Learning about things you can't see and are so small that you can't even imagine them....well, it's tough work.
Just ask any 8th grader who is struggling to understand how atoms work. The nucleus isn't that tough, but it's really those pesky electrons that make things hard. That's where the use of models comes in very handy.
I started pushing the ideas of models early in the school year when we were using ramps and cars. Those are very relatable models...something most kids would easily understand. Good thing. Now that we're into atomic structure, it much tougher.
I have something called the Atom Game which looks like a Chinese checker board where students can place marbles (red for protons, blue for neutrons, yellow for electrons). As they play the Atom Game, building models of the nuclui and filling the electron shells I push them to see patterns in how things work.
Sometimes the physical model doesn't match up with what we've learned. Take electrons for example. The text describes electrons as being so fast and that they are sort of everywhere and no where all at once. That's a bit mind-blowing. Some of the students are reading the Cartoon Guide to Chemistry and found that different shells have different patterns to their electron path. So now we're trying to sort out the limitations of a physical model while keeping the ideas of a conceptual model in mind.
I know things are going well. Students are asking questions that are way beyond my understanding of chemistry. Which means I spend a lot of time emailing the high school AP Chemistry teacher who patiently answers my questions. (Most of the time she tells me that no one knows the answer to the questions they are asking and that what they want to know is what nuclear chemistry is investigating right now. It's a great relief because I usually feel like a big dummy when I have to tell them that I don't know but I'll find out and get back to them.) Big shoutout to Amy!!!! Thanks.
I thank goodness for the Disappearing Spoon, too. Sam Kean has written a book that makes chemistry very accessible and as I pour over the pages again and again (it's my 4th time through the book), I find more amazing things to remember and share.
Chemistry models really do help. And they challenge me to blend what I can use from the physical models they can touch with the conceptual models that take things beyond. That's another good discussion and one that will deepen their understanding of why scientists use models.