Issue Date: April 16, 2007
Science Of Homeschooling
It's Monday night at the Strouds', and David is at the dining room table with his two daughters, Fisher, seven, and Ripley, nine. On this particular evening in February, David is performing an electrolysis experiment using a battery and a penny immersed in water. Monday night is chemistry night, and David and his wife, Annemarie, have invited C&EN to join them for the evening. Fisher and Ripley giggle as bubbles begin to form on the coin.
The Strouds are among a growing number of families in the U.S. who homeschool their children. An estimated 2 million students now are being homeschooled in the U.S., and that number is growing at a rate of 7 to 10% per year, according to the National Home Education Research Institute.
More parents are also deciding to homeschool their children beyond middle school, and as they do so, they are discovering that the availability of already prepared chemistry curricula is quite limited. The situation is especially challenging for secular homeschoolers, who say there are virtually no secular high school chemistry curricula out there for the homeschooling community.
The market is slowly responding to these trends, and several high school chemistry curricula that cater to a diverse audience of homeschoolers now are in development. In addition to helping families teach the fundmental concepts of chemistry, these curricula address an important practical question: How do you carry out lab experiments that are challenging and informative yet safe to be carried out in the home?
Families homeschool for a variety of reasons. One common reason is that parents are dissatisfied with the quality of institutional education. David and Annemarie remember sending their oldest daughter, Ripley, to public school for kindergarten, only to watch their once-inquisitive child become increasingly quiet and withdrawn. "I watched the curiosity get stifled out of her," Annemarie says of Ripley. "I couldn't allow that to happen." After talking with a psychologist and considering options such as private school and hiring a tutor, the Strouds turned to homeschooling.
David, who produces educational materials for the National Aeronautics & Space Administration, comes up with all of his own chemistry lessons and labs, mostly by pulling together resources he finds in books and on the Web. He admits, however, that as the girls get older, it will be increasingly difficult for him to stay ahead of them.
Parents also homeschool so they can instill religious values in their children. In fact, most of the high school chemistry curricula currently available for homeschoolers are based on the Christian faith. Options include K-12 Christian school curricula adapted for the homeschool community by Bob Jones University Press and A Beka Book, a foundation centered on furthering Christian ideals in education. Both include a year of high school chemistry.
Chemist Arthur B. Robinson and his six children many years ago developed a K-12 curriculum that includes a year of high school chemistry. The curriculum is based on a self-teaching method used by Robinson's own children, one of whom is now a Ph.D. chemist. Students using the curriculum learn entirely on their own by reading the assigned books, which are provided on 22 CDs, and solving thousands of science and math problems. At the center of the chemistry portion of the curriculum is Harry B. Gray's college freshman chemistry text. The curriculum doesn't include any hands-on labs, however, because Robinson finds them to be unnecessary before college.
One religion-based curricula provider, Apologia Educational Ministries, offers science courses complete with hands-on labs. The curricula are designed specifically for homeschool students at the junior high and high school levels. The company, founded in 1994 by nuclear chemist Jay L. Wile, offers courses in chemistry, biology, and physics, including advanced courses that cover the Advanced Placement syllabus in those subjects.
Wile writes his textbooks as if he's speaking directly to the student. That way, the student can learn the material without the help of a teacher, and the parent, who most likely is not particularly knowledgeable in chemistry, can act as a facilitator. The companion labs come in a kit containing all the needed chemicals and equipment, except for a few items that can be easily bought or found around the home.
On its website, Apologia says it "exists to give the homeschool student a scientific education that will help him or her make a reasoned defense of the Christian faith."
The mere mention of religion alarms secular homeschoolers like Jacquelyn Stephenson, who is open about her atheism. "I go to the website and I see the word Christian and, frankly, I run away," she says. Despite looking all over the Web, she says she hasn't found a secular high school curriculum for chemistry-or any of the sciences for that matter. "It's the big question you see on all the secular homeschooling message boards: 'What about science?' " she says.
Many secular homeschoolers end up modifying one of the Christian curricula, simply because those curricula are the only ones available. Or, like the Strouds, they cobble together their own curricula, which many say is incredibly time-consuming and nearly impossible for parents without a science background. Some parents with older kids end up sending them to a community college for chemistry courses. Some join co-ops where they can pool their resources with other parents. Some gloss over or skip chemistry altogether.
In fact, many homeschooling parents admit they are intimidated by high school chemistry. Allison Barrett is a single mom who works full-time as a restaurant manager and homeschools her 13-year-old son, who has Tourette's syndrome. She says she spends countless hours looking for resources, an exercise she finds extremely frustrating because she has no background in science.
Barrett says she would love for someone to come up with a secular high school chemistry curriculum that is academically rigorous yet parent-friendly. Even better, she says, would be for someone to produce an entire high school science curriculum, including chemistry, biology, and physics, and offer hands-on labs to go along. She wonders whether it would be possible for a chemist to adapt a college-level chemistry textbook for homeschoolers and include labs that can be done in the home.
Several educators indeed are working on chemistry curricula that could be used by homeschoolers regardless of their beliefs. During the national meeting of the American Chemical Society in Chicago last month, symposium organizer and homeschooling mom Frankie K. Wood-Black, who is director of compliance decree coordination at ConocoPhillips, in Houston, described a homeschool chemistry text that she is developing with her brother-in-law. The text takes an inquiry-based approach, where each section begins with a lab experiment followed by an explanation of the scientific concepts. "It's a whole different approach to teaching the subject," she says. She envisions the final product as looking more like a lab manual than a traditional chemistry textbook.
Wood-Black's labs will be based on green chemistry, an approach that reduces or eliminates the use and generation of hazardous substances. With its nontoxic chemicals, green chemistry is becoming an increasingly popular approach to doing chemistry experiments safely in the home.
Sally Henrie, a chemistry professor at Union University, a Southern Baptist school in Jackson, Tenn., is another educator working to integrate green chemistry into homeschool chemistry curricula. Several years ago, she and two of her undergraduate students developed a green chemistry lab manual for high school students. Some faculty members at Union who homeschool their kids learned about Henrie's manual and asked her to adapt it for homeschoolers. She agreed and is now looking for a business partner to help her bring the product to market.
Her lab manual includes experiments such as determining the percentage of hydrogen peroxide in a solution using carrot juice and the ideal gas law. The manual also includes a lab on calculating the calories in a variety of junk foods. She envisions that her lab kits would come in a box and include all the necessary chemicals and equipment, which could be supplemented with materials found around the house.
Back at the Strouds', David finishes up his experiment on electrolysis. Although he doesn't expect Ripley and Fisher to remember everything they learn that evening, he says he's consistently amazed by how much they do retain. Case in point: This reporter asked the girls what their favorite experiment has been. They talked excitedly over each other as they described vividly how they recently made a "blue goopy polymer" using water, white glue, and Borax. I was amazed by their ready use of scientific jargon at that young age.
It's times like these when David and Annemarie look at each other, nod their heads, and know they made the right decision.
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