What is chemistry made of?

You might read this post if… you teach chemistry at a high school level.

Following this post from Louie Barnett, I decided to sit down and start digging. The following are the 7 core concepts that I think are essential for a good understanding of high school chemistry. Interestingly, and unsurprisingly, they all appear to be physics-based. Below is a brief outline of how we might define them in high school chemistry.

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Particles: (Probably better subdivided into subatomic and atomic) Small pieces of matter assigned a mass, volume (maybe) and a charge. High school chemistry example: an electron.

Electrostatic forces: As described by Coulomb’s law, are responsible for like charges repelling and opposite charges attracting in relation to the magnitude of each charge and their distance apart. High school chemistry example: nuclei and shared electrons in a covalent bond.

Entropy: According to the second law of thermodynamics, entropy in an isolated system (such as the universe) will increase over time. High school chemistry example: prediction of spontaneity in a chemical reaction.

Strong nuclear force: The fundamental force between nucleons that holds a nucleus together. Included here because it is essential to explain why a nucleus stays together in the first place – which is pretty important for the rest of chemistry. High school chemistry example: the structure of an atom.

Conservation of mass/energy: According to the first law of thermodynamics, energy (and subsequently mass) must be conserved in an isolated system. High school chemistry example: calculating enthalpy changes in a Hess cycle.

Potential energy: The energy possessed by an object due to it position in relation to something else. In chemistry, this is likely the positions of electrons relative to oppositely charged particles. High school chemistry example: the exo- and endothermic nature of bond making and bond breaking respectively.

Kinetic energy: The energy possessed by an object in motion. This might extend from electrons to atoms and molecules. High school chemistry example: kinetic theory.

Update – Following more thinking on more essential concepts in chemistry I have decided to add [electric] charge to the list as without it, electrostatic forces become difficult to understand.

Charge: A property of matter that allows it to interact in an electromagnetic field.

I have made a first attempt to demonstrate where these [now] 8 concepts appear throughout the current IB Chemistry syllabus (and prescribed units) below:


It looks something like this if you are not interested enough to click the link!

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Thanks for your time.

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