Dr. Michelle Barthlow, science department head at Etowah High School, was selected by College Board officials as one of 35 participants worldwide to pilot changes for revised AP chemistry labs to be included in the program of study beginning in 2013.
Barthlow was awarded the opportunity after she presented her doctoral dissertation findings about the effectiveness of application-based learning at the American Chemical Society National Conference in San Diego in March.
The new curriculum emphasizes the practices and processes of science are just as critical as the content, Barthlow said
She said several women from College Board told her they attended her presentation because her dissertation was similar to the new approach the organization was taking in revamping the AP curriculum.
They asked her to participate with 35 other teachers throughout the world in testing the new, more hands-on labs that will likely be in future AP chemistry books.
“I told my students they’d be doing this after they took their AP exams Monday,” Barthlow said. “We’re all science people, so it’s exciting for them too.”
During their first pilot lab Wednesday, Barthlow’s students were able to create their own protocols for titration experiments, which analyze the concentrations of certain chemical components.
She related the purpose of the lab to the class by explaining how this type of test could be used in real-world food science labs.
“Everything here has applications to food quality and purity,” she told the class. “Food labs analyze the acidity and basic nature of cheese, wine … It’s all about keeping the American food supply safe and delicious.”
The class of 17 juniors and seniors will provide input on the three new labs they will test this week in the form of online surveys, Barthlow said. One of her own initial critiques was reducing the length of the nine-page lab packets.
“This first lab is on the wordy side,” she said, pointing to the thick packet of lab instructions. “The AP (curriculum) is heading towards focusing on green chemistry — and that’s a nine-page lab.”
“Green” chemistry, which encourages environmentally friendly practices within the science, is one of many new concepts AP chemistry will stress, along with the use of animations and technology labs and instruction, moving away from teacher lecture to guided inquiry and increasing the use of peer review.
“I’m very excited about the possibilities for high school chemistry,” Barthlow said. “We live in a very technology-driven world. This will help students understand the world around them and how to make better choices.”
Barthlow said she hopes her students’ findings help shape the future of the curriculum.
“It’s great that these young people are going to be providing input to perfect and polish the curriculum,” she said.
Student Kara Coughlin, 17, said she was excited to be working alongside kids in other countries — some as far away as China — to test out the new labs.
“It makes it seem like we’re really doing something,” Kara said.
Her lab partner, Dalton Torgstad, 17, said the experience of writing his own experiment made it feel like he had more freedom to learn on his own terms.
“Instead of following something from a textbook, we get to change the variables we want to,” Dalton said.
Barthlow said this new teaching style may be different for many teachers used to the “old-school” methods of chemistry instruction. She said the new method helps students realize their mistakes before they make them on their AP exams through practical lab work.
“I really appreciate the shift towards active engagement,” she said. “I talk less, they do more. What we find is that they don’t forget it (that way.)”
Barthlow will also serve as the STEM consultant for Clark Creek Elementary School, which will open as a science, technology, engineering and math academy this fall and is also the consultant for the Etowah Innovation Zone.