Walking the Historical Path: Chemistry's Journey from Ancients to Alchemy to Modern Science

Isaac Newton


Lesson Plan

Grade Level: 11-12


In class: 4 Days (1)Intro to Scientific Revolution Historical Context, 2) Reading Original Source Material  3) Research Day  4) Classroom Discussion. Outside of Class 10-12 hours to examine documents from the Newton website at the University of Indiana or others of their own discovery and prepare historical narrative for classroom discussion.


Ohio Science Physical Science Standard
Students demonstrate an understanding of the historical perspectives, scientific approaches and emerging scientific issues associated with the physical sciences.
H. Trace the historical development of scientific theories and ideas, and describe emerging issues in the study of physical sciences.
E. Summarize the historical development of scientific theories and ideas within the study of physical sciences.
26. Use historical examples to explain how new ideas are limited by the context in which they are conceived; are often initially rejected by the scientific establishment; sometimes spring from unexpected findings; and usually grow slowly through contributions from many different investigators (e.g., atomic theory, quantum theory and Newtonian mechanics).

Primary Sources:

Isaac Newton.  Laboratory Notebook from 1678 to 1696. Transcribed at the Indiana University “Chymistry of Isaac Newton” website under title: “Idea of a Table Booke.” 
Robert Boyle, from The Sceptical Chymist, 1661, “The Conclusion”  
Plato, from Timaeus, 360 BCE, Translated by B. Jowett

Other Resources: 

"Anima Mundi (The Soul of the World)"; illustration from Robert Fludd's  Utriusque Cosmi (1617) 
Periodic Table Cartoon by Sidney Harris 

Lesson Overview: 

The students will read from primary source documentation by Plato, Newton and Boyle.  These three represent the Ancient view, the Alchemist's view and the Chemists' view of matter and elements.  The student should be able to present all three positions in writing and be prepared for a class discussion on how they are similar and different and how are they used in the current chemical model of the universe.  The student may seek out original primary source documents and use their own examples of each view.
Big Idea: As chemists: Where did our discipline originate?  How has it changed?  What is it now?  

Instructional Steps:

1. Teacher and students generate a time line of the scientific revolution. Include historical context and people with the big ideas that will be used as primary sources.
2. Take students through a primary source document and help them pull out the big ideas.  Class will look at Plato's, Timaeus as a group and fill out a document analysis sheet together.
3. Students will be given time to work through suggested primary source documents or find their own to cover the alchemists' and chemists' part of the project.
4. Students will use the primary source document analysis sheet for this project.  
5. Students will write a 2-page compare and contrast style paper discussing the views of each group.  They should include the thoughts of each group as it pertains to what is matter and specifically elements.  They should also discuss how each group views the how matter can be manipulated and how does it all tie in to the modern view of chemistry.
6. Alternatively the student may create a Fluddesque style depiction of each groups view.
7. The writing and depiction should be used to support or enhance their participation in the group discussion.
8.The student should be prepared to participate in a classroom discussion on the "History of Chemistry".


1. The student will be evaluated on the quality of the paper turned in or the visual depictions produced.  They must cover what was the view of each group and be prepared to point out the similarities and the differences.  They must be able to show if any of the ideas are till alive in the modern view of chemistry.
2. The Student must be an active participant in the classroom discussion and be willing to share ideas and theories.  They must be able to defend their position with primary source documentation.
3. All analysis work will be turned in and viewed.


Item one above: 40%
Item two above: 40%
Item three above: 20%


Teacher Materials:

1. Copies of Plato's Timaeus to share with class for initial lesson, along with other primary sources, listed above
2. Copy of Cartoon, "The Periodic Table".
3. Computer to access and check alternate primary source documents.
4. Copy of a Fludd depiction of the universe.

Student Materials:

1. Computer
2. Copies of primary sources


1. Throughout the year students will be asked to discuss how the different groups might have explained the chemical theories we are working with at different points throughout the year.
Example:  How would have Plato, Newton, Lavoisier and Bohr have explained fireworks?
See Chapter 11
Created by Stephen Stern, Upper Arlington High School, Upper Arlington City Schools, Ohio