lab safety instruction, lab equipment, and proper disposal of chemical waste.  The community college course is perhaps a little lower level than what would be optimal for him pedagogically, but it is low cost and reasonably convenient.  Unfortunately, as a high school student he is among the last to be allowed to register, and by the time he was allowed to register not only were all sections of the chem class he needed filled up, but all the wait lists were also.  He could have gotten onto the wait-list for a lower-level chem class, but that would have gone painfully slowly for him, even if a slot opened up to let him register. So community college was out for us.

We heard that the local high school will sometimes let home-school students into AP courses (if there is room), but they have AP chem scheduled only for the second half of the year (the busier half for him), and their compressed schedule would require him to put about 1/3 of his attention on chemistry—something he’s reluctant to do.  Given the high probability that they would decide that their AP class is full, trying to use the local high school course seems too risky.

I considered having my son take Chemistry at UCSC, but that would be rather pricey at $5331 (not counting books or lab fees) as they stretch general chem out to 3 7-unit courses.  My son is also reluctant to committing to a 3–4-day a week commute up the hill for the entire school year.  I’ve also heard from some of the brighter students that the class goes very, very slowly—possibly because they have to pass more than 1000 students a year, many of whom have even less interest in chemistry than my son.

I looked a little at online courses, but none of them looked very promising.  Most were barely high-school level chemistry and quite a few seemed to be associated with young-Earth Creationist religious groups, which I will not knowingly support.  Even if there are some good ones out there, my son prefers books to videos, and most online courses are aimed at those who would rather watch than read.

So, it looks like I will be homeschooling chemistry this year, like I home-schooled physics for the past 2 years.  Unfortunately, I feel even less prepared for chemistry than I did for physics, so I’ll have to be learning general chemistry alongside my son. I have had only 4 chemistry classes in my life: a high-school chem class in 1968–69, a totally useless chemical thermodynamics without calculus class around 1975, a biochem class on replication, transcription, and translation before 2000, and a graduate protein structure class in 1998.  None of these prepare me for teaching a general chem course, and only the high-school chem class 45 years ago had any wet-lab component.  Increasing the challenge for me is that I’ll have very little time this year, with a higher-than-usual teaching load again this year. (I can’t really complain about it, since I volunteered to create a freshman seminar for the bioengineers WInter quarter—my chair even tried to talk me out of doing it as overload, though he recognized the need for the course.)

Over the summer, I picked up a textbook for free: Zumdahl’s Principles of Chemistry.  The chem department was discarding their TA copies of the old edition, since they are switching to a newer edition.  (The book is one of many that suffers from publisher churn—getting out a new edition every three years just so that students have to pay full price, rather than getting used copies of the book.)

I did a little checking on the web, and Principles of Chemistry seems to be a step up from Zumdahl’s Chemistry, which is commonly used for AP courses, which is in turn a step up from Zumdahl’s Introductory Chemistry, which is sometimes used for regular high-school chemistry.   I’m not sure where World of Chemistry fits in the collection of books.

I’m not sure I would have picked Principles of Chemistry as my first-choice text—it is almost 1100 pages not counting the Appendices and seems to written in a rather wordy style.  The book is packed full of gee-whiz sidebars and pictures and bios of famous (and not so famous) chemists.  I suspect that the actual content could be conveniently presented in a book a third the size.  But it is hard to argue with “free”, and it is a commonly chosen text for 1st-year college courses.

I still have to pick an order for covering the material, since the preface indicates that there are several chapters that can be presented in different orders: “the chapters on atomic theory and bonding (12–14), thermodynamics (9,10), and equilibrium (6–8) can be moved around quite easily.  In addition, the kinetics chapter (15) can be covered at any time after bonding.”  How I’m going to choose the best ordering for the material, when I don’t really know any of it, remains a mystery to me.

Of more concern to me is setting up appropriate labs.  I don’t think we really did enough labs in physics, and it was much easier for me to design physics labs and jury rig equipment than it will be for me to do the same in chemistry—so I worry about how we will do sufficient labs.  I joined the AP Chemistry teachers’ mailing list and asked for help there.

One teacher pointed me to Quality Science Labs, who make most of the chemistry kits that online courses use for their chem labs (they support Johns Hopkins CTY, Apex Learning, and ChemAdvantage, among others).  Their web pages did not enumerate what was in their kits, so I sent them a query, and they suggested their Advanced Microchemistry kit, which they say has been updated to align with the new AP Chemistry curriculum.  They also sent me a list of the contents of the kit and promised to put that list up on their web site.

The kit does not seem to include the experiments that are suggested for the new curriculum []:

Investigation 1: What Is the Relationship Between the Concentration of a Solution and the Amount of Transmitted Light Through the Solution?
Investigation 2: How Can Color Be Used to Determine the Mass Percent of Copper in Brass?
Investigation 3: What Makes Hard Water Hard?
Investigation 4: How Much Acid Is in Fruit Juices and Soft Drinks?
Investigation 5: Sticky Question: How Do You Separate Molecules That Are Attracted to One Another?
Investigation 6: What’s in That Bottle?
Investigation 7: Using the Principle That Each Substance Has Unique Properties to Purify a Mixture: An Experiment Applying Green Chemistry to Purification
Investigation 8: How Can We Determine the Actual Percentage of H2O2 in a Drugstore Bottle of Hydrogen Peroxide?
Investigation 9: Can the Individual Components of Quick Ache Relief Be Used to Resolve Consumer Complaints?
Investigation 10: How Long Will That Marble Statue Last?
Investigation 11: What Is the Rate Law of the Fading of Crystal Violet Using Beer’s Law?
Investigation 12: The Hand Warmer Design Challenge: Where Does the Heat Come From?
Investigation 13: Can We Make the Colors of the Rainbow? An Application of Le Châtelier’s Principle
Investigation 14: How Do the Structure and the Initial Concentration of an Acid and a Base Influence the pH of the Resultant Solution During a Titration?
Investigation 15: To What Extent Do Common Household Products Have Buffering Activity?
Investigation 16: The Preparation and Testing of an Effective Buffer: How Do Components Influence a Buffer’s pH and Capacity?

I can’t get the PDF for the AP chem lab manual (you need a password for that, which in turn requires passing an AP audit—too much paperwork for one student), but I will order the student lab manual in hardcopy, from the College Board store, like anyone else can. College Board charges $18 for the manual, $5 for shipping, and $2.01 for tax.  The tax amount is clearly wrong, since even here in California the sales tax is not (yet) 11.17%.

I think we may be able to do some of these labs: certainly I could hack together a phototransistor and an LED or laser diode to measure “amount of transmitted light”—that’s essential the same circuitry as the optical pulse monitor. Even the mechanical setup should be within my capabilities: drilling some holes through a block of wood to hold a test tube, the LED, and the phototransistor, like for my failed attempt at a pulse oximeter.

Instead  of the new AP labs, the microchem kit has 16 other labs [, available separately from the kit for $30]:

  • Lab 1 Gravimetric Analysis
  • Lab 2 Mole Ratios
  • Lab 3 Redox Titration
  • Lab 4 Electrochemistry: Galvanic Cells
  • Lab 5 Enthalpy of Fusion of Ice
  • Lab 6 Enthalpy of Reaction
  • Lab 7 Investigation Colorimetry: Light Path and Concentration
  • Lab 8 Types of Compounds
  • Lab 9 Paper Chromatography
  • Lab 10 Types of Chemical Reactions: Evidence for Chemical Changes
  • Lab 11 The Effects of Temperature and Particle Size
  • Lab 12 Analyzing Concentration vs. Time Data
  • Lab 13 Reversible Reactions
  • Lab 14 Solubility Equilibrium
  • Lab 15 Acid-Base Titration
  • Lab 16 A Buffer Solution

Some of these look like they overlap with the suggested AP labs (Investigation 1 and Lab 7, or Investigation 14 and Lab 15, or Investigation 16 and Lab 16).   I don’t know how “cookbook” the Advanced Microchem labs are—I need something that is straight-forward enough to be doable without a real chem teacher around, but not so routine as to be a pointless exercise.  Designing labs like that is tough, and from what I’ve heard, most first-year chem labs in college don’t succeed at it (being very cookbook).  Unfortunately, it does not look like Quality Science Labs sells the kit and the manual unbundled (you can get the manual without the kit, but not the kit without the manual), so I can’t really study the manual before buying the kit—at least not without wasting $30.

I’ll also need to buy some more safety equipment (another pair of splash goggles, probably some gloves).  I’ve been told that Flinn Scientific is a good source for high-school chem supplies (also Materials Safety Data Sheets and various teaching resources).


  1. What kind of space will you be using for the lab work? My homeschooled daughter will be taking Chemistry this year. Many years a local college teacher has offered a lab section for homeschooled kids, but it is not being offered this year. I would like to do some lab work at home, but we don’t have a basement or workshop type area. Plus the issues of not having appropriate glassware, burners, etc. as well as dealing with disposal have all but convinced me that a home lab course is not doable. How do you plan to do this?

    Comment by Justin — 2013 August 12 @ 22:24 | Reply

    • This is home schooling at home. The Microchem kit for $250 has all the equipment and chemicals needed for their 16 labs (except for some easily obtained materials that are not worth shipping, which they listed along with the contents of the kit). The quantities are so tiny that disposal is not a problem. We’ll be doing the labs that need ventilation out on the driveway or patio.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2013 August 12 @ 22:34 | Reply

  2. This was our dilemma last year. We ended up going with ChemAdvantage, which seems to have gone up in price this year. (And no, that tuition price didn’t include labs.) I also was reluctant to teach chemistry at home, & here I am a chem major! My son did enjoy the ChemAdvantage course, & got a 5 on the AP exam. He was desperate to do a ‘real’ physics class this year, rather than at home with his dad (a physicist!), so he’s signed up for calculus-based physics at the closest Cal State (not cheap!), for first-quarter physics (mechanics). We think he can get into the second-semester class (E&M) at the local CC, a big savings in time & $$.

    Our son is also applying to Harvey Mudd – I had him read your posts about college visits. Best wishes to your son – perhaps our kids will end up at the same college next year : )

    BTW, the tax amount was calculated at 8.75% of the total, including shipping. That doesn’t seem fair, but some places do this.

    Comment by Laura — 2013 August 13 @ 09:26 | Reply

  3. Oh my what a challenge. Lucky for me the area where I live has about 3 Community Colleges to choose from and my oldest daughter was able to partake in those course. Sometimes going the route of 30 credits in Community College then transferring to a school of choice makes the transition to a 4 year college much smoother as transfer students don’t have to jump through as many hoops as incoming Freshman.

    Comment by Nita — 2013 August 14 @ 03:41 | Reply

    • Whether it is easier to get into college as a transfer student or as a freshman varies enormously from college to college. For many of the schools my son wants to go to, getting in as a freshman is hard (less than 10% accepted), but getting in as a transfer student is much harder. He’ll have had a lot of college-level courses in high school (currently he has 4 courses from colleges, and home schooling at college level in calculus and physics—he’ll have had 2 or 3 more college courses by the end of his senior year), but we do not expect these courses to reduce his time in college at all—they’ll just allow him to start out with more interesting courses his first year. They may also help him get into the very selective colleges that would be a good fit for him.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2013 August 14 @ 10:59 | Reply

  4. I suggest talking to a local high school chemistry teacher on the order and importance of the chapters and labs. You might find one that is friendly enough to give some useful guidance. The AP Chem teachers often have a very comprehensive syllabus that outlines everything rather nicely. It might provide a good guideline to build your own course around.

    Comment by Garth — 2013 August 14 @ 09:03 | Reply

    • Rather than talking to the local high school chem teachers, I’ve joined the AP chemistry teachers’ discussion board. Because the AP chem curriculum is changing this year, there is a fair amount of discussion of these issues already. This gives me access to 100s of chem teachers, not just 1 or 2.

      I did that for AP Physics for the past 2 years also. I think I contributed almost as much as I got from discussion board, so I don’t feel like I was a burden to them.

      I introduced myself to the chemistry discussion board and explained my problem and have gotten excellent advice from them already. Many of them have had to deal with students who for various reasons could not attend lab sessions at the school, so the problem of labs at home is not completely foreign to them.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2013 August 14 @ 11:05 | Reply

  5. […] I mentioned in Homeschooling chemistry this year? “My son needs to take chemistry this year.  He doesn’t have much interest in the […]

    Pingback by I won’t teach chemistry | Gas station without pumps — 2013 August 26 @ 09:32 | Reply

  6. Kevin,

    Did you look at the AP Chemistry Class offered by PA Homeschoolers? I think the instructor is really passionate about teaching chemistry, and the level of the students at PAH is higher than what we’ve found elsewhere. He does use the QSL advanced chemistry kit, but got them to create a special version of the kit for his classes so he could add extra labs that he thought were helpful.

    Best regards,
    Amy Taylor-Brill
    in Charlotte

    Comment by Amy Taylor-Brill — 2013 September 12 @ 04:46 | Reply

    • That is the class we are using. The billing is through PAH.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2013 September 12 @ 04:51 | Reply

      • My twins, Seth and Emma Taylor-Brill, are in the same class. Perhaps they will connect.

        Comment by Amy Taylor-Brill — 2013 September 12 @ 05:14 | Reply

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