"Science, my boy, is made up of mistakes, but they are mistakes which it is useful to make, because they lead little by little to the truth." ― Jules Verne, Journey to the Center of the Earth
Issue number 34 of The Challenge included an article about teaching in Super Saturdays using scientific method and theory from a teacher's perspective. Six Super Saturdays teachers of science classes, from different class levels, were asked to send their thoughts about how they approach teaching the scientific method/theory of generating a hypothesis, testing that premise, finding (or not finding) empirical evidence and coming up with conclusions in their Super Saturdays classes. We were not able to include the full responses in the Winter 2014 Challenge, but they were so interesting we wanted to share their full, unedited responses, so please enjoy them here:
ALLISON BEMISS (part of the Grow Up Great Grant, kindergarten)
Abstract Art. Food Coloring. Vinegar. Baking Soda. Children squeal with excitement and hop out of their chair. They are talking, smiling, testing ideas. But at the heart of it all, wonder.
The children were charged that day to use their mystery materials to create a work of abstract art. After a few safety guidelines regarding which of the five senses were appropriate to use in the investigation, the kids were sent off with very few directions. This was a new experience for some. I remember the way a couple of kids sat a looked at me through their too-large science goggles waiting for me to come over to give them step by step guidelines or a worksheet with directions. Neither of those things would happen. If kids are going to learn, they need time to explore, wonder, and dare I say it... PLAY! Yes, that's right young children learn best through play. They peered at a white powdery substance through little magnifying classes and discovered that although it looked like sugar, it wasn't sticky. So it had to be something different. Another group spent several minutes exploring the mechanics of a medicine dropper using a cup of colored liquid before they were able to teach the rest of the class how to use it. When the first brave group decided to drop some of their colored liquid into the powder, something magical happened.
"It fizzes!!" a little girl shouted. After the magic, it didn't take long for the questions to start. "What happens if we use the large dropper? "I mixed those colors and it made pink. I wonder if I can do it again?" "Why is it fizzing?" "What would happen if we poured the whole cup in?" "Why does the dropper make better circles?"
Socrates said, "Wisdom begins with wonder." It sounds simple, yet so true. Inquiry, creativity, and wonder were at the heart of our exploration. In this one lesson, students worked with language, scientific investigation, measurement, and the arts. When learning is limited only by the questions children ask, we remove the ceiling. As a teacher I have found that the kids will always take the lesson so much further than I had planned, if I let their questions guide the experience.
ANDREA HEMING (Kitchen Table Chemistry, grades 1 & 2)
During Super Saturdays I teach kitchen chemistry for first and second graders. For many of them it is their first time using the scientific method. Because of this, I usually demonstrate how to select a hypothesis first before they do it individually. They talk it over with their learning partner (neighbor) and then share their hypothesis. I write their hypothesis on the board and we refer to them as we do the entire experiment. I always use the scientific vocabulary when possible because I don't want to water it down for them just because they are younger. An example of an experiment we completed is when we made a density rainbow in a jar with different liquids. The students determined which liquid they thought would be the heaviest, and that was their hypothesis of what would sink to the bottom of the jar. This was out of the liquids of corn syrup, oil, rubbing alcohol, water, and dish soap. We completed the experiment using the steps in order. As we did the experiment many of the students assumed that we were doing them in the order of heaviest to lightest, but that was not the case. This led to a lot of discussion as we noticed that some liquids were sinking lower than others. For example, the rubbing alcohol rose to the top because it was the lightest, or least dense. We discussed why this worked and how we know why some items sink and float. We also discussed where we thought honey would go in the jar (and that it would be more dense than most of the liquids because it is heavy.) This was one of the first experiments that we completed in the winter Super Saturdays. Because there was a lot of group work in this one they were able to best understand how to use the scientific method. From there, the students completed experiments more independently and used the scientific method with confidence.
NITA COLE (Science R Us, grades 2 & 3)
All scientists, even Jr. Scientists, need to have an understanding of the Scientific Method. This step-by-step process provides the necessary tools to solve problems. When working with students I feel it is best to utilize a variety of ways such as Brainpop, foldables, PowerPoints and lots of practice to teach this process. One step that needs a lot of focus is teaching students how to use their 5 senses when observing during a test to solve a problem. It is a great way for students to see, touch, smell, hear and many times taste what they are testing. One activity my Jr. Scientist do when learning the Scientific Method is called "Popcorn Fun". During this activity students learn about popcorn, hypothesize, estimate, listen, smell, feel, hear and finally taste it. Step-by-step, the Scientific Method process provides many opportunities for scientist to not only solve problems but to have a better understanding of the world around them. Science is the spring board to life and if a teacher can show a student the way, the student will be a life long lover of science. Other activities I use during Super Saturdays to practice steps are "How many drops of water on a penny?" and "Grab It!".
PATRICIA BERTKE (Bridging the Gaps with Bridge Building and Design, grades 2 & 3)
I believe that the scientific method is a map for critical thinking, and as such can be used and enforced across multiple subject areas in order to solve problems. I might never state to students that we are using the scientific method, but we are. It is all about inquiry. With younger students, my favorite questions are why or how? Many times I never have to ask the question because the students are already asking it. They think about the problems. In our bridge design class we focus on how engineers solve problems by answering the W questions (who, what, why, how, which, where, when). Reasonable answers must have support or proof and this leads to the next question after students investigate; how do we know? We explore how humans overcome barriers created by landforms. Who designs bridges and why? Why are there different shapes in bridge designs? What materials are better for each design? I provide some facts, design learning sequences where students analyze and evaluate data, then supply them with a real world problem they must solve. Our connections to the scientific process: 1-begin with the questions, 2- research (we investigate shapes, materials, and all sorts of data related to bridge design), 3- make a statement (when posed with the problem of designing our own bridge), 4- plan, construct a model and conduct an experiment (we build our design and test it) 5- We make a conclusion (Based upon success or failure of individual design), and finally 6- share our results with others. Many of us go back to make improvements based on what we learn in steps four and five. In the beginning we are thinking backwards, as we analyze data such as cost and strength of materials, and further when we conduct small experiments to support lesser hypotheses, such as which shapes will hold up better when applying a variety of forces. Students begin to think critically, "If I do this, then that could happen." Each week students return with stories of things they have noticed that relate to the concepts we are working on. I appreciate that students can find the answers for themselves and as a teacher, I am here to help set up experiences. Do not just provide an answer when you can help guide the student to answer for themselves. The conclusions they reach on their own are much more valuable than anything I would directly state. Method in action!
MADISON MOORE (co-teacher of Whodunnit? Using Forensics to Solve the Mystery, grades
3 & 4)
In our "Whodunnit? The Kidnapping of Big Red!" forensics class, students used the scientific method almost every Saturday. In this class, our wonderful SKyTeach faculty and staff volunteered to be the "suspects" and every week we eliminated suspects before determining who actually "kidnapped" Big Red on the last Saturday. Students had to collect evidence every week in order to predict why they thought some suspects were guilty, and they tested the evidence in order to rule out the suspects. For example, one week the kidnapper left muddy footprints when he/she dropped off a ransom note. In order to eliminate suspects, the students took shoe scrapings from the offices of SKyTeach faculty and staff. They tested the standard (the mud left at the crime scene) to see how it would react. We had prepared the mud with baking soda so that when they tested it with vinegar, the mud would show signs of a chemical reaction. Then the students tested each sample they took from the offices of each teacher to see if it reacted, and so they were able to eliminate suspects. They also collected observational evidence in each of the offices. For example, Ms. Janice Davenport has a glass cupola with a stuffed Big Red inside it, and a Big Red afghan hanging on her wall. The students thought for certain it was her, because she "had Big Red stuffed in a cage!" So they were able to form their hypotheses, and test them each week to determine who was guilty, and who was not guilty.
CHAD SNYDER (The Hobbit and Wizardry, grades 4, 5, & 6)
Much of the scientific seems to be inherently understood with children. There is always asked a "Why?," or "How?" for something, and then the experimenting usually follows. For instance, little children can often wonder how a toy works. The question is posed, then they "disassemble" the toy in an effort to figure out how it works. So on some level there is an understood action and reaction to learning about the world around them.
In The Hobbit and Wizardry Class we merge two exciting topics; science and fantasy. A question could be, "How did a Uruk-hai explode part of King Theoden's Helm Deep wall?" The approach to solving that question begins with what makes a good fuel, followed by testing by burning different compounds. Next, we discuss how to make something more combustible. Finally, the hypothesis is generated to see if what is can be made significantly more combustible. It's then tested to see if we were right. We begin by showing that table sugar is a combustible fuel. However, when mixed with an appropriate chemical it becomes extremely combustible. In a sense we followed much of the scientific method while showing how some of the fantasy we read can be performed using science.
ASHLEY MURPHY (What's the Matter? Playing with Polymer Chemistry, grades 5, 6, & 7)
My Super Saturdays topic of "playing with polymers" includes a lot of "Wow! Neat!" moments, such as observing Instant Snow, a white plastic powder that rapidly expands in water. But when those moments of just looking end, the real science begins. After defining hydrophilic polymers as those that expand in water, students begin to imagine what household liquids might produce the most expansion. After brainstorming a list, students are given two "Gro-Gators," small hydrophilic-polymer toys, and an assignment: go home and dunk the gators in two different liquids that you think will produce different-sized gators. Students make decisions about what constitutes "most expansion": is it length? mass? They decide which variable to measure, or to measure both. Daily, the gators are extracted and measured.
On the following Saturday, students use a data table of recorded measurements to support their memories of what happened during the week, as well as the less subtle results, the gators themselves: are they much larger? Is salt water absorbed as readily as tap water, or distilled water? Students can use their measurements to compare two liquids, but creating graphs from their data tables reveals another level of complexity: the rate of absorption throughout the week. Prior to beginning the experiment, students were asked to predict, graphically, what would happen to a gator in water. Many predictions showed a linear relationship (i.e., that after 4 days, the gator would be 4 times bigger, and after 6 days, 6 times bigger), but the true relationship of expansion over time was that most of the expansion occurred in the first few hours or days of the experiment. Students also ask how to know when their gator is fully-grown – or will it grow forever? -- a question that can be answered using their graphs.
Many students have suggested using their finding s to add to the advertising for Gro-Gators (let children know, "Your Gro-Gator will be full-grown in x days. Expect 90% growth in y hours."). Results for different liquids lead to student insights about materials (orange juice or milk are mostly composed of water, while vegetable oil or rubbing alcohol are fundamentally different liquids) and about water quality (when comparing results for tap water to those for distilled water).
JOE NAPIER (Rocket Science, grades 6 & 7)
Kids really open up when they know that the scientific method is something all of us use all of the time. Being curious, asking questions, seeking answers, being satisfied with valid explanations - these activities are part of being human and exploring the world around us.
Using a model rocket as a platform from which to teach physics makes the scientific method easy to understand and apply. The rocket is a simple system that responds measurably well to changes in various inputs. With the aid of some handy simulation modeling software (OpenRocket), we can change each input independently and see how the rocket responds.
"What happens when we enlarge the rocket fins?" The kids think through the concepts demonstrated in experience from earlier that day. They sift through data in their minds - quantitative and qualitative - and compare this change in input (larger fins) to the rocket flight we previously simulated on the computer.
"The center of mass will shift toward the rear." Right. "The center of drag will also move to the rear, more than the center of mass." Correct. "This will increase the rocket's stability!" Right on. "Won't the force of drag also increase?" Yep. "The the rocket won't go as fast!" "And it will slow down more suddenly when the engine burns out, so it won't go as high!" Exactly.
CRAIG FREY (Carnival Ride Camp, grades 6, 7, & 8)
In introducing middle school students to S.T.E.M. curriculum and projects, one of the first major items to address is the difference between the scientific method and the engineering design process. As part of the engineering design disciplinary core ideas in the NGSS (Next Generation Science Standards), the engineering design process can be used to further kids own sense of wonder, interest and exploration by continuing to ask "what would happen if I did this? "
Whereas the scientific method focuses on evidence to justify one answer or solution to an identified question, the engineering design process focuses on developing models and prototypes to address a specific problem within given requirements and constraints and selecting the best possible solution that meets all the requirements. This offers students an opportunity to be much more creative in building projects and problem solving as there may not be "one correct answer that works everywhere, all the time". In the Carnival Ride Super Saturday Class, some students were initially stunned when something did not work out as they thought it should and the teacher would not tell them the "right" answer but students were instead told to explore possible solutions using other pieces from their kits and their own knowledge of simple machines, force and motion to explore "what would happen if..." Many students enjoyed this approach immensely right from the start while others were more hesitant to explore solutions on their own, perhaps afraid they might get the "wrong" answer.
For most of them, the successful explorations and encouragement teams around them were getting helped them to step out of their own academic comfort zones and explore multiple solutions as well, learning to treat "failure" of a particular project as a step in ruling out options en route to a "successful " project solution. This is really no different than a recent interaction I had exploring paper airplanes with my elementary aged niece and nephew who were visiting from out of town and encouraging them to alter their designs to see what they could do to improve the flight of their paper airplanes, in terms of both distance flown and time in the air. Independent of each other, they explored many different options, changing wing shapes and size, adding and removing weights at different locations, etc... with an excitement on their face each time a flight trial led to another possible prospect or idea for improvement and off they went, eager to make a change in their design. Middle school students I have had in another STEM class, building electronic circuits, do a similar type of exploration when after learning about and using certain common circuit parts, they alter a simple design to do more or different things, in a different way, at a different time or in a different order - all to meet a particular "purpose" they had imagined in their mind.
Scientists use the scientific method to make testable explanations and predictions about the world. An engineer identifies a specific need and then, he or she creates a solution that meets the need. In real life, the distinction between science and engineering is not always clear, but in my recent STEM focused Super Saturdays classes, learning about the differences has meant a lot of hands-on, minds-on, engaging exploration!