This is a very quick and sloppy post (teachers will know why at this time of year!) but time is of the essence so I’ll be brief.

Starting tomorrow on PBS America (Sky 166, Virgin 243) they’re starting to show a chemistry mini-series, Hunting the Elements. I was sent a copy of it recently and wanted to give a heads up for teachers who wanted to record or watch it as it has the potential to be really useful.

First the health warning: it’s quite US-centric (including a few pasing cultural references, the use of pounds for weight and obviously there’s “aluminum”), has what you might call a “whacky” soundtrack and the presenter is pretty full on but the meat of the program is solid and if they’d have told me in advance that Theodore Grey was going to be the demo consultant I’d have been in from the start. He’s one of my heroes!

I’ve so far only had time to watch the first half (what I assume will be aired as the first episode) but here are my thoughts and the approximate timings if you just want to see a few specific clips:

Start: Gold

The program begins (as many metal extraction topics do) with gold extraction. I really liked this section to start with as it compliments what students learn about the extraction of gold but extends this to show how much effort is required to get a small amount of gold (and highlights the fact that we’re long past the days of just finding it lying around in nuggets). The separation and purification techniques we see are not dissimilar to those explored in KS3 but obviously in a slightly higher stake context here.

12 Mins: Copper

Copper is introduced by looking at the copper market and the various uses the metal has. Again copper extraction is probably one the first practicals you’d do after looking at the noble metals.

17 Mins: Bronze

The programme quickly moves on to the Bronze age and uses the context of a foundry making bells to show it in use. I really liked this context for bringing home the point about how alloying affects the properties of a metal. I often look at hardness/malleability and resistance to erosion but the striking of an aluminium bell followed by a bronze bell really shows how much of a difference the alloying process makes to how sonorous the metal is. The program highlights the effect of the tin on the structure and bonding in the metal lattice – perfect for year 10. They cap this section off by suggesting that the Liberty Bell cracked because too much tin was added making it too brittle.

25 mins: they look at the atoms in a sample of the bronze with an electron microscope having talked about the scale of atoms (perfect for year 8)

30 mins: Proton number and the basic layout of the periodic table. This is al lreally good for year 8 – especially as at 32 mins Theo Grey comes out with his periodic table … table! A classic lesson with year 8 is getting them researching different elements and making an element cube with properties on each side colour-coded. We then move the cubes over in a PT layout so the students can see the patterns in the table. Theo’s table of course has samples of the actual elements so it shows all the patterns beautifully. This section is absolutely fantastic.

From 36 mins, David heads off on the traditional trip to Mendeleev’s office and talks with a chap there about Mendeleev’s “card game”. They talk about atomic weight in exactly the right way (see link, page 53) using a marble model.

Returning to Theo, they spend the next section of the program whizzing through the periodic table looking at patterns in reactivity and properties – Theo comes out with the quote of the week …

“chlorine will steal electrons from kittens”

.. and links this to the use of chlorine in WW1. During this section we get the pleasure of seeing all the tricks that made Theo famous (e.g. the Sodium Party) but shot more professionally .. and of course we make salt for the popcorn as well.

The next section goes off the rails a little with the oxygen section degenerating into a series of explosions at a firing range. Interesting but not quite as relevant as the program to this point. They went on to mention the Oklahoma bomber and brought it back on track by bringing in a sample from a bomb they had set off to run an elemental analysis on.

That just about wraps up the first hour. More to come!