Curriculum Review - Science

A Review / Opinion The Elements by Ellen McHenry
May 11, 2010

Otter has really been enjoying our chemistry study. It is, in fact, the highlight of the day for BOTH of us. I have learned so much right along with him. I'm actually using several different chemistry programs, but our favorite by far is The Elements: Ingredients of the Universe, written by Ellen McHenry.

I've always been a fan of Ellen's freebies. Through them we've learned about a myriad of topics like geography, oceanography, history and the human body. Ellen has a talent for conveying information in an easy-to-understand, often visual or hands-on way. Explore her website and you'll find all kinds of great printables like games, crafts, models and more.

The Elements Chemistry CurriculumWhen I read some buzz about The Elements, I decided to check it out. We'd just finished studying astronomy and were both ready for something new. Next up on our science topics list: chemistry. I wanted something fun, flexible, inexpensive, with some hands-on elements and EXPERIMENTS! - Otter's emphasis wink. I also wanted a curriculum that is fairly in-depth and goes beyond a surfacy knowledge of atoms with experiments and activities that help you understand the "whys" of chemistry.

Emily just finished taking chemistry in college, and while her year of high school chemistry helped to give her at least a passing knowledge of some of the basics, I felt she could have been better prepared. She didn't love chemistry; she endured it. Some of that is her personality, but some it is also, I believe, a result of a "boring" high school textbook that didn't cater to her learning style (she is very visual and hands-on). I do want to add a quick note that I supplemented her text with a program called Friendly Chemistry and THAT is what she remembers a little more "fondly" and actually retained information from. Our main textbook though, was a bust.
I wish I had given her a deeper foundation for high school with a more in depth (and fun) study of chemistry in elementary school. We covered the basics and did a few flashy experiments, but she never did things like memorize portions of the Periodic Table - a task she had to do in her college class. I think she would have appreciated having one less thing to study, if she had learned it earlier.
Because of my experience(s) with her, I thought Otter would be better served by a program that left him loving chemistry and wanting more. I want him to realize, at a young age, that chemistry is interesting. More than that, that chemistry is AWESOME. After checking out the sample first chapter of The Elements, I knew we had a winner.

I ordered a hard copy from Rainbow Resource for 28.50, but you can also order it from Ellen's website on a CD for a little less. The open-and-go hard copy version of the curriculum comes with a 3 ring binder with removable pages as well as a CD in the back with songs and a PDF of the entire program so you can easily print out the games and activity pages without having to run to the copier or pull out your scanner. There are 147 total pages. The first 61 pages are the student text with lots of hand-draw pictures as well as some color photos, activities, website links, comics, puzzles and more. Some of the pages are designed to write on. The last half of the pages are the teacher's section with reproducible patterns for games, even more activities, experiments, skits, etc.

The curriculum doesn't come with a schedule, but the website states that it could take as little as 6 weeks or as long as 12. Because I mixed it in with lots of other books and activities, I've scheduled it for 14 weeks (I'll share the schedule in the future for free, here on my website).

According to Ellen's website, The Elements was written for a target audience of 8-13 year olds, but contains topics covered in beginning high school level texts. I've read about parents using it successfully with all ages, even as young as 5 or 6. I'm learning plenty myself, as an adult! Here are some of the items covered:

  • The definition of an element
  • Molecules
  • The history of the periodic table and how it works
  • The structure of atoms
  • Electrons (clouds, orbitals, shells, etc.)
  • Valence number of atoms
  • Drawing Lewis dot diagrams
  • Atomic bonding (covalent, ionic and metallic)
  • Alkali and halogen "families"
  • Noble gases and non-metals
  • Semi-, pure and transitional metals
  • Lanthanides and actinides

There's a lot of meat covered, but we are finding all of it is so easy to understand. Here's a short paragraph from chapter 4 in which electrons are personified:

"The most important thing to know about outer shells is that the electrons in it take rule #4 very seriously. They are almost neurotic about it. They live by the motto: "8 is great." If there is only one electron in the outer shell, that electron is so miserable that it would rather go off and join another atom than be alone in the outer shell of its own atom. If an outer shell has seven electrons and is only one short of perfection, those seven will try anything to get an eighth electron in the shell. They will even try to steal an electron from the outer shell of any atom that comes close enough."

When discussing an atom with only one electron in its outer shell, another part of the text later states:

"An atom like this can really be obnoxious. It is so desperate to get rid of that one extra electron that it will throw it at any atom that is nearby. (Chemists say "very reactive" instead of "obnoxious".)

Explanations like these make what we are learning so much easier. I find it easier to relate to a story first and then the more technical aspects later. Ellen makes sure to set up understanding on scaffolds of analogies. The analogies help make things stick. We also enjoy other whimsical touches like the cartoon illustrations that help make learning fun like the picture that shows salt water at an atomic level and has the caption "They're in water cages!" It's memorable and meaningful. It's also accessible to those of us who are not science experts!

When I look at a review of a curriculum, I always want to know what it's like to actually use it. Here's a little slice of the schedule I created for the first week of using The Elements. The top row shows the pages where we read the "lesson". The bottom row shows the activities. We're taking the program at a pretty slow pace since I've added in lots of extra literature and activities.

Chemistry schedule

In a typical week we read several pages and do at least a couple of "fun things". The activities and experiments have clear instructions and there are lots of game and other kinds of templates to use. Here's a picture of one of the activities Otter made to learn the elements:


In the text, the elements are referred to as the ingredients of the universe. We made these symbol jars of all the different ingredients. On the front of each jar is the symbol of an element and on the back is it's name. The template was in the teacher's section of the notebook.

Another activity called "Make Five" helped us learn the chemical formulas for some common minerals. This activity also helped Otter understand the concept of molecules and get even more practice in for learning the element symbols. You can download a free copy of the game here.


Otter is retaining a great deal of what we're learning. He's also looking at the world around us in a new light. The other day, when he was holding onto a helium balloon, he suddenly exclaimed, "Hey Mom!" I know why helium is lighter than air! If you look at the periodic table, you can see that oxygen has 8 protons and helium has only two! So oxygen has a higher atomic mass. Just like argon has an even bigger atomic mass. See it has 18. So it's going to weigh even more. So a balloon with argon in it would fall down instead of go up. At least that's my guess!" He was so excited to make this connection. We went online and confirmed his thoughts with a video: Noble Gases.

We're in our 9th week of using the program and I consider it a terrific purchase. It doesn't take up a ton of time, doesn't require lots of expensive materials (most experiments require easy to find things around the house), has lots of different activities, is interesting, easy to supplement (if desired) and just plain fun (at least for us). If you're looking for an engaging science program that delivers ideas and activities for all different learning styles, you might want to check out and consider The Elements: Ingredients of the Universe. We plan to follow it up with Ellen's other wonderful chemistry program Carbon Chemistry for the 2nd half of the year. I'll post a write-up of it pretty soon!


See our review for Carbon Chemistry here.

*Note: All our reviews reflect only our personal opinion(s) of materials. We aren't experts! We're just a homeschooling family with 3 kids and ideas of our own about what works and what doesn't for US. smile




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