Atoms and Element Unit Essentials

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SWBAT access a coherent, standards-based unit regarding atoms and elements.

Big Idea

There are lots of behind-the-scenes resources required to make a great unit. Find them here!


Great science units combine engaging investigations, opportunities for practice of science skills and strategies to frame all of that learning. This lesson provides resources and rationale for starting and ending a unit paired with some routines and procedures to help everything in between. Starting activities include vocabulary acquisition, essential questions, "pre-review" study guides and daily warm ups. End of unit activities include review strategies, assessment choices, assessment tools and rubrics.

All of these resources support:

Develop models to describe the atomic composition of simple molecules and extended structures (MS-PS1-1).  

Analyze and interpret data on the properties of substances before and after the substances interact to determine if a chemical reaction has occurred (MS-PS1-2).

Start of Unit

Starting a unit takes the perfect combination of backward planning, strategic development of routines and procedures, creative lesson ideas and enthusiasm. One way to make unit planning more efficient, is to find some best practice procedures and/or strategies that can be consistently used for every unit. These procedures and strategies act like a "frame" for each unit. The frame provides a consistent, repetitive structure within which students know what to expect. Students also practice and become more competent at the skills these procedures and strategies promote. Here are a few ideas for start of unit frames:

1) Vocabulary Acquisition - Familiarity with science vocabulary prior to in-depth investigation helps students develop a basis from which to start. As a routine at the start of each unit, students embark on a study of relevant vocabulary words. For a strategic lesson for vocabulary acquisition, check out: Learn-a-Word: Science Vocabulary Acquisition. Students can develop a vocabulary list or for a premade vocabulary list and extension ideas for this unit, visit this resource: Vocabulary Quiz - Atoms and Elements. A quick evaluation of student understanding may be appropriate too: Vocabulary Quiz - Atoms and Elements. For student-driven vocabulary projects, this Atoms and Elements Vocabulary Presentation - Student Extension and Atoms and Elements Vocabulary Picture Book are good examples.

2) Essential Questions - Essential questions frame a unit of study in terms of the the big, relevant, real-world issues or concepts. The purpose of essential questions is to engage students; promote critical thinking; and help students synthesize new experiences with prior knowledge. The essential question routine starts at the beginning of a unit with an introduction of the questions. Then, throughout the unit, each new learning experience needs to be explicitly connected back to these questions. Students don't always make connections on their own, so practicing this skill is paramount to the success of this strategy. For more on this topic and additional information about how and why to use essential questions, visit this related lesson: Force and Motion Essential Questions or Essential Questions: Building Student Engagement in Science Part 1 and Part 2.  The essential questions for this unit are found here:Study Guide - Atoms and Elements. For student examples to peruse: Final Essential Questions - Atoms and Elements Student Example 1 and Final Essential Questions - Atoms and Elements Student Example 2.

3) "Pre-Review" Study Guides - Part of planning a great unit is using backward design to use standards to develop learning objectives - and then communicating those objectives to students, so they not only know what to expect, but for other reasons as well. The other reasons for providing a study guide prior to the unit are: 1) Students can use the guide to follow along as the unit unfolds; 2) Students can use the guide to self-assess their level of understanding and mastery; and 3) Students can prove mastery and use the other learning objectives to create self-directed study. The pre-review study guide is a routine that starts at the beginning of a unit with an introduction to the unit. As the unit progresses, students can check off learning objectives or keep a record of which investigations helped them master the learning objectives. At the close of a unit, students can use the guide for preparation for a final evaluation of learning. The study guide for this unit is provided here: Study Guide - Atoms and Elements

4) Daily Warm Ups - Daily warm ups, "do it nows" or "bell activities" serve the purpose of engaging students in the daily learning, focusing students for scientific study and to practice skills or learn concepts. This strategy can also serve the purpose of acting as a mini-lesson. For more on why I use this strategy, watch this:

As discussed in the video, this resource: Essential Question and Warm Up Organizer - Atoms and Elements is helpful for students to use as a graphic organizer to keep their warm ups organized. An example of student warm ups for this unit can be viewed here: Warm Up - Atoms and Elements Student Example.

End of Unit

An exit strategy for a unit is another optimal place for using procedures and strategies that can be consistently used for every unit. These procedures and strategies complete the "frame" for each unit that provides the consistent structure within which students know what to expect. Here are a few ideas for end of unit to complete the frame:

1) Assessment Choices - Backwards design suggests that assessment tools be designed prior to implementation of the unit of instruction. When approaching the end of the unit, it is time to ask students how they would like to be assessed. Just as differentiation occurs during instruction, a powerful strategy is to offer students choices in how they would like to be assessed. This handout: Assessment Choices Handout - Atoms and Elements, can be modified for any unit and additional rationale about this strategy occurs in this related lesson: Forces and Motion: Assessment Choices.

2) Review Strategies - Middle school students need instruction around how to assess themselves in terms of what they know and don't know...and then to make choices for how to study for an assessment. Providing time and structure for review activities is an important part of teaching students effective self-assessment and studying skills. One strategy that meets this need is the provision of a review checklist: Assessment Review Checklist - Atoms and Elements. A checklist like this one helps students organize their time and tasks during the review process. Additional strategies include setting up review stations during which students choose which activities would be most beneficial: Review Stations - Atoms and Elements. During this time, direct instruction with individual or groups of students can occur for those students who need additional support. A two-column review notes process: Review Notes - Atoms and Elements and Review Notes Answer Key - Atoms and Elements is another effective strategy. For more on this strategy, view this video:

3) Assessment Tools and Rubrics - Students have chosen the type of assessment they would like to take and prepared for it...When it is finally time for students to assess their understanding, they use the Assessment - Atoms and Elements or Science Portfolio - Atoms and Elements or Experimental Design Plan Blank, Experimental Design Plan Unguided or Experimental Design Plan depending on their assessment choice. To give students feedback on their work: Atoms and Elements Assessment Student Work, use these rubrics: Assessment Rubric - Atoms and Elements, Science Portfolio Rubric or the Complete Experimental Design Rubric.

After students complete their assessments and feedback from the teacher is given, it is important for students to analyze how they performed. This lesson: Forces and Motion Assessment Review offers an alternative way for students to take charge of this process leading to reassessment if needed: Assessment Retake - Atoms and Elements.

Teacher Note: For help developing an online science notebook where students can post their learning (like essential question responses, portfolios or experimental designs, this lesson is for you: Digital Science Notebook.