Submitted by Anne Bentley / Lewis & Clark College on Tue, 11/19/2013 - 19:46

Our department is considering re-formatting general chemistry to use an atoms first approach.  We have seen how students struggle with stoichiometry / dimensional analysis, and we are wondering if starting off the first semester with atomic structure and bonding concepts would help students settle in more before they hit the more math-y topics. 

Does anyone have any experience to share?  Favorite textbooks?  Advice?  We are not likely to make the leap unless we're better informed.  (I have found one recent J. Chem. Ed. article on the topic.)

This topic was touched on briefly in an earlier forum post (, so we know what Chip thinks.  :)

Thanks in advance for any thoughts.

Chip Nataro / Lafayette College

And I still think that way. Atoms first was a terrible fail for us. And this just helped me put two and two together (if you ignore the fact that I am completely cherry picking data). We have our smallest class of graduating seniors this year in about 13 years. Sure enough, it would be the class that had atoms first during their first year. (The last class this small was probably due to having 2 years in the very old building here and not getting into the new one until spring their senior year).

Wed, 11/20/2013 - 07:46 Permalink
Kari Young / Centre College

We have been doing atoms first using General Chemistry, Atoms First by McMurry and Fay for a few years.  I am a greenhorn, but I am almost finished with my first semester of General Chemistry I using this approach.  I like it, and it has worked well for our program.  Atoms first definitely makes a good "story" as the class progresses from atomic theory through molecules, to stoichiometry and solution properties.  One problem might be that the quantitative skills of stoichiometry, solutions, and gases are loaded in the last third of the semester, so quantitative problem-solving skills are not rigorously addressed until far into the course.  However, my students seem to be rising to the challenge.  I do think that by this point in the course, the students are comfortable with the learning community created by our class and are using each other as resources to cope with these more difficult skills.  I tried to emphasize quantitative skills when we talked about light and the Bohr model in order to help them practice earlier in the course. 

This especially works for us because the first semester of general chemistry fulfills a general education requirement, so students get a nice foundation for what chemistry is actually about.  The problem-solving part is then expanded upon in the second semester, which is taken only by science majors and pre-health types. 

Take home message: I recommend atoms first, with attention to problem-solving skills.

Wed, 11/20/2013 - 11:17 Permalink
Kyle Grice / DePaul University


In response to Kari's post, I found the same text to have a few severe problems in terms of order of content if you follow the book in a linear fashion.  Students are asked to do problems with content that they have not been taught and isn't covered for at least half a dozen chapters (not even in the same quarter). One glaring example: learning Born-Haber cycles before covering thermodynamics, phase changes, or even balancing chemical equations! 

That said, I do like the Atoms first approach, the problems, and the way we tackle the content, and overall this text has been ok. We may be switching to a different atoms first text soon (Tro), so we will see how that goes. 



Wed, 11/20/2013 - 22:09 Permalink
Kari Young / Centre College

I agree with Kyle that the order of the content in McMurry and Fay can be problematic if one tries to go through linearly.  In our program, we skip one chapter on thermochemistry (as well as Born-Haber cycles) and really all discussion of energy in the first semester, and then pick up with thermochemistry at the beginning of the second semester.

Fri, 12/13/2013 - 08:07 Permalink
Jeffrey Rood / Elizabethtown College

We are also considering a change to atoms first and I was wondering if anyone who is currently using the approach might share how they laboratory portion of their course is structured? Particulary, what topics are covered early in the semester before students learn about stoichiometry, solutions, etc? Thanks!

Thu, 01/02/2014 - 14:46 Permalink
Kyle Grice / DePaul University

Hi Jeff, 

We are on a quarter system, so it will be a bit different, but I can chat about how we go about labs with an atoms first text. It depends on your text. Shoot me an email at if you want to talk more about it. 

Mon, 01/06/2014 - 21:10 Permalink
Anthony L. Fernandez / Merrimack College

Hello all,

I have been teaching general chemistry using an atoms-first approach for about 10 years - long before they called it an "atoms-first" approach.  We have used several textbooks, but have been using the McMurry/Fay AF text for the past few years.  I am not enamored of this text, but we chsoe to keep it for 4 years so that we could get other stuff in the course worked out.  We are swtiching next year to Chemistry: An Atoms-Focused Approach by Gilbert, et al.  Overall, my colleagues and I have been quite pleased with this approach and the students really seem to like the way that the information builds up.

The lab is always a challenge and I would be more than happy to speak with anyone about how we have created our lab at Merrimack.  You can send me an email message ( and we can arrange a phone call or video chat.

Cheers, Anthony

Mon, 01/13/2014 - 11:03 Permalink
Nancy Williams / Scripps College, Pitzer College, Claremont McKenna College

We are planning to teach much of those topics *in the lab curriculum*. One problem we often have with lab is that students don't take it that seriously unless we make it "worth" something, but we want to make it "worth" something in a way that doesn't make them feel pressured to get big yields or not "screw up" in lab. 

So taking a couple of topics that will show up on their midterms and move them into the lab, it nicely serves that purpose, and squares the Atoms First circle of, "how do you do labs without moles?"

Sun, 08/03/2014 - 15:42 Permalink
Kyle Grice / DePaul University

Hi All,

We will be using Tro's "Structure and Properties" text this coming year, and I will report back as to how it works out (or doesn't work out). We used to use an edition of McMurray and Fay, and we had several problems with it. 


Mon, 08/04/2014 - 09:00 Permalink
Charlie Swor / Young Harris College

A simple solution to the lack of algorithmic problems, stoichiometry, etc. is to do composition stoichiometry right after the introduction to to the atom and Dalton's atomic theory.  For example, the Law of Definite Proportions, etc. lead very well into empirical formula / percent composition calculations.  Using the second edition of McMurry/Fay Atoms First, I cover Chapter 6, sections 1-3 and 6-7 just after Chapter 1.  Chapter 6 doesn't distinguish composition stoichiometry from reaction stoichiometry as cleanly as I'd like, so I have to tell the students to ignore anything having to do with reactions.  This is the only topic that I do out of order using this textbook, at least in the first semester.  But by doing this, my first test (of 4) contains composition stoichiometry and dimensional analysis, which gives me plenty of unit-conversion style problem-solving for the first test.

The problem of labs is a trickier one, and one that I don't yet have a good solution for.  So far, I do an empirical formula lab (burning Mg) and identification of an unknown based on physical properties.  There are also atomic emission labs out there that I haven't tried yet.  Those will get you at least part-way through the lab portion of the class, until you get to reaction stoichiometry.

Mon, 08/04/2014 - 17:03 Permalink
Anne Bentley / Lewis & Clark College

Kyle, how are you all liking Tro?  We are re-evaluating our choice of textbook, but we do like the atoms first approach.  Anyone else can feel free to chime in, too.

Thu, 11/10/2016 - 17:11 Permalink
Mitch Anstey / Davidson College

As a student at Virginia, I was taught with an atom's first approach throught the first 2 years. It was terrific, and I credit that curriculum with developing my intuition as a chemist. The curriculum was for students with AP credit, of which there were about 100 new students each year. We had low attrition rates (~70 made it through to the end of the first year).

Here's the thing: UVA had issues with their teaching loads, and new professors switched into the curriculum. The attrition rates increased dramatically. Students were giving feedback that the series wasn't good. They switched the original faculty back in, and it improved. It's all about the teacher. If you're excited about the content, it will work. If you're doing atoms first and aren't sold, it likely won't work for you or the students. Just my personal impressions.

I started using "Chemistry: An Atoms-Focused Approach" second edition this year, and I like the book. A p-chemist or analytical chemist would not though. It removes many derivations of equations (like the integrated rate laws).

For labs, we're still filling things in the first few weeks.

  • We do a diagnostic test the first week to gauge what the students' preparation before this class.
  • The second week is an intro and safety talk followed by a 30 minute Krypton isotopes lab using the GC-MS.
  • No lab third week (this is the problem with atoms first...)
  • Fourth week is a precision measurements lab getting them used to all the glassware they might see not just in this class but also in their analytical class.
  • Spectrophotometry of Allura Red. I relate the molecular absorption of light to strongly to the absorption of energy in atoms (we would have discussed that the week before). It's different but similar enough.
  • No lab sixth week.
  • Separation by solubility and preparation of a double salt (copper sulfate).
  • Spring Break
  • Titration Lab week 1
  • Titration Lab week 2
  • Thermochemistry: several smaller experiments all involving a calorimeter
  • Easter Break
  • Colligative Properties lab
  • Atomic Mass of an Active Metal (the reaction is a redox reaction)
  • Kinetics Investigation (starch and iodide experiment, if you're familiar)
  • Lab Check Out
Mon, 12/11/2017 - 09:31 Permalink
Kyle Grice / DePaul University

FYI I like Tro much better than McMurray and Fay. Having taught atoms-first for 3 years or so now, I like it and couldn't think of teaching in a different order.

Fri, 12/29/2017 - 21:00 Permalink