Landmark Lesson Plan: Discovery of Oxygen

Grades: 9-12
Subject Area: Chemistry and History

The following inquiry-based student activities are designed for use in high school lesson planning. The handout and activities will help students understand how chemistry was practiced during Joseph Priestley’s time (1733-1804), developments leading to the discovery of oxygen, the historical context of scientific discoveries made at this time, and related developments in chemistry that took place during the late 1700s and early 1800s.

The activities are designed as a ready-to-go lesson, easily implemented by a teacher or his/her substitute to supplement a unit of study. In chemistry, the activities relate to identifying physical and chemical properties, nomenclature, and the scientific process. In history, the themes are the chronology of scientific discoveries and the relationships between England, France and America in the late 1700s.

Download the complete lesson plan (PDF).

Resources include:

  • Teacher’s guide: Includes the handout, student activities and answer guide
  • Handout: “Joseph Priestley, Discoverer of Oxygen”
  • Student activities: Includes the five activities described below

Student activities:

While these activities are thematically linked, each is designed to stand alone as an accompaniment for the handout. Teachers may choose activities based on curricular needs and time considerations.

  • Anticipation Guide for Handout on “Joseph Priestley, Discoverer of Oxygen” Students read the handout and explore their own ideas about chemical discoveries made in the 1700s that are fundamental to the modern chemical sciences. (10-20 min.)
  • History Exercise: Chronology of the Discovery of Gases Students chronologically order events in the reading. Students recognize the different names and properties of common gases when they were first being examined in the 1700s. (10-15 min.)
  • Exploring the Scientific Process Students analyze information from the reading and relate it to scientific processes. (25-30 min.)
  • Properties of Oxygen Gas Students categorize properties of oxygen gas as chemical or physical. Students determine the importance of the properties of oxygen gas in identifying it as an element. (15-20 min.)
  • Nomenclature Exercise Students use inductive reasoning to discover a rule for naming compounds containing oxygen. (10-15 min.)

Engraving of Joseph Priestley by Charles Turner, after a painting by Henry Fuseli
Courtesy The Edgar Fahs Smith Memorial Collection, The University of Pennsylvania Libraries