Many elementary and even secondary students have simplistic views of solids, liquids and gases.  They see the categories as absolute entities with distinct dividing lines.  While this is not necessarily inaccurate, the notion is somewhat incomplete.  Having students investigate a substance such as Oobleck (cornstarch, water, and green food coloring) can provide the experience necessary to help them see solids and liquids as more of a continuum than a dichotomy.

The lesson starts with students brainstorming all that they know about solids and liquids.  After this I show several students the Oobleck in a cup tilted at an angle so the Oobleck clearly appears to be a liquid.  After several students confirm the liquid nature of Oobleck, I pretend to dump the Oobleck onto a student’s head (Be sure to try this first to make sure the Oobleck is thick enough).  When nothing comes out I ask, “If this is a liquid, why didn’t the student get covered in the Oobleck?”.  Students sometimes suggest that the liquid was frozen, I then pour some from one cup to the next and say, “we clearly have a curious substance, I’d like you to investigate the substance in greater detail”.  At this point, I might have a quick discussion about how we can organize our data or how we might go about making observations, but this can also wait until later.  I then hand out small cups and pour Oobleck into the cups (Having these cups prepared with Oobleck in advanced is recommended to prevent “down time”).

After students have investigated Oobleck for a bit, we list the characteristics on the board.  Some of the characteristics include: green, thick, dries out, runny, etc.  We might take some time to refine these ideas by asking questions such as, “If we just said that Oobleck is green, what might other people who have not seen Oobleck think?”  At some point, students mentions that the Oobleck is sometimes like a solid and sometimes like a liquid.  When this comes up, I ask students to further investigate when Oobleck is a solid and when it is more like a liquid.

After some additional investigation and discussing of students’ ideas, we revisit our ideas about solids and liquids and I ask how their ideas have changed.  Sometimes the students want to add a new category called a “Soquid”.  However, I use this opportunity to get them to move beyond categorical thinking and introduce a line (continuum) with “solid” on one end and “liquid” on the other.  I then ask where Oobleck fits.  We then talk about other items and where they might fit on the line (jelly, play-doh, rocks, peanut butter, wood, etc).

Below is a quick video of a student playing with Oobleck and demonstrating its properties.

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Nature of science

This picture is the list our methods class came up with for ideas worth reaching about how science works, or the nature of science. Some of the aspect ought not be addressed explicitly in early elementary classrooms, but teachers should be careful to not inaccurately model these aspects. For example, first graders likely have not yet learned the scientific method myth, so explicit instruction may not be necessary. However, teachers need to not simply give step-by-step instructions or the implicit message will be that science is largely procedural. Similarly, the difference between theory & law should not be addressed with young children, but teachers need to choose words with care. Rather than asking students what their theory is, ask, “what are your ideas?”

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What do scientists do?

When discussing a recent project, my elementary science methods class developed some ideas about what scientists do. Notice how the traditional “scientific method” myth just doesn’t cut it.

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The nature of observation

In my elementary science methods course we began talking about how science works. We investigated some “tubes” that I’ll likely write about later, but one of our discussions today focused on how scientists’ observations are not as objective as many would think & that inferences & observations are so tied up in prior thinking that two scientists could look at the same event & make different interpretations. The diagram that came out of our discussion is below. By no
means is this the best diagram, but it was generated during our discussion & may be of some use.

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Questions Everywhere! Technology Concerns-Educ 125

I really appreciate the questions many of you raised in class today.  Whether we want to admit it or not, teaching is fraught with moral decisions.  I am glad you are wrestling with the practicalities of working with young children.  As pointed out in class, you would not use twitter with elementary students, but to understand the pros/cons of using technologies like twitter and blogs, we will make use of them as adults.  Once you have used these technologies you are in a much better place to critique these technologies.  If we simply ignore such technologies, we do not do our students justice.  Instead, like all learning activities, we must guide our students toward appropriate use.  There were similar arguments made long ago against inventions like writing and the printing press, yet these technologies now pervade our lives (see this site for an interesting perspective on pencils).  Right or wrong, these new technologies are part of our world. I hope the discussions and use we make of these technologies better prepares you for engaging students in high levels of thinking and that you understand the role technology can play in enhancing as well as diminishing that kind of thinking.

I know that as of now, this course seems like a “tech” course.  That is not the intent.  My hope is that by next week we are able to use these tools to enhance our learning about teaching science both inside and outside the classroom.  However, there is a steep learning curve for getting the hang of the technologies, so stick with me!

Most of class on Monday will be devoted to refining our goals for students as well as some introductory activities for helping students think like scientists.  If you are still having trouble setting up a blog, twitter, diigo, or googleapps by next class session, I will expect you to show up for office hours so we can get to hooked in.

Thank you for your attention in class today and for working diligently on the “pretests”.  Keep raising issues and concerns.  If I don’t have a strong rationale for something, I should not be doing it.  Hold me to this, and hold yourself to it when you teach students.

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Educ 125 – Beginnings

This post is just a VERY brief overview of what we all discussed on our first day of class.

To start class, we noted how the arrangement of a classroom can limit a teachers’ ability to encourage student-student interaction.  Traditionally, classrooms are set up for teacher control.  However, as some of you pointed out, student-student discussion increases mental engagement with the material.  We also discussed how students will use different, likely more familiar, language that the teacher will.

We also attempted to articulate the cause of the moon phases.  After struggling to explain the phenomenon, I asked, “How many times have you LEARNED about the moon phases?”  The answer to this question has important implication for how we ought to teach.

Don’t forget to create your list of at least ten goals you have for students, sign up for your online accounts and read the syllabus carefully (come with questions).

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Less wow, more how.

After getting a link from a friend about a science demo site with several misconceptions and activities that don’t work, I noted that having elementary students work with lemon batteries promotes wow, but not the how for students. What I mean by this statement is one of the biggest problems with efforts to engage students in learning science.

Too often we as science teachers (and educators in general) try to entertain our students into learning.  While learning doesn’t have to be boring, often times real learning is not fun – my deepest learning is usually achieved after extremely difficult mental and emotional work.  But I’m getting into a tangent…sorry.

When we “wow” students with demonstrations and then simply explain how the demo works, we are not teaching, we are telling.  Next time you do a demo, get your students thinking.  Ask them to make predictions before the wow event. Ask them where they have seen something similar.  Ask them to draw what they saw with a partner.  Ask them to attempt to explain what happened. Use the wow moment to get the students deeply mentally engaged in the how. Don’t waste your opportunity showing off how much you know, get the kids speculating about what they know!

P.S. When I go to science teacher conferences I am always disappointed by how overcrowded the “101 demos to really wow your students” sessions are while the “How to promote transfer of knowledge” sessions end up with so few people in them.  Perhaps we as a science teaching community ought re-evaluate our priorities.  Perhaps I’m just bitter cause I’m usually leading sessions like the latter. 🙂

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