4-LS1-1: Preserved Organisms

My colleague, Jesse Wilcox, presented a lesson to the elementary teachers we are working with tonight to help them understand the relationship between structure and function (NGSS, 4-LS1-1).

He started the lesson by having students observe various organisms that had been preserved and asked students to think about what parts of each organism they find interesting and what do you think these parts do? img_0028img_0027






As student investigated the organisms, Jesse created a table on the board with three categories: Organism, Part, and What part does. Then, after several minutes of student investigating (all while he was quickly moving from group to group to pose questions and keep students engaged), Jesse had groups of students choose one organism to present and add to the table. To present their organism, one student walked around showing other groups their specimen while another group member explained the parts and what they think the parts do. IMG_0029 (1)

If you don’t have access to specimens like those pictured, you could use pictures, or organisms you can collect locally. Maybe even ask the students to collect organisms outside the school (e.g. insects and plants).

After some investigation, Jesse asked the students to talk in their groups about what general conclusions could be made based on the table created.  Student ideas included:

  • Body parts serve a purpose
  • Things have parts that enable survival
  • What is an animal’s purpose?

When students tended to focus on animals, he asked, “How could we rephrase these to include plants as well as animals?”


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1-LS3-1: Investigating Differences

Tonight, my colleague Jesse Wilcox and I are leading some professional development for elementary teachers. For our first activity, we focused on helping our students recognize that while organisms of the same kind do look similar to each other, they are different in many ways.

To start this investigation, we first showed students two earth worms. Then, we asked them what they notice about the worms.  After some ideas, we asked, “How are the worms different?” or “What aspects of the worms could we measure or collect data on?” Here, the students noted that we could write down color differences, measure the length or even the circumference”. Now that we had some ideas out there, we decided to give each small group a couple of worms and determine ways to compare the two.

Before handing out the worms, Jesse asked, “how should we handle the worms so we don’t hurt them?”  This question helps students (even first graders) take into consideration how to carefully and ethically handle organisms.  Then, we distributed the worms and asked students to collect some data.

Importantly, with 1st graders, we might help them create a data table with their various measurements. Yet, if we provide a data table, we’d do so only after they had brainstormed variables to measure and when we introduce the data table, we’d ask them, “How might this help us keep track of our information?”

We give students plenty of time to explore, then bring them back together for a discussion.  We ask the students what they notice and document their ideas carefully. Then, after many ideas are on the board, we ask a series of questions to help drive home the point of the lesson:

  • What observations did you make between the two worms that are similar?
  • What makes a worm a worm?
  • Even though these are both worms, why are we able to identify differences?

We then go a bit further and ask, “You are all similar to your parents, but not exactly the same, how do you think that applies to worms?”

To extend the task, we might ask students to observe other organisms (e.g. dogs, fish, plants, etc) to investigate how the organisms of particular kinds are similar and different.


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HS-PS1-7: Stoichiometry

During my methods class tonight, a student asked how one could use inquiry-based instruction to teach something like stoichiometry. So, we ran through a little simulation of how I think about teaching stoichiometry using inquiry.  Inquiry is not necessarily limited to investigations with the hands. Inquiry is more about helping kids make conclusions and engage in trying to figure out aspects of the natural world.  Below is a very simple outline of how stoichiometry might be approached via inquiry, but the actual instruction typically took several class periods with kids.

First, I ask students, “What is water made of?” Students know that there is hydrogen and oxygen from previous courses or other sources. Then, I ask, “How are these atoms put together to make water?” Now students tell me to draw an oxygen atom with two hydrogen atoms connected via lines.  (At this point, I might explore molecular geometry using balloons, but that is for another post). Then I tell kids (yes, we do tell kids things in inquiry when the need the information and/or are ready for the information), “If I run electricity through water, oxygen and hydrogen are produced”.  I immediately follow this up with, “What will the hydrogen and oxygen look like?” or “How could I represent the hydrogen and oxygen?” Students sometimes simply want to draw a O and and H and call it good. Here, I have to remind them of their knowledge of valence electrons (we should teach bonding and valence electrons before getting into the more abstract stoichiometry). So I ask, “What would the valence electrons of these atoms be?” Once students draw (or tell me how to draw) the valence electrons, I note/ask, “this is a problem that the valence shells are not full, how are we going to fix this problem?”

Kids sometimes struggle to simply bond the hydrogen to another hydrogen and the oxygen to another oxygen, so I ask them to consider what would happen if we had another water that had been broken apart and draw more H and O atoms for them to work with. Typically, students figure out that they can connect two hydrogen atoms, but sometimes I do have to give them that piece of information. Once they’ve connected two hydrogens, I ask, “How can we use this strategy on the oxygens?” and students quickly connect two oxygen atoms via a double bond.

Now we turn our attention to the equation. I ask, “How could we show what is happening to water from start to finish?” Students often (because of notations we’ve used previously) note that we could use an arrow.  Then I ask the students to explain what should go on both sides of the arrow.  Students tell me to write H2 + O2 <– H2O.  Then I ask, “What is wrong with this equation?  If students struggle, I note/ask, “We know that mathematical equations are typically set as equal to each other on each side of the equals sign. Why are the two sides of this equation not equal?”  Student note that there are more oxygen atoms on the left than the right, so I ask “how are we going to fix this problem?”

Students sometimes want to add a single oxygen atom to the right side of the equation so we revisit the issue of having only one oxygen atom with respect to valence electrons. If students want to add O2 to the right side, other students quickly note that this simply reverses our problem.  While at least one student typically suggests superscripts, I sometimes have to write a two in front of the H2O and then ask, “How does this solve our oxygen problem?” and then ask “What further changes do we have to make now?” to clue students into the need to add a 2 to the H2 on the left.  From here, we revisit conservation of mass when I ask, “What does it make sense the the number and kind of atoms on the left would be the same as the number and kind of atoms on the right?”

Notice how I give students a lot of information during this discussion, but the new information is always followed up with a question to ask students to reflect on the new information or to use the new information in some way.  While we do want students to investigate phenomena directly, sometimes inquiry is a matter of making kid use a new piece of information to solve the next problem.

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MS-PS1-2: Investigating changes

Sixth graders are innately curious about the world around them. However, sometimes channeling that curiosity and energy is a bit difficult. To channel that energy and provide support for conceptual learning, exploration activities are a great context to introduce concepts.  The activity below is an exploration my pre-service teachers and I conducted with 6th graders.

We started the lesson by asking kids, “How can we change a piece of paper?” Students typically suggest folding, tearing, crumpling, getting it wet, or burning the paper. When they say both crumpling and folding, we ask the students to consider how those two changes are similar.  If students don’t say one of the four (folding, tearing, wetting, burning) we were prepared to ask a question to introduce the idea. For example, we might ask, “How could we change the number of pieces of paper we have?” to push kids toward tearing.

As students suggest these four, we wrote them across the top of the board.  Then, we give students their task. We draw a table using the four changes (folding, tearing, wetting, burning) as the first item in each column. Then, we say to students, “we are going to try to find other changes that are similar to these different kinds of changes”.  After noting the task we show students their available materials:

  • Baking soda
  • Vinegar
  • M&M’s
  • Water
  • Food Coloring
  • Salt
  • paper cups
  • Pipettes

Before letting students jump into their exploration, we ask some safety questions such as: “Why should we use as little material as we can to investigate potential changes?” After some brief safety discussion we turn students loose to investigate changes.  Of course, while students are investigating we keep moving around the groups to ensure they remain focused on the conceptual thinking we are after. That is, we often have to prompt students by asking, “How does the change you’ve observed relate to the changes in the paper?”

At the end of the lesson we ask students to share their observations as a class and why they think various observations align with various changes in the paper.  From here, in subsequent lessons, we can discuss how some changes are reversible and others are not and what evidence we use to determine the differences among changes.

If there is some possible downtime at the end of class, or to extend the lesson, we ask some questions related to the nature of science. For example, we might ask:

  • In what way is your exploration like what scientists do?
  • How did your activity require creativity? Why do scientists have to use creativity?
  • You tried to fit your observations into categories, why do you think scientists try to organize things into categories?
  • The observations of the paper changes may have affected your thinking about the new changes you observed. How do you think scientists’ past experiences affect their work?

We had a great time with this activity. I’m sure you will to!


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Freeze and Thaw

Written by: Alicia Tinsley, Jessica Nordenson, Carly Hamilton

Grade Level: 2nd Grade

Second grade students have a basic understanding of solids and liquids.  This base understanding may include the facts that water freezes (and turns into ice), ice melts, and the basics of what a liquid is versus a solid.  To probe students’ prior knowledge we have students answer questions about temperature changes and how they affect liquids and solids.

To build on students’ prior thinking we want them to understand that when water is frozen and then thawed the amount of water stays the same.  At the beginning of our lesson we ask the students what happens to water when it is put in very low temperatures. Students may say it gets cold, it freezes or it gets ice crystals. Then we ask the students what happens to the water when it freezes. We hope the students comment on the fact it gets harder, the texture changes, the ice seems bigger than the original amount placed in the freezer. However, we understand that the students may not note all of these.

To test our theories about what the water is going to do we are going to give each student a Dixie-style cup. They will fill the cup about halfway with water. Our students will then mark the original water level before the water is frozen. We will ask the students to talk with each other to see what they believe will happen to the water when it is frozen. They will place the cups in the freezer and then the next day they will take out the ice and talk with their groups about how the water has changed or not.  We will then ask the students to mark where the ice comes to on the cup. The students will be asked where they think the water line will be when the water is thawed. Our plan is to prompt them with questions, such as asking them why they think the water line will be where they’re guessing. After the water has been thawed the students then see that the line of water is the same as the original line of water.

We will discuss with the class what happened overall.  While we hope students will acknowledge that the amount of water never changed through the entire liquid to solid process, some students may not be able to make this connection. Although the water appearance may change, when the water becomes a liquid again the matter is still the same. As an extension, students might collect mass data throughout the freeze/thaw process.

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Going Viral*

Written by: Courtney King, Lisa Myers, & Cortney Marshuetz
For grades 1-2

Objective: Students will describe how germs spread from one person/thing to another.

Materials: Cornstartch/flour, Large plastic bag, paper, pencil, crayons

Prerequisites: Students should have some background knowledge of being sick, viruses, and basic writing skills. As a class they should also understand a concept map.


Teacher will ask opening question: “what do you know about germs?” Allow students 2-3 minutes to think, draw and write all of the ideas they have in their daily journal.
Ask students to pair/share their ideas with a partner. The teacher should walk around and listen to students’ conversations.
As a class, create a concept map about germs including descriptions and drawings based on students’ initial thinking.


Provide a scenario by saying, “sometimes when you get sick, you may be allowing the germs in your body to spread to other people without knowing it. Today I’m not feeling so well. I have a cough”.
Then, cough into your hands that are secretly filled with flour or cornstarch. Students will see the flour spread. Show the students the flour left over in your hands then shake hands with a student sitting near you.
Instruct the student to shake hands with the student sitting next to them. The students will continue this process until everyone has exchanged handshakes.
Each student will wash their hands to get rid of the flour and germs.

Facilitate discussion about the experiment by asking questions such as:
1. What did the flour represent?
2. Where did the “germs” originate?
3. What did you notice once we started shaking hands?
4. How could this be prevented?
5. What would have happened if I had touched the doorknob with my “infected” hand?
6. What happened after we washed our hands in the sink?


The next day, students will write a story about the journey of a germ. They will write 3-4 sentences about how a germ is spread and draw a picture to go with it.


Informal assessment: Teacher will observe student stories and ask individual questions for further clarification. This will allow the teacher to have a better understanding of where each student falls at the end of the lesson.

For a future lesson, students might consider how they could use the corn starch model to conduct other investigations.  While we wouldn’t have students conduct the sneeze test, we might show them the video below and discuss both the process and the results.




Atlas of Scientific Literacy


*Editor note: yes, “germs” and viruses are not necessarily the same, but it’s an interesting title 🙂

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Planting an investigation

 Written by: Nick W., Alexa H., & Jessica G.
For First/second grade

If you ask an elementary student what a plant needs to grow, it is possible that they will be able to tell you exactly what it needs. However, they may not be able to explain why or provide compelling evidence for particular needs. Our lesson works to get students to think critically about the growing process of plants. This could help students determine the necessary components a plant needs to grow and why.

The lesson starts by having the student’s draw a picture of a plant along with what they think is necessary for the plant to grow. After each student has drawn a picture, they can discuss with a partner and compare similarities and differences. At this time, the teacher will be walking around and asking open-ended questions (example: What materials did you put in your picture? Why? How does your picture differ from your partners? What changes would you make (if any) after discussing with your partner?) As a class, we use students’ prior knowledge, ideas from their pictures, and partner discussions to formulate a list of the necessary materials needed to grow a plant.

Using the students’ list we ask questions to guide the students to think about why each thing is necessary or not necessary and get them to want to test these ideas. (example: Why is the dirt necessary? How can we figure out if the dirt is necessary? If we want to test this, what is a way that we could?) We ask these kinds of questions for multiple materials listed and other specifications like placing the pots in the sun so that the students are making as many decisions as possible. Using the answers students provided, the class will determine four different combinations of materials to test (these are examples of four pots that could be tested: one with just water, one with just soil, one with an unnecessary component and soil, and one with soil and water). Each pot will be placed in the sun (of course, a pot could be left in the dark as well to test light variable). Each day the students will observe and record the height and a picture of the four different pots. After some of the plants have started to grow, have students discuss with others why some are growing while others have not. Have them explain why they think this may be the case.

After the plants have fully grown, the students will have to do a written response of a scenario. Each scenario will be based off of the four different combinations of pots the students want to test. Given specific information such as what’s included in each pot, the students will have to determine how likely the plant is to grow and why (asking individual students to explain this verbally is also reasonable). Plus what things may not be necessary for the plant to grow or what needs to be added in order for the plant to grow. They can use all the materials from the investigation in order to help them formulate their responses. Furthermore, we encourage students to cite evidence or their experience to support their thinking.

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