Monthly Archives: November 2013

Using a closure activity for formative assessment (alternative title: Let’s try that again.)

If you are one of the seven people that regularly read my blog, you know that I’ve started using a closure activity most days in my classes. (I referenced these closure activities in this blog post.) I’d like to share a few anecdotes about closure activities, then share some evidence with you that make the case for continuing this as a learning and teaching practice.

My seniors are a fantastic group of students and human beings. I love teaching them. Many of them I’ve known since 9th grade. The plus side is that I have strong relationships with them. The negative of this is we can get a bit too comfortable and apathetic to pushing ourselves beyond the norm. (That’s more about me pushing them to get better and far less about them pushing themselves. They all work extremely hard as IB Diploma students.) Last week I wrapped up class with a closure activity and one of the seniors said, “Mr. Thomson, I’m actually enjoying these closure activities.” I just about danced a jig right there. YES!

In this same class, just Monday, I had a two-hour block that included a lab on redox reactions. The students white-boarded their diagrams (a big plus!) for voltaic cells, then completed a few redox reactions. I thought they lost a bit of focus at the end of class. Who can blame them, really, after a two-hour block. The conversations were drifting to other topics. I wasn’t as focused as I should be in class. But about 8 minutes before class ended, I remembered that I wanted to use another closure activity. I asked them to draw a diagram of a voltaic cell, including all the required parts. For the next 6 minutes 23 seconds, the room was darn near silent as each student was working on their diagrams, processing the day’s work. The shift from restless and unfocused to extremely focused and thoughtful was impressive.

And this leads me to a few thoughts.

I use closure activities to accomplish a few objectives.

  1. I ask for feedback on a teaching and learning activity. As an example, today’s closure activity for these same seniors started with these two questions:

    1.How helpful (on a scale from 1-4) was today’s warm-up in understanding voltaic cells?
    2.Comments/feedback on the warm-up?

    I often use questions of this type to elicit ideas from my students about a teaching method I’m using and to see what worked for them and what suggestions they have. They often come up with ideas I hadn’t thought of and I occasionally end up trying out their ideas. I use a spreadsheet to track the feedback and refer to previous questions to make changes to my teaching. As an example, I used whiteboarding with this group of seniors to practice a Mock Paper 2. It was an unmitigated disaster. Well, maybe that’s a bit harsh, but on the 1-4 rating scale the average score was 2.42. This is the lowest score of any learning activity since I’ve been collecting feedback. The mood in the room that day just wasn’t productive. And as the ‘coach’ of the group, I wanted to make improvements and try again. So I used only one problem today – with a slightly different format – and the results were astounding. The average score on today’s rating was 3.86, the highest rating yet. Ironic that the same activity – wtih some tweaking based on feedback from students – would go from the lowest to the highest rating in this un-scientific poll I use. I guess the bottom line here is that I really value the feedback and I love that I now have a mechanism in place to get feedback frequently, rather than just waiting until the end of the semester.

  2. The second objective with my closure activity I described above. It brings the students back to a ‘learning mode’ at the end of a class when things can get hectic. It allows them to put the finishing touches on the main ideas for the day. The focus I described above wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t utilized this technique – or some alternative that would accomplish the same objective. The value of the closure activity was sealed in my mind on Monday with this group of students.
  3. And the third main objective from my closure activities is to gather some formative assessment data. Most days, I ask some sort of simple question related to the day’s concepts. For the seniors today, it related to voltaic cells again, when I asked the following question: “Draw – on the particle level – what is happening at the anode and cathode of a magnesium/copper voltaic cell.” The answers were really across the spectrum. Some simply drew another voltaic cell. That wasn’t what I was looking for in a good reply. And while I did get a few answers that showed some understanding at the particle level, I see that I have a bit more work to do with them to help them understand the movement of electrons into and out of atoms/ions and what is happening as the oxidation and reduction take place in the voltaic cell. So when I see them next on Tuesday – after a four-day weekend  for Thanksgiving – I’ll be starting the lesson with an animation of the process to help them in this area of understanding.
    For my juniors today, we’re working on stoichiometry. I had them whiteboarding in small groups on the problem solving. And at the end, I gave them a mass-mass stoichiometry probelm. Of the 14 students, 10 got the answer correct, with a few small mistakes and a few large mistakes by the others. One student made the same mistakes on the prompt at the end that were being made earlier during whiteboarding. This shows me I need to be more proactive in correcting these mistakes during the group work. So I’ll be tweaking my method a little more to make it more meaningful and productive.
The title says it all here. I use closure activities for formative assessment and gain valuable data. But it also allows me to try things again after making changes based on feedback from my students – and from the data. I create an opportunity for a do-over where needed, either because I need to change a method or re-teach something that didn’t quite stick.
To say that the closure activities have had a significant impact on my teaching almost seems like an understatement at this point. In the hopes of getting some discussion going in the comments, what closure activities do you use? What works? What suggestions do you have?

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Challenging Stereotypes

I entered Seattle University for my Masters in Teaching in the fall of 1993. Writing that, I feel old. But I took part in something today that took me all the way back to “Fire Hose Week” in August of 1993. The week is an intense week of 8-hour days followed by hours of reading and reflection at night. I was in a program with 49 others and we’d get pretty close by the end of our year together. But the first day, I walked into the room to start meeting people and the first person I met said, “Ah, you must be a P.E. teacher and a football coach.” I guess being big and bald-headed will create an impression. “Nope. I’m going to be a chemistry teacher.” Needless to say, the person I was talking to was taken aback by my answer. I guess I challenged his stereotype of what a chemistry teacher looked like.

Today was another day where I got to challenge stereotypes.

I got invited as a guest poet to visit a grade 10 English class. One of the English teachers knew that I’d written a bit and had seen one of my poems that she thought would fit the poetry unit quite well. And she wanted to force her students to think about poetry from a new perspective. And to actually talk to a poet about his writing.

Last Friday the students were assigned two of my poems to read – anonymously. They didn’t know it was me. Granted, one of the poems made it relatively obvious, but I didn’t say anything. I showed up today and they asked, “Are you are sub today?” (The teacher had to be out of town for a conference, and with scheduling conflicts this was the best day for my visit.) “Nope.” I just smiled. “Wait. You’re the poet?!?”

“Yep. I’m the poet.”

I’d say it blew their minds a bit. I like that.

I talked about my connection to poetry, then read the first poem I wrote – about a student that was shot and killed my first year as a teacher in Los Angeles. It’s still tough for me to read, 18 years later. But I read it and shared my raw emotions. Then we discussed the poem a bit.

I followed this with my favorite poem, about a hike I did with my dad when I was younger. This poem is below. I wanted to share it.  We talked some more poetry, word choices, connections, and meaning. I was humbled by the response the students had, and their kind words on their way out the door. But before they left, I offered them a challenge. I held up my own personal poetry anthology, containing my own work along with some other poets (Edward Abbey, Amari Baraka, Langston Hughes, Walt Whitman, William Stafford, Derek Sheffield) and some work from former students. I said to them, “My challenge to you is to write a poem that I’ll want to include in my book.”

The first immediate response from a student, “Challenge accepted.”

I can’t wait to see what they write!

Naches Peak

(This poem is dedicated to the memory of my dad, who passed away May 21, 1996.)

As I walk towards the sky, the birds sing as if on stage.

I am their audience, but applause doesn’t seem appropriate.

Further along I go, wandering through the trees.  Will I reach my destination, or is this simply a journey, simply?

On the side of the trail, a trickle of water falls from the rocks.  In my mind, you are still standing next to me as we drink this pure water through our tent pole, erasing our thirst, yet we are still thirsty for more.  More time together, more time in the mountains, breathing pure air and drinking clean, cool water.

My hike continues past the pond filled with melt-water.  When we were here we stayed on the trail.  “Tread lightly,” is what you always taught me.

I continue, hiking through the trees as the memories become more vivid.  I walk back through time as you tell me to watch the trail, not looking up until you tell me.  I still remember what your boots looked like, as your feet pointed in opposite directions.  One step at a time, I watched you walk.  We reached the meadow, and you said I could look up.  You smiled with me as I stared in amazement at The Mountain that was just across the meadow.  I felt like I could touch Mt. Rainier.  We sat and ate our lunch here.  I can still taste the crisp apple, hear the sound of my bite.  As the apple nourished my body, the mountain nourished my soul.  I can taste the summer sausage and cheese we ate, I eat.  More nourishment.  More beauty.  As I sit here I think of how close I felt to you that day, even though we didn’t say a word during lunch.  We spoke without using words.  Our love of the mountains and of each other was all we needed.

After lunch, we kept hiking, I keep hiking.  When I finish, I arrive at where we started.  My path, our path, was a circle, no beginning, no end.  This is a journey, simply.

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Using the Fish Bowl, along with a Backchannel Discussion

In my MYP Chemistry 10 class, we’re currently in a unit on states of matter and phase changes. Before the unit started, I put some time into making it more rigorous and decided to go down the modeling chemistry pathway. (Blogged about here.) The #modchem discussions we’ve had as a class – in my mind at least – have certainly done just that. But for those of you that teach in the MYP, one thing that must go on are the formal assessments in order to cover all of the criteria adequately. My students are working on a One World project on water purification as a means to solve issues related to water shortages (more on that in a future post, as I’ve got a group working on a service project in Romania too), and we’re preparing for our Criterion C unit test for states of matter and phase changes. In order to afford my students the chance to reach the 5-6 mark band, I need to provide them with opportunities to apply their knowledge in new situations. Additionally, I need to give them a chance to “critically analyse and evaluate information to make judgments supported by scientific understanding.” (From the MYP Guide for Sciences.) As articles of interest come across my Twitter Feed, or my Diigo updates, I tend to save a PDF copy for future use. Well, earlier this fall an article titled “Melting to Keep Cool” showed up in my radar. Perfect!

So I saved the article for the phase changes unit. The plan originally was to just give the students the article and tell them I would give them a 5-6 question from the article on the test. But my school has been working on improving literacy throughout all subject areas, so I worked with our literacy coach to develop some strategies for engaging the students in the article. First, we did a word familiarity chart to help them recognzie words that would show up in the article that have specific meanings – but aren’t necessarily science content. And we did a pre-reading activity to help them prepare for understanding the content. Then they read the article for homework to prepare for a class discussion on Monday.

But the coolest part of it all was a fish bowl! Yesterday in class I started by having students access their prior knowledge on the energy transitions of phase changes, just to get their brains going. Then I gave them about 8 minutes to pre-write the main idea of each section of the article. My hope was that more students would feel comfortable inside the fish bowl if they had spent some time preparing. In order to engage the students outside the fishbowl, I wanted them to participate in a backchannel discussion on TodaysMeet. (Hat Tip to Brian Bennett for that idea to use TodaysMeet for this purpose.) I discussed the idea with my class and shared with them how I use backchanneling at conferences. I also showed them a snippit from this video. (Hat Tip to Tom Whitby for the video.)  I then gave them the groundrules of the fish bowl as follows:


Four people will start inside the fish bowl. Only people in the fish bowl are allowed to talk.

I will offer a guiding question to start, and the conversation can go forward from there. Students in the fish bowl can change the conversation as needed. If necessary, I will ask additional guiding questions.

If you are on the outside, you should be participating in the Backchannel Discussion:

If you want to be in the fish bowl, wait for an appropriate time and tap somebody on the shoulder to switch places.

And my guidelines for the backchannel:

•Please use your actual first name (and last initial if needed).
•You are limited to 140 characters (like a Tweet).
•You are not limited in terms of the number of responses you can make.
•This is a private discussion. Only people with the link will find it, and it will disappear in one week.
•I fully expect your participation to be relevant to the discussion and the article.
•Post responses to the fish bowl, ask questions of each other, and chat about the discussion.
•This is not, however, a personal chat about the weekend, your favorite football team, Urinetown, etc.

So I get ready to start and realize that TodaysMeet is blocked as a ‘chat’ site at my school. Uh. Er. Well. Um. Luckily my students were problem-solvers and suggested a google chat. So they created a chat and started inviting everybody in the class. Problem solved! I’m very appreciative of my resourceful students.

Once the students were settled, I gave them the first question: “Explain whether Phase Change Materials can be a viable option for heating and cooling buildings.” And they’re off! The discussion went in many different directions, including many issues related to a One World project. In fact, one of the students in the backchannel wrote, “#OneWorldProblems” as the fish bowl students were discussing benefits and limitations of the technology. The students were quite engaged with the backchannel. In fact, I think some students got more from that aspect of the discussion compared to the actual fish bowl.

As the conversation went along, there were times when it drifted too far and I’d reel it back in with more guiding questions. The next question I threw at them was, “In the section ‘Cool as Ice’ energy efficiency is discussed, but not because less energy is used. How can something that uses more energy actually have higher energy efficiency?” The discussion kept meandering. Typical, in my mind, to how most discussions jump from one topic to another. I didn’t interject at all for a while, really, except when I threw another guiding question at them.

To finish, I wanted them to revisit the science. So my last question was, “Forget the economics. Is the science legitimate here? Can melting be used to keep cool?” This got them going a bit as they touched on the ice blocks used in Manhattan and the beeswax used to keep buildings cool.

I then had them reflect on the discussion by giving themselves a participation rating from 1-4.  The average student score was 2.75, with only one student selecting “1” for him/herself. I also had the students summarize the discussion. Then I gave the students the following question: “On a scale of 1-4 (4 being the highest), rate the “Fish Bowl” activity from today as a learning activity.” The average score for this was 3.15, with three scores of 2 and the rest 3 or higher (in a class of 20).

In asking the students to offer what went well about the activity, the most popular answer was the backchannel. I think this type of discussion is a perfect example of technology allowing me to complete an activity that really engages students, with no pen-and-pencil analog on the same scale. I had relatively quiet students piping up with great responses in the backchannel. These are students that would likely never volunteer to sit in the fishbowl, yet they were fully engaged.

Next time I do a fishbowl, I’d like to find ways to keep the discussion inside the fishbowl a bit more focused on the issues – and specifically the science. But given the One World requirements of MYP, I actually didn’t mind the meandering conversation that hit some really valid issues about how the science impacts society.

Coming up, I’m planning on sharing a post about a service learning project we’re working in in that same grade 10 MYP Chemistry class. Until then, keep it minty fresh.

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My first attempt at whiteboarding…without the whiteboards

I’ve got a flurry of firsts going on here! I love it.

I’ve been inspired to go beyond my normal routine lately by quite a few of the members of my PLN on Twitter. Last week I tried a ‘modeling’ discussion with my MYP Chemistry class. This week I tried whiteboarding. This was, again, inspired by the folks doing modeling and sharing ideas on #modchem. There was only one catch: I don’t have whiteboards. Yet. So what’s a guy to do?

Ask his PLN for ideas!

I did that quite a while ago and @dragan39 suggested I use neon whiteboard markers on a lab table. The funny thing is they don’t erase very well from the white board. But with a damp paper towel, they erase just fine from the lab table.

For my DP chemistry class, we’re working on Topic 1, Quantitative Chemistry. Some of my students had me for pre-DP chem last year and have quite a bit of background. But others didn’t have that luxury, so I’ve gone full in for teaching everything just to make sure everybody has the same base of knowledge.

Last year for this I had the students watch a video for homework, then they worked – mostly independently – in class on the problems. That’s a good step in the right direction, as I got to spend quite a bit of time working my way around the room to help students. I still like the flipped model for DP classes where a lot of content coverage is necessary.

But I don’t just want to cover content. I want my students to really understand what they are working on in class. So after having students watch my video last night, today I had them get into groups and solve a quick mole mini-lab. They had a sample of aluminum (approximate mass = 14 grams) and a sample of zinc (approximate mass = 11 grams). They had to determine which sample had more atoms. I love this one (yes, for DP it’s quite simple, but it’s the beginning of the unit) because I can probe the students’ understanding of atomic structure as well. A group will show me their answer. My response, “So, you’re telling me that the sample of aluminum has LESS MASS than the sample of zinc, but it has MORE ATOMS? How?” That gets them to pause and consider the atomic structure again. And it gets them to really consider what the conversions mean as a method of problem solving.

After that problem, I had them clean up the lab benches and give them a good cleaning with a wet paper towel, then a quick dry. They grabbed some markers and I posted the first problem on the board. The students started writing. I wandered around the room, engaging each group in dialogue about their problem solving method. Once the students were done (if correct), I take a picture of their work. Later, I posted the pictures in a folder to the class SkyDrive folder. If the group wasn’t correct, I asked them questions about their work in hopes of driving them towards the right method and answer.

Students use neon markers and work in groups to solve problems.

Students use neon markers and work in groups to solve problems.

Once all of the groups were finished, I posted the next problem. At that point I asked the groups to switch who held the pen first. I encouraged them to work together, and to help the person with the pen if needed.

Rinse. Repeat.

Now for some reflection.

The good, in no particular order:

  • The students were TALKING chemistry and problem-solving during their work today.
  • Every student got to be in charge of the pen.
  • The students got to see a variety of problem-solving strategies.
  • In response to the question, “On a scale from 1-4 (4 is the highest), how useful was today’s activity to learn about mole calculations?” the average score from my two DP classes was 3.79. The mode was 4. The only other score was 3. So the students perceived that it was useful for their learning.
  • There was definitely some peer teaching going on.
  • For my closure activity, I asked students for feedback (and it was positive, as noted above). I also asked them a conceptual question, “Explain – at the particle level – why 1.0 mole of gold has more mass than 1.0 mole of silver, even though they both have the same number of atoms.” There were no incorrect answers given. No misconceptions written down. Granted, some students did more at the particle level, discussing the nucleus of gold atoms having more protons and neutrons – with more mass – than the nucleus of silver. But overall, the answers were quite strong. 

Things to improve/change, again in no particular order:

  • Occasionally – but not as drastically as I expected – there were delays for some groups while waiting for other groups to finish. I’m not sure how to deal with that yet. Thoughts?
  • I didn’t do any inter-group sharing. It just didn’t make sense to do that for today’s questions, and I wouldn’t do it differently for this activity. However, for other content I’d probably do more sharing between groups.
  • Next time – when doing a problem-solving and/or calculation-heavy activity, I’d like to include an actual calculation in my closure activity/exit pass so I can see how the individuals are doing. As mentioned above, I got some formative assessment data on the conceptual understanding, but I’d like to see each individual complete a calculation also. More data to use.
  • Some students wanted a chance to work the problems individually before the group work. This may come from my use of Learning Catalytics (see my blog post here about that) where students answer individually, followed by group discussion. I think the whiteboarding will be more useful for some things, but for reveiw Learnign Catalytics (a.k.a. peer instruction) will still hold some weight with me.

So where do I go from here? First, I need to order more neon white board pens! And I need to keep trying new ways to get my students talking chemistry within my class, and focusing on their understanding at the particle level. I’m having a lot of fun.

And I thank those that have inspired me! (There are too many to list, but teachers at my school that are willing to talk pedagogy, my PLN on twitter, #chemchat and #modchem, and so on.)

Until next time, keep it minty fresh!



Filed under #ModChem, Chemistry, Pedagogy

My first attempt at using the modeling pedagogy within my MYP Chemistry class

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’ve been inspired by @Central Science to explore things at the particle-level within my class. I’ve started following (when I have time!) the #modchem conversations on Twitter along with #chemchat to get ideas and find ways to improve my practice. The modeling pedagogy is heavy on students working in groups, whiteboarding their work together showing lots of diagrams of what is happening at the particle level within the different topics of chemistry that are taught in a traditional chemistry class. And #modchem folks, feel free to correct any misconceptions I may have about the pedagogy, as I’m really a neophyte here. Speaking of misconceptions, that’s one of the strengths of this method of teaching in my mind. In looking at student diagrams and hearing their explanations of what is happening at the particle level, I can really assess their understanding and identify misconceptions that need to be discussed.

And yet more speaking of misconceptions: My lesson actually started with a look at the misconception discussed in my blog post here, and shown in the diagram below. My students really struggled with the idea that since ice floats, it has to be less dense…therefore the particles must be farther apart in ice compared to liquid water. This discussion started by asking my students to develop a working definition of density and draw the particles of two substances, A and B, where substance A is more dense then substance B. And their drawings of this were spot-on. (Although as I type this, I realize that this makes the assumption that the molar masses of the substances drawn are relatively equal. Hmmm.) Then I challenged them to compare that to water floating. Lots of puzzled looks and brains turning as they struggled with the comparison of MOST solids being more dense when compared to the liquid form of the same substance. This isn’t the case with water. Luckily, we had just performed a lab with lauric acid. One student pointed out that we got to observe lauric acid as a solid in liquid lauric acid and it SANK! So this was a fantastic discussion.

One student's drawing. I chose this drawing (with the student's permission) as it was fairly representative of the students' responses.

One student’s drawing. I chose this drawing (with the student’s permission) as it was fairly representative of the students’ responses.

Now on to the actual modeling lesson. Let me start by saying that I have not yet attended a modeling chemistry workshop, so I’m certainly no expert here. In fact, I’m hoping for some feedback from people that DO modeling and have been to workshops so I can improve. First, some background on the lesson. It’s within a unit on states of matter and phase changes. The first day of the unit involved creating melting and freezing curves for lauric acid, a good compound for this as its freezing point is about 43 degrees celcius. Within the lab, students got to see the temperature stay relatively stable for quite a while during the melting and freezing cycles. This challenges them a bit, as they wonder if the temperature probe is ‘stuck’ or something. Nothing but great teachable moments throughout the lab. So for day 2 I had planned a relatively traditional lecture on states of matter and phase changes. (On a quick side note: traditional lectures in my class aren’t just me talking and students listening. They are quite interactive. But they are limited, and I’m moving away from them more and more.) Rather than do the same lesson as last year, I wanted to delve into modeling as an experiment. I planned a series of demonstrations and had the kids do some predictions and discussions within groups about each demo. Then, once the demo was finished the students had to assess their predictions and explain what was happening at the particle level. Whiteboarding at its finest! Except for one small detail. I don’t have whiteboards for the groups yet. So they worked on paper and we did some in-class discussion.

One demonstration involved dropping (without stirring) food coloring into hot and cold water and observing the changes. For this, I had the groups draw what the beaker would look like at time=0, time = 2 minutes, and time = 20 minutes. See the image below. And while this diagram specifically isn’t at the particle level, the discussion within the groups involved motion of the particles and the interactions between the water and the dye.

Hot and Cold Water wtih Drops of Food Coloring (Not stirred)

Other demos included the following: creating two balloons and putting one in the freezer for about 45 minutes, putting melted lauric acid into a beaker of water and tracking the temperature change as it heated, and a replay (with discussion) of a demo the students had actually seen through a video. This demonstration shows saturdated sodium acetate solution doing some really weird things – linked here and a few screenshots below. The purpose of the video was to get their curiosity going a bit about phase changes.

Pouring Saturdated Sodium Acetate Snapshot-Stalagmite

Now for some reflection: First, what worked? Certainly the structure of getting students into groups and asking them to DISCUSS their ideas was really beneficial in my mind. I really would have liked having some whiteboards (they are on order!) to make sharing easier. The demos were all helpful. The students had probably seen the food coloring demo before, and the baloons also. I challenged them to go beyond a basic understanding and really get at the details of the changes at the particle level. That’s the recurring theme here, and I think it worked to some degree. The students were talking in ways I hadn’t gotten them to discuss before. It was fantastic!

So what didn’t work? As I mentioned, I’d really like the whiteboards to center the discussion. But that’s a minor detail – and a bit too obvious. I think I could have done a better job of pacing, going forward when their discussions lagged and drawing back and waiting while they finished other discussions. I also felt I could have pushed for more class discussion after the group discussion and done fewer demos – or spread it out over another class – so that we could have gone deeper into the content. I also need to find a good demo to prompt their thinking about energy transitions during phase changes.

And how did the students like it? Their closure activity was an exit pass. Question 1: On a scale of 1-4 (4 being the highest), how much ‘learning’ did you have today? Explain. Question 2: Explain – using particle theory – how a straw works to drink. From 19 responses (out of 20 students…not sure who I missed) the average rating was 3.4. Obviously this is a bit open-ended. The more valuable piece of feedback here was their explanations. The students provided some good feedback about wanting more class discussion after the group discussion and pacing ideas. The second question will need to be addressed at some point, because many answers described the ‘sucking’ as the driving force, rather than the pushing up the straw by atmospheric pressure.

The bottom line for me is that I’ve really started to transform my teaching in order to really get at what students understand. And I’ve worked at addressing their misconceptions based on this data. I can’t wait for more!

My request: If you are a #modchem or #modphysics person, what ideas do you have based on my reflection above? Where can I improve? Any feedback would be appreciated.

Until next time…keep it minty fresh!



Filed under #ModChem, Pedagogy