How to Teach Chemical and Physical Changes to Upper Elementary and Middle School Students

How to teach a unit on chemical and physical changes to your upper elementary and middle school students

Are you frustrated with finding different ways to get your students to understand how matter changes? Instructing students on being able to identify the differences between chemical and physical changes can be frustrating for both the teacher and the student. When I first began teaching, this was a unit I dreaded. I felt intimidated in how to accurately teach this concept to my students and didn’t feel confident in myself. Flash forward ELEVEN YEARS and I can now say this is one of my favorite units to teach. I still find it challenging but I also feel like a rockstar when I know my students have grasped this difficult concept. I want you to have that same rockstar feeling so keep reading to learn some tips for this unit. 

What is the difference?

        When teaching this unit, it is important to know the difference between the two ways that matter can change.

Physical Change: Changes the appearance of matter but does NOT create a new substance. Ex. Changes in the size, shape or state of matter.

Chemical Change: A change that creates a new substance. 

My students learn there are four ways to identify when matter undergoes a chemical change.
Four ways to tell if a chemical change occurred; color or odor change, energy absorbed or released, gas or solid produced

         After teaching this, I will try to trick students, I know, I am evil. But for students to understand how matter changes, they need to think outside the box. To get them thinking, I will add food coloring to some of our experiments. Adding food coloring to water is not an example of a chemical change. Food coloring contains a color and is what is making the change. This is different from leaves changing color. Leaves are no longer receiving something they need which is why they change color. Mold is another example of a chemical change. Part of the bread change color because of something new on the bread, the mold. This is important to allow students to understand.

         Aside from anchor charts that are displayed around my classroom, we also read nonfiction packets and go over numerous examples to be able to identify the differences between the two changes. Repetition and review are necessary to help students remember and apply their learning. 

teaching a unit on chemical and physical changes to upper elementary and middle school students

Hands-on Learning:

         Hands-on learning is always the next way to learn and to assess their knowledge of the concepts taught. I try to cram as many experiments as possible into this unit because I found that this is the best way for them to learn this concept. I try to do as close to 8 experiments as possible. I regularly hop onto Facebook Live to demonstrate these low-cost, budget-friendly ideas for teachers to use in their classrooms. This year I also incorporate ELA skills into my teaching by having students state a claim and support it with evidence.

         Claim: A chemical change occurred.
         Evidence: A chemical change occurred because when baking soda and vinegar combined, carbon dioxide bubbles formed. These bubbles are a new substance which means a chemical change occurred.

         This method allows me to help out my ELA counterparts while quickly assessing my science students ability to distinguish between a physical and chemical change.

         It should be noted that these activities should NOT break the bank. I do simple ones that will illustrate this concept but do not break my teacher salary bank. Here are some ideas to get you started. Want them all? Check this out

You can Google more activities to do with your students or check out this resource. Either way, this should be an integral part of your unit. These activities will really hit home these concepts for your students. 

Review, review, review:

If time allows, keep hitting home these concepts to fit other learning modalities. Other activities I use are:

Sketch Note Graphic Organizers:

         My students often need a bit more guidance to help them with this concept. If your students can totally sketch things on their own, let them go for it. If they need more guidance, I create more of a graphic organizer that reviews all the concepts of this unit with my students. These make for great reference sheets to keep in their binders to study or refer back to. You can easily make your own but putting concepts relating to physical changes on one side of the sheet and concepts related to chemical changes on the back. Students fill in what they know, I allow my students to refer to their notes to help and then color it in when they are done. The coloring allows them to use both sides of their brain which means they are making deeper connections as they are working.  

Chemical and Physical Changes Sketch Note Graphic Organizers to review properties and concepts

Real-life scenarios:
         Bringing science into the real world is a big push for me this year. I want to immerse students in the thought that science is truly all around us. One way I do this is by giving students different scenarios of matter changes that happen and ask them to identify the change. Add a silly crime fighter spin to it and students are in love. This resource is editable which allows you to personalize it to fit your classroom needs.
Authentic ways to bring the real world into your chemical and physical changes unit

         This is a good independent activity. Students can use their notes and reference sheets to fill in the information needed. There is a rubric included to allow you to grade this if you choose. If you are on a budget, simply fold a few sheets of paper together, have students answer a different question on each. Typically, I ask students to 
·      Identify a physical change
·      Examples of a physical change
·      Identify a chemical change
·      Examples of a chemical change

         Your unit is almost done! Now you need a final assessment. While I have given students tests before, I try to move to more authentic ways students can show me what they know. My favorite is my project based assessment. It is really easy to set up. 

Project: Students will demonstrate either a physical or chemical change to the class. During their demonstration, they will summarize what they are doing. They will identify which type of change occurred and explain why it is that type.
         In my project, I include examples in case students aren’t sure what they want to demonstrate but I also welcome students to come up with their own ideas. For my classes, I ask students to run their ideas by me first. Students are then assessed on their classroom demonstration and knowledge of science. In the past few years, students can be shy about presenting to the class. I do allow my students the option of creating a Flipgrid video that can be shared with the class. This allows students to focus on the project and not on how it is presented to their peers. If you would like more information on how to easily implement this, click here.

Chemical and Physical Changes Project Based Assessment

         I hope these tips help you in your classroom. This unit can be confusing at first glance, but I am hoping these strategies and ideas will help make it much more clear. Still have questions? Let me know by leaving them in the comments below. Looking for some materials to teach this unit, join my email list to help get you started! 

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