Elemental Coding: A New Twist on a Classic Chemistry Project

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As a high school chemistry teacher, I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with the classic element project. You know the one - each student chooses an element to research and then creates a new, fun “box” to represent their element. Every year I’m frustrated by the final products, and every year I change the project a little bit to try to get better results. My last iteration allowed students to rewrite the lyrics of a popular song, write a children’s book, create an advertisement, or make an infographic about their elements. I had high expectations. I was letting them play to their strengths, and choose something that they enjoyed doing! The projects I actually got? Meh. Some kids put in a lot of effort and their creativity shines, but the majority tend to do the bare minimum. They took the facts they found online, added them to a Google Slides presentation, and called it a day. Is there even any value in doing this project, if all they are doing is reiterating information that they found on the internet?

Students of the current generation are different. Their worlds are infused with ever-changing technologies, and we need to teach them in a new way in order to prepare them for the future. They need to develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills to help them to become sought-after employees, entrepreneurs, and scientifically literate citizens. With the automation of many jobs and the influx of artificial intelligence, employers are looking for outside of the box thinkers. It’s our job to help them to develop these skills.

I’m not giving up completely on the element project. I have just adapted it so that it is better suited for my learners and promotes deeper learning and higher level thinking. For my element project this year, I had a new solution. Coding. Yup, coding, in chemistry. I switched up my classic element project and asked students to create an animated version of the element box project using Google’s CS First platform.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “What does coding have to do with chemistry?” I’m here to tell you, it has everything to do with chemistry! Using coding requires students to really rely on their problem-solving skills and to use computational thinking to create an authentic product. The benefit of teaching students how to code with a simple project like this one, is that you can also consider adding more coding projects later on in the curriculum. Imagine having students code a visual representation for the formation of ionic bonds, a chemical reaction, or even to show the dissolution of a lattice structure. They can create an animated limiting reactant experience when you get to stoichiometry, or demonstrate their understanding of equilibrium with coding. The possibilities are endless.

I should mention - I’m currently pursuing a masters degree in educational technology. I would not have considered coding as something that was easily accessible to myself or my students prior to learning more about it. In my most recent course, we were asked to code a flight path for an indoor drone. We also explored the CS First platform and played around with one of the Hour of Code lessons. The idea of coding was really intimidating until I actually tried it. I was worried that it was much too complicated for me to figure out, let alone teach my students. After using some of the coding platforms, I am here to reassure you that it is easy to learn, and - dare I say? - FUN!

One additional challenge with using coding in chemistry is getting students on board and finding the time to incorporate it. In order for this project to work, students need time to play around with the coding platform that they will be using. I am lucky enough to have a 35-minute recitation period once a week with each of my classes, that is considered my time to use however I see fit. I took the opportunity to use one of my recitation periods to have students complete the CS First Design Your Name tutorial.

Figure 1: CS First - Design Your Name tutorial


When I first told my students we would be coding, there were audible groans. By the end of the 35 minutes, the room was filled with the sound effects from their animations and their excited chatter as they showed each other different motion effects and techniques they had figured out. (This was slightly annoying. I did not anticipate this. Consider yourself warned, and encourage headphones.) After just one short period of students playing around with the software, I felt confident that they could complete the element project using CS First. As a teacher of ELL chemistry with a large population of Spanish-speaking students, I was also excited to find that the CS First platform has many tutorials translated into Spanish. It gives students the opportunity to explore and develop a new skill while decreasing the cognitive load of having to translate all of the instructions.

It’s worth noting that CS First is technically designed for grades 4-8 to learn coding. The same Scratch coding software is also available to use for this project, and you could consider sending more advanced learners there instead. There are tutorials on Scratch as well, but I like the simplicity of the lessons on CS First for true beginners and that it can be connected to Google Classroom.

For this project, I asked students to choose an element to research and create an animated logo or interactive scene to share their findings. Their design was to be inspired by what they have learned about their element (balloons in the background for helium, or rainbow crystals for bismuth), and they needed to incorporate five facts as well as ten animated pieces in their final product. They completed a planning template to help them conduct research and work through the steps for their coded animations, and they were also asked to review the work of a peer and provide feedback. QR Codes for the final products were created and displayed for members of our school community to view and interact with the designs. Finally, each student completed a brief reflection on their work. You can interact with some student samples below. 


Sample Student Project #1: Mercury - Instructions: Click the character to introduce the element. When you are done you may click on the items throughout the background to read interesting facts of the element. (View on Scratch.mit.edu.)


I assigned the project to on-level chemistry students, and allowed them to work on it during our once a week 35-minute recitation period for a few weeks. I enjoyed observing them collaborating and teaching one another as they went through the trial and error process of designing their animations. I had a few students who were apprehensive about coding, and one of my more artistic students was begging me to let her make a poster instead. I threw together a set of Google Slides that had some examples for coding effects and offered it as a resource for anyone who needed it, which really seemed to help those who were adamant that they were unable to code. I really like how they turned out! They're a little silly, but I think it was a valuable learning experience and I will definitely use this project again next year. 


Sample Student Project #2: Yttrium - Instructions: Click to reveal Information by pressing the buttons. Then, just wait while the dinosaur does his thing - At the end, open up the project elements to see what each contains​​​​​.​​ (View on Scratch.mit.edu.)


If you plan on assigning this project, I recommend creating a sample for your students just to test out the logistics and familiarize yourself with the platform. It makes it  a lot easier to offer tech support when students are struggling with the code. 

I’m optimistic that this new twist on the classic element project will have me looking for other ways to incorporate coding into my chemistry curriculum. I hope you feel inspired to try coding in your classroom as well!


Acknowledgement: Thanks to Irene Bal of Loyola University in Maryland for teaching me about digital innovation, and showing me that coding can be easy and fun!


ISTE Standards: https://www.iste.org/standards/for-students, ISTE 1.1c Feedback to Improve Practice, ISTE 1.1d Technology Operations, ISTE 1.2.c Intellectual Property, ISTE 1.3.a Effective Research Strategies, ISTE 1.3.c Curate Information, ISTE 1.4.a Design Process, ISTE 1.5.a Problem Definitions, ISTE 1.5.c Decompose Problems, ISTE 1.5.d Algorithmic Thinking, ISTE 1.6.d Customize the Message, ISTE 1.7.b Multiple Viewpoints



Students who demonstrate understanding can use the periodic table as a model to predict the relative properties of elements based on the patterns of electrons in the outermost energy level of atoms.

*More information about all DCI for HS-PS1 can be found at https://www.nextgenscience.org/dci-arrangement/hs-ps1-matter-and-its-interactions and further resources at https://www.nextgenscience.org.


Students who demonstrate understanding can use the periodic table as a model to predict the relative properties of elements based on the patterns of electrons in the outermost energy level of atoms.

Assessment Boundary:

Assessment is limited to main group elements. Assessment does not include quantitative understanding of ionization energy beyond relative trends.


Examples of properties that could be predicted from patterns could include reactivity of metals, types of bonds formed, numbers of bonds formed, and reactions with oxygen.