Science

Sort It Out

 Last week I had the privilege of presenting a session at a STEM education conference here in Indiana.  Now, whenever I go to a conference, I enjoy doing hands-on activities. And I don’t like sitting through sales-pitches. You know the ones that show you a bunch of awesome ideas, only to find out that to actually do any of those activities, you need to purchase the kits that cost thousands of dollars each? Instant downer since there is a 1% chance my school will ever be able to afford it. So I created a session where I shared a few STEM/Engineering Design activities that could be used in many different classrooms, on a very low budget, any time of the year.

I’m not sure I should say this, but I was shocked at the number of people that wanted to attend my session. We filled up the large conference room! I would like to believe this was because my session description was so intriguing. Or maybe it is because most teachers want quick, easy ideas that are still awesome. However, it probably did help that right next store the conference was giving out snacks during the break and I was the closest session…

Sort It Out Activity

One of the activities I shared was Sort It Out. This is a great way introduction to engineering design for your students. I have tried it with as young as 3rd graders and as old as adults! It can be easily adapted or changed to fit the needs of your classroom.

The original idea for this came from tryengineering.com . This link will take you to the activity that has a the full lesson plan pdf, student worksheets, and a powerpoint! Background research about how coins are made and sorted is included which can be a great extension.

Although all of these are very helpful resources, I often like to make my own worksheets that are less wordy and allow more space for students to work. When I originally did this lesson for 3rd graders, I had to adapt it quite a bit. Here is the Sort it Out pdf worksheet that I have used in the past!

The idea behind this is that there are a bunch of coins that got mixed up and a device needs to be created in order to sort these coins. 

Here is the prompt I use:

Mrs. O’s coins are all mixed up! She needs them separated easily in order to use the coins for different things in class. Can you help design a sorting mechanism that will make the job easier?

The materials I use for this are:

  • Cups
  • Construction Paper
  • Toilet Paper tubes
  • Cardboard
  • Foam board
  • Plates
  • String
  • Felt
  • Tape
  • Scissors

Again, these materials can be flexible – use what you have! For example, sometimes I use plates, sometimes I don’t. I don’t always have all these materials on hand, so I simply switch it up. It keeps kids creative!

Students first plan out their ideas individually and sketch everything out. Then, students are 

placed into groups and come up with one team design. If you are doing this in younger grade levels, it can be helpful to plan out roles for each group member. For example, one person might be the “Materials Director” and the one in charge of getting materials and recording what is used. Another might be the “Time Manager” or the “Spokesperson” for the group. This way, each member knows how to contribute to the group’s project.

Students then design and build their device! Obviously, you can limit the amount of time they have to work on each part. When coin sorting devices are ready to test, simply give each group a handful of coins and ask them to demonstrate!

Adaptations and Extensions

  • Only use quarters and dimes – using the largest and smallest coins may help younger students out. By using all four coins, you can challenge your students!
  • Time how long it takes for the device to sort a certain number of coins. Whose can sort a certain amount of coins the fastest?
  • Connect this to math by discussing diameter, circumference, or mass

The adults at the conference loved this idea. I even had some good devices created during the session, like this one! The point is to make it your own for your class and get those coins sorted!

Calculating Speed Activity

Need to practice calculating speed in your classroom? How about using toys?

My students had recently learned the formula for calculating speed. We had completed several practice problems and I knew my students could do the math on paper. However, finding and comparing speeds in real life is much more fun! I thought about using marbles and rolling them down ramps, but that has been done – not very exciting. After another quick online search, I got the idea to calculate the speeds of different toys that could move by themselves. Loved it!

Because I happen to have an almost three year old boy in the house, I knew I could come up with several self-propelled toys. After talking my son into letting me borrow a few toys for the day, he helped me grab the following:

  • Thomas the Train
  • Percy the Train
  • A Shark Airplane
  • A Big Red Car
  • A Little Red Car
  • I also had this lovely wind up toy already in my classroom, which I tell the students is me in my bumper car!

Some of these toys were pull back, others had buttons to turn them on and off. Both worked well!

The other materials needed were:
  • Metersticks
  • Stopwatches
  • Optional tape for start and stop lines
Procedure

First, I placed students in groups of three or four. Each group would get one toy to test at a time and we would rotate the toys. I made sure that each group tested at least 4 toys total.

Once a group received their toy, they had to decided if they wanted to measure the toy for a certain distance, or just until it stopped. Students then timed their toys and measured the distance the toy traveled for that time. With this data, they calculated the speeds of each toy.

Once students had completed four toys, we came back together as a group and compared the speeds. Groups shared their slowest toys. Since not everyone tested every toy, we then compared the actual speeds of each to determine which one was truly the slowest. The bumper car wind up toy definitely took its time! Although there were a few different ideas on which was the fastest toy, most concluded that the Big Red Car won! A few had the Little Red Car at higher speeds. Some believed this was because it was pulled back extra far for these tests!

The fastest toy!

Students had a great time testing each of the toys! And I had a great time watching them comparing the speeds and doing the calculations correctly!

Quick Momentum Demos

I’ve got a couple quick demos that are great for demonstrating momentum in the classroom. These take very little time to set up, but can still be very effective in showing how momentum is conserved throughout a system!

The conservation of momentum states that the total momentum before a collision occurs is equal to the total momentum after the collision, as long as no outside forces are interfering. In the classroom, we discussed how this applies to car crashes and similar events. However, I did not want my students to actually be crashing cars in order to understand these concepts! So these are two simple activities students can perform on their own in order to grasp the concept further!

Here is what you need:

  • Ruler (should be a solid wood or plastic one. Super thin rulers will not work well).
  • A Dime
  • A Quarter
  • 2 meter sticks
  • 5 marbles

Coins and Ruler

To set up these demonstration, you need to place the ruler on a flat surface with the dime placed right at the edge of the ruler. Place the quarter at the other end of the ruler, however, slide it back and “shoot” it toward the ruler so it hits the end with force. The momentum should cause the dime at the opposite end to move away from the ruler. The more force used with the quarter, the farther the dime will go!

Next, have students try it the opposite way. If you place the quarter on the edge and try to slide the dime into the ruler, the quarter may move, but not very far. Why? Because the quarter is more massive and will not travel as far of a distance. Newton’s 2nd law explains this through the equation force = mass x acceleration.

 

If you want to take it a step even further, you can have students calculate the mass of each coin and the distance they travel. Their ratios should be equal!

Newton’s Meter stick Cradle

The next demonstration uses the meter sticks and the marbles. Placing the two meter sticks side by side on a flat surface, you can create a small space opening as a “track” for the marbles. Start with resting two marbles next to each other on this track. Roll a third marble towards the two, and watch what happens! When the marbles hit, the collision causes the outside marble to roll away. If you place three marbles on the track and roll two towards them, two of the originally resting marbles will roll away. This is very similar to watching a Newton’s Cradle in action. Students can experiment with rolling different numbers of marbles and watching what happens. The total momentum will always be conserved – how every many marbles are rolled, that is how many of the resting marbles will begin moving! Newton’s 3rd law states that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Students will see that clearly here!

These two quick and easy demos should take no time to set up and students still love them! Quick, easy, but still great at explaining the concept of momentum!

DIY Costume for Teachers

  Looking for a last minute Halloween costume? I’ve got a great one that came to me last minute that is perfect for any teacher.

Every year at our school, we do a “spirit week”.  Students dress according to a different theme everyday. The class that goes all out and has the most participation and “spirit” wins the “Spirit Sword” (which is a little plastic sword with some ribbon on it. For some reason the kids fight like crazy for it!) Anyway, this year some of the themes included Crazy Hair Day, Patriotic Day and Character Day. For Character Day, students (and teachers) were encouraged to dress up like a character from their favorite movie, tv show or book.

My first thought was to dress up as Belle from Beauty and the Beast. I’ve always wanted to dress up like her, and it is one of my favorite movies. However, finding a big fluffy yellow dress last minute is not an easy thing. I thought about it a little more, and then went to Pinterest.

There were lots of ideas – storybook characters like Grouchy Ladybug, the Rainbow Fish and the Hungry Caterpillar were adorable. All cute, but not for me. There were ideas for being crayons, rock, paper, scissors, or even emojis. And then I saw it: Ms Frizzle! Not only did I grow up watching, The Magic School Bus, I happened to have a stuffed Lizz in my classroom. It was meant to be!

The dress is the most important part of being Ms Frizzle. I happened to have a blue dress that would work perfectly for a costume. I didn’t have a collared shirt to go underneath, so I wore a white, loose-sleeved one that worked well.  So if you want to be Ms. Frizzle, your dress MUST show whatever science subject you are studying! My 6th grade class is studying the planets so obviously I choose to wear Ms. Frizzle’s classic solar system outfit!

I used felt to cut out several stars, some suns, planets and crescent moons. Then I taped them all over my dress, making sure to add little stars to my earrings and planets to the tips of my shoes. I even braided my hair the night before so when I woke up it would have the “frizz” I needed! The finishing touch was

my sidekick Lizz!

Materials I used:

  • Knee length or tea-length dress
  • Tape
  • Felt cut into the shapes you need! The Solar System theme is easy, but you could customize your dress to whatever science subject you are studying! If you need inspiration, check out Monsters and Molecules blog where all “Dresses of the Frizz” are displayed! Amazing!
  • Toy Lizz!

I put this costume together in less than an hour (and that includes the many interruptions from my children!). Even though Magic School Bus is no longer on tv, the kids still knew who I was! Apparently it’s on Netflix… The costume was a big hit! Now if only I had a magic bus that could transport my students to cool places…

 

Solar Ovens

   Even though it is October, we have still had some pretty warm days here in Indiana. Not all of them have been sunny, but I’m still enjoying the warmer temperatures. More play time outside, sandals are still ok, and I can still easily take my class outside to do another science activity!

My 7th grade students were studying heat and energy. Specifically, we studied the ways heat transferred – radiation, conduction and convection. Obviously I wanted to incorporate food, and what better way to teach these concepts than to use ovens – solar ovens!

There are many ways to create a solar oven. I use leftover apple pie boxes from our school fundraiser, but most use pizza boxes or something similar. A few other simple supplies is all you need, besides whatever you plan to cook of course.

Here is a rundown of the science terms and why these boxes work:

Radiation – This is energy that travels as waves. This energy comes from the sun and drives the whole heating process of the oven.

Conduction – The radiant energy heats up the bottom of the box (black paper), and in turn, the black paper heats the air in the box.

Convection – The warm air rises up to the top of the box, pushing cooler air down in the process. The cooler air then gets heated from the bottom of the box, and since the box is closed, this cycle continually keeps the warm air inside.

You can find several youtube videos that explain the science behind solar ovens, as well as how to set them up. I’ve used these two videos in my classroom:

  1. This video by the SciGuys not only explains how to set up an oven, but also explains why they work! It fit perfectly into what I was trying to teach the students about these concepts.
  2. The other video is by Howcast and it shows a step by step tutorial of how to put the solar ovens together. I love showing my students this at the start, then replaying it one step at a time.

Materials:

  • Pizza box (or similar)
  • Tin foil
  • Plastic wrap
  • Black paper
  • Tape
  • Glue
  • Scissors
  • Straw (Optional to prop box open)
  • Food to heat! I use smore fixings – the chocolate melts great in these ovens! The marshmallow doesn’t toast, but it does get soft.

Directions

  1. Pair students up to make the boxes using the directions from the video
  2. Prepare whatever food item you would like them to heat. Even though students share a box, I prepare enough for each student to have their own smore.
  3. Find a spot outside in the sun and have students place their food inside their ovens. Make sure the ovens are allowing the sun to shine inside the boxes!
  4. Wait 15-20 minutes (I usually have a reading activity for students to do while they wait!)
  5. Enjoy the treats! (Napkins are also especially helpful here… smores are ooey, gooey!

Students absolutely love cooking in their solar ovens. Most want to bring the ovens home to see what else they can heat up!

Moon Phase Madness

There was something in the air this past week. Did you feel it? Kids were super restless and even naughty. Teachers were on edge. Nothing seemed to go as planned. Did you also know it was a full moon at the end of last week? Yup. Does that explain things?

Why is it that kids seem to get a little crazy when the full moon appears? Scientists (like the ones here from Weather.com) say that this is a myth. Although studies have shown kids do get less sleep during a full moon, this is only about 1% of their sleep and should not account for much difference in behavior. Yet, ask any classroom teacher, and I think they would disagree…right? I hope this isn’t just me. I know I would gladly invite those scientists to my classroom during a full moon week and allow them to teach for “research” purposes. Good luck.

Last week my class also studied the moon phases. How perfect. So in light of the Moon, here are some great resources to teach with!

My favorite: The Moon Song (Rock Version)

This youtube video is my all time favorite. The cheesy music, the monotone rap/singing, the repetitive words… all perfect reasons to show a class of middle school students. Though there are many songs that describe the moon phases, this one tops them all. It sticks in their heads forever, which is exactly the purpose when you want them to memorize the moon phases! Thank you songsofhigherlearning!

Oreo Phases

I have never done this in my own classroom, but I know of other teachers who successfully taught the phases with Oreos at my school. It seems like a great idea! “Kids, lick off the frosting to the correct Moon phases!” You may get a few that “accidentally” mess up, but students would be engaged for sure. Sciencebob.com has an explanation here with a pdf to help.

oreo_moon_phases

Birthday Moon Phases

This is an activity that I have done in my classroom. It’s from Mysciencesite.com. Students figure out what phase the moon will be in on their next birthday, plus the days before and after. Listed are a few websites that can direct students on how to figure this out. It’s a good way to help practice the different phases as well.

For the Toddlers

This last one is for the littles. I found this idea at A Dab of Glue Will Do and love it. My son is obsessed with seeing the Moon and I know he would love to make his own! With just foil and paint, kids can make the Moon to look semi-realistic!

Morse Code Device

Electricity is such a fun topic to cover in my classroom. Although it is not technically part of my standards in 8th grade, I still cover circuits and how they work. My students love developing different types of circuits, trying to get the bulbs to light in different ways. I know electricity is included in other grade level standards, so this could easily be used or adapted for another grade level too. I have actually heard of 3rd graders doing a similar task.

The problem I use for this activity is as follows:

A toy company wants you to design a new product. The company wants a communication device that is similar to a telegraph. The device will use light instead of sound as a signal. The device will use light instead of sound as a signal. Kids will use the device to communicate in Morse code.

I like including device being a toy for kids. This creates a new way of thinking about the device. We discuss what kids would need – something safe, easy to use, and of course, fun! We also discuss why this would light up and not make noise 🙂 I usually need to stress that this will just be a prototype of the electronic part of the toy though, and will not be the final product. Later, as an add on, sometimes I have the students make flyers for their toy and they can model any additional features. For example, one group had “plans” to make their electric circuit a part of a toy car. When kids would use the Morse code device, they would design the headlights of the car to turn on and off. Rather than actually creating the car (since we didn’t have the tools to do so) the students could make their flyer displaying image of their “final product”.

I allowed each group of students to use the following materials in their design:

  • Battery (in a holder if you have it)
  • Light bulb (in holder)
  • Wire
  • Clothespin
  • 2 craft sticks
  • Toothpick
  • Paper clip
  • Rubber band
  • Piece of cardboard (students could cut or alter this in any way
  • Aluminum foil
  • Scissors
  • Tape
  • Morse code chart (mine came from my original curriculum, but you can find a similar printable online, like this one)

The first challenge was for the group to create a functional circuit that could easily be turned on and off. Some groups had t
heir circuits set up so that when you pressed the button, the light would turn off. Although they could write in Morse code, this didn’t really work for the toy. Most parents want the toy OFF when no one is using it.

There are always a few good designs that work really well, and others that we believe would be more difficult for kids to use. This activity really starts up great conversations about working for a client. In this case, the client would be a toy company — you are building it for a child. Therefore, the students had to think about their designs in a way that would work for a kid.   

Testing

After the circuits had been put together, students tested out their Morse Code toys by writing down simple messages in Morse Code. I tried to encourage one or two word messages and students quickly understood why! It took awhile for them to translate their messages to Morse Code! One person from the group then used the device to “light” the message while their partner(s) wrote down the Morse code they were seeing. Then, the partner(s) translated the Morse Code back into English, and compared their answers! Most groups were close in translation, with only a letter or two off, so I consider that a success!

Maybe next year, I will take it to the next level and have students actually include a “toy” component to their electric circuits!

Newton’s Balloon Rocket Cars

What is it about balloons? It doesn’t matter how old the kid is, you bring out a balloon, just the regular kind that you fill with your own CO2 ,  and the is an excitement in the air. My two-year old loves hitting balloons in the air, trying to keep it up as long as possible. The 7th grade students see a pack of balloons on my counter, and immediately are wanting to know if they will get to blow one up!

Good thing this time the answer was yes!

We have been wrapping up our study on Newton’s Laws. I wanted an activity that would require students to use their knowledge of all three laws in their design. A balloon rocket car fit perfectly. I based my design after what I saw here at kidzworld.com, however there are many variations to this activity using other materials!

Goals of the design:

  • Students were to design and create a “rocket car” that used the balloon to thrust the car forward.
  • Students needed to calculate the momentum of their car, and therefore find the velocity.
  • They measured the distance the car went and the time it took to go that distance.

Here are the materials that you need:

  • Styrofoam
  • Cardboard
  • Straight straws
  • Flexible straws
  • Wooden skewers
  • Bottle caps with a hole in them (used as wheels. You can easily make a hole by hammering a nail lightly through the center of the cap. I also had wooden wheels on hand, so I let the students choose which they wanted to use.)
  • Balloons
  • Tape
  • Scissors

Though the basic design of the car was going to be the same, there were several smaller choices students could make that would affect how well the car worked. For example, they could pick either cardboard or styrofoam to be the base of the car. Either wooden wheels or bottle caps could be used for the wheels. The wheels were attached by the skewers and/or straws underneath the base of the car. On top, a bendy straw was attached. At one end, students needed to secure the balloon. The other end was left open so someone from the group could blow the balloon up and be ready to race!

This car went the farthest. The group cut pieces out of the side to eliminate extra mass.

I allowed students three trials. Some had cars that moved fast, but not far. Others moved slow and steady and still others moved at all. If I had one more day to do this activity, I would have allowed them to change one thing about their designs to see if they could make their cars go farther or faster.

After their testing, recording and calculating of velocity and momentum, we discussed how Newton’s laws were involved.

Newton’s 1st Law

An object in motion stays in motion unless an unbalanced force acts upon it. Students understood this through the slowing down of the car from the friction. They also stated that if the car had more mass, that meant there was more inertia which made it harder for the balloon car to start moving.

Newton’s 2nd Law

F=ma. A more massive car would be harder to accelerate with the same force. Students figured out that more massive balloon rockets required much more balloon air power to get going. To increase acceleration, those balloons needed to be blown pretty big!

Newton’s 3rd Law

For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. The application of this law was fairly obvious to the students. They immediately realized that the force of the air coming out of the balloon from behind would push the balloon rocket forward with an equal amount of force!

The students love comparing their balloon rocket cars and would have loved a race! Maybe next time I can turn this into a Newton’s Laws tournament!

Slowest Parachute Design

In 7th grade, we started right away with physics concepts. These are some of my favorite areas of science! I love teaching Newton’s laws, investigating forces and computing the simple math equations that come with! My students however, don’t always seem quite as eager!

While discussing friction one day, I decided a design lab was needed to boost their interest level and understanding. Students knew friction slowed things down, but some were having a little trouble thinking about why friction is also helpful! Someone replied with a comment about parachutes, and instantly I had my idea.

After class, I frantically searched every drawer of my classroom for a little bag of these:

I had collected them at a 4th of July parade this summer, just in case I had a brilliant idea.

With just a quick search online, I found several activities that related to what I was thinking: A Slowest Parachute Contest. Teachengineering.org had this lesson plan already created! It was simple to put together, used simple materials and taught the concepts I needed it to. Winning! Although I did make a new, slightly adapted worksheet, I followed this lesson pretty closely!

This took my class two class periods, although both classes were shortened because of other activities going on that week. You could most likely complete it in about an hour if needed. The first day, students were given the challenge and the supplies.

Supplies included:

  • One army man
  • A Plastic Bag
  • Newspaper
  • Construction Paper
  • Tissues
  • String
  • Tape

Day 1

  1. Students were put into groups of three, and each group had to decide which material they wanted as their parachute.
  2. Next, students cut their material into a circle. I was not specific on the size of the circle on purpose. Part of the lab is to see if the area has an affect on the parachute’s performance. Some students used a compass to help draw their circles, which was a great idea. They also put a small hole in the middle of the circle of their parachutes, after some discussion over whether this was actually a good idea or not (it is…and after discussing, most agreed).
  3. Before attaching the parachute, students needed to calculate the area of their circle. Yay for the math connection! We used the formula r2 . Students needed to be reminded to measure in cm so we all had the same units! At the end, we compared our surface area to the times of the parachute drops.

    Cutting out a circle
  4. Students could then tape or tie their army man to their parachutes using string. It was interesting to see the various ways students did this-some army men ended up falling upside down!

Day 2 – Testing!

At the beginning of our second day, we had about 5 minutes to make last minute adjustments to their parachutes. Then, student groups sent one “dropper” at a time to drop their army man while I timed the drop.

Each group was given three drops. There were a few “do-overs” when the parachutes hit a desk or chair on the way down. The times were then averaged. Unfortunately, I didn’t get any pictures of this, since I was using my phone to time the parachutes!

After each group had completed their drops, we had a discussion. It seemed to us that a larger parachute did help, but it was not necessarily the most important thing. Also, it seemed like the plastic bag material worked the best, but newspaper also worked well. I’m sure if we did this again, those results may vary.

Overall, the lab did seem to help students understand friction, especially air resistance. This activity was such an easy one to add last minute. Students were engaged, asking good questions about their designs and most importantly, gaining understanding of friction!

Saving Sam – A Great First Day Activity

 School started over a week ago for me! I’m just feeling like I’m back into the swing of things. It always takes a little while to get back into the habit of packing my lunch, organizing my lessons and getting my teacher voice back. Those first few days are hard on the vocal cords!

Because those first days of school require SO many instructions and procedures, it can be hard to really get into learning. However, the learning is what we want for our students! Maybe you all make the rules of how to line up for PE super exciting, and going through the weekly schedule extra suspenseful for your students. I, however, tire of those things quickly. But what can you do to shake things up a little?

My students must Save Sam! Saving Sam is a great first (or second or third) day activity for students from upper elementary through high school. I found this activity online (through Pinterest of course) a few years ago and LOVE using it to break up those “instruction” days.

Saving Sam

I’m not sure where I originally saw this activity, but there are many different places on the web that you can find it now. Here is the adapted version that I use in my classroom:

Materials

  • Gummy worm
  • Clear, plastic cup
  • Gummy LifeSaver
  • 2 Paper clips

Instructions

Student are paired up. Once they receive their materials, they must set up Sam as shown below:

The cup is upside down with the gummy Lifesaver underneath. “Sam” is on top of the cup. The students use the paper clips to help Sam!

 

The goal of this activity is for students to get the “life preserver” out from under the “boat” and onto Sam. Now, when I say onto Sam, I don’t mean just resting on top. Every time I do this, students immediately think they just have to get the lifesaver out from under the cup. Nope. Get it ON the worm. Students might think it isn’t possible, but it is! It just takes a little extra work! Any time someone touches any part with their hands, that group must begin again. If Sam or the life preserver hit the floor or desk, they also must start over.

End Results

Success!

After about 10 minutes, some students are successful, and some are not. Some groups tried the same thing over and over, while others continually changed their approach That’s ok! I actually don’t care if they truly “Save Sam” or not. The point of this activity is to learn to work together in order to solve a problem. In my classroom, I often challenge students to come up with a solution to an activity on their own. Often times, their original idea may not work and they must adapt and try something else. Also, there is no one right way to complete the task! Students can be successful using a variety of methods and learn to think differently about the scenario.

Saving Sam fits perfectly into my mini lesson of how we will be doing science in my classroom for the year! It can be used as a first day (or week) activity in order to bring up those points I mentioned. You can also use it anytime throughout the year to work on problem solving skills in a fun way.