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What's the Big Idea? Understanding the Laboratory Experience in the AP* Chemistry Curriculum

Jen Black
Product Manager, Chemistry & Inquiries in Science®

Changes to the AP* Chemistry curriculum have been implemented for the school year. If you're an AP* Chemistry teacher, you might be apprehensive about the course revision, particularly how the course syllabus and labs have changed. Fear not, Carolina is here to make sure you have a successful year in AP* Chemistry.

Chemistry curriculum

In response to the need to fully prepare students to study advanced science coursework in college, the College Board has made several major structural changes to the AP* Chemistry curriculum. The curriculum aims to decrease the breadth and increase the depth of subject knowledge or, in common parlance, aims to prevent the AP* Chemistry curriculum from becoming "a mile wide and an inch deep." The reduced breadth of subject knowledge should allow students to develop a deeper understanding of content and fully master more difficult concepts.

To assist teachers in developing successful courses and to satisfy the course requirements, the College Board has released an AP* Chemistry Course and Exam Description, which details the essential course concepts. You can access the course and exam description on the College Board's AP Chemistry Course Home Page. The College Board will also post updates to the AP course and exam online as needed on this Web site.

What's the big idea?

The curriculum divides the AP* Chemistry curriculum into 6 Big Ideas of chemistry, with each Big Idea addressing an important course theme. Loosely categorized, these Big Ideas are:

  1. Atoms
  2. Chemical and Physical Properties
  3. Changes in Matter
  4. Rates of Chemical Reactions
  5. Thermodynamics
  6. Chemical Equilibrium

In the AP* Chemistry curriculum, each Big Idea has its own set of Enduring Understandings, which outline the core concepts students need to master. An example of this relationship for the Big Idea "Atoms" is Enduring Understanding 1.A: "All matter is made of atoms. There are a limited number of types of atoms; these are the elements."

In turn, each Enduring Understanding is supported by statements of Essential Knowledge. Following the same example, Essential Knowledge 1.A.1 supports Enduring Understanding 1.A: "Molecules are composed of specific combinations of atoms; different molecules are composed of combinations of different elements and of combinations of the same elements in differing amounts and proportions."

Then each point of Essential Knowledge is paired with a Scientific Practice to form a Learning Objective. Questions on the AP* Chemistry Exam correspond to Learning Objectives. Therefore, it is essential to make sure students are comfortable with and able to perform each of the Learning Objectives. To continue with the example underway, Essential Knowledge 1.A.1 can be paired with Science Practice 6.1: "The student can justify claims with evidence." This pairing leads to Learning Objective 1.1: "The student can justify the observation that the ratio of the masses of the constituent elements in any pure sample of that compound is always identical on the basis of the atomic molecular theory."

Revised lab requirement

The College Board also changed the lab requirement of the AP* Chemistry course to support the goals of the course revision. You are expected to spend at least 25% of your instructional time doing lab work. Instead of 22 labs, there will be a minimum requirement of 16 labs to support the Learning Objectives. At least 6 of these labs must be guided-inquiry investigations.

Stop. Take a breath. If you're envisioning your students raiding your chemical storerooms and designing experiments that border on madness, be assured that both the College Board and Carolina believe chemistry inquiry can, in fact, be a safe, productive reality.

For the inquiry-based lab requirement, the College Board expects students to perform lab investigations using an inquiry method that is somewhere between guided inquiry and open inquiry. In practical terms, this means that during some labs students can build their essential knowledge through guided inquiry. In other labs, they can explore concepts through student-designed investigations.

The requirement that at least 6 labs be inquiry-based allows you to choose which labs you lead in a guided fashion and which labs students perform using inquiry. Your decision might be based on factors such as your students' ability levels, the particular essential knowledge being studied, or your own comfort level with an investigation. An inquiry-based lab does not mean that students are given carte blanche to potentially dangerous chemicals and equipment with no supervision. Rather, it means that students develop their own investigation of a question, allowing them to discover concepts in the same way that scientists do.

Count on Carolina's support

To help you transition to the AP* Chemistry curriculum, Carolina has developed a kit series, Carolina Investigations™ for AP* Chemistry. The 16 kits in the series address the 6 Big Ideas of chemistry and meet the requirements of the course curriculum. Each kit focuses on a single Big Idea and offers the option to do either a guided activity or an inquiry activity with your students. To help students prepare for the AP* Chemistry Exam, all kits include Big Idea assessment questions that follow the AP* Chemistry Exam's free-response format.

Flexibility to teach AP* Chemistry YOUR way

The College Board's AP* Chemistry lab manual contains 16 inquiry labs that teachers can choose from to fulfill the requirement of 6 inquiry labs in the AP* Chemistry course. The materials and quantities needed for these example labs are listed in the document "Materials for AP Chemistry Guided-Inquiry Experiments: Applying the Science Practices." Also included in this document are suggestions for the corresponding Carolina Investigations™ for AP* Chemistry kits that meet the same Learning Objectives as the College Board example labs.

You can count on Carolina kits for AP* Chemistry to feature teacher-developed and field-tested activities designed for the AP* classroom. Carolina kits minimize teacher prep and cleanup time and facilitate the successful integration of inquiry-based learning into the laboratory experience.

Whether you choose to use one of our kits, follow a College Board example lab, or design your own experiment, Carolina has the products and solutions you need.


*AP is a registered trademark of the College Board, which was not involved in the production of, and does not endorse, these products.

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