Lung Capacity Lab

Want to know how much hot air middle school students have? Try this lung capacity lab. Students will be able to see how much air their lungs can hold!

The human body unit is once again upon us! Because I’m using a new curriculum this year, I’ve made some adjustments to how I go about teaching. However, a few labs are tried and true that I will definitely keep! This was one of them. It is so easy. Grab a balloon and a ruler for each student, and you’re set!


Giving middle school students balloons does have some risks. Be prepared to hear many balloon squeals and other noises that sound like body functions. I warned the students in advance that no balloons should be released across the room.

Now to the lab:

Once students have received their balloon, they will use it to measure how much air their lungs hold. We compare the difference between vital capacity and tidal capacity of their lungs.

Vital capacity – the maximum amount of air the lungs can hold.
Tidal capacity – the normal amount of air that your breathe in and out.



  1. Students take a deep breath and blow up the balloon as much as they can with that one breath. Hold the balloon (do not tie it!) and measure the diameter with a ruler, recording this length.
  2. To find the volume, you can use the formula for the volume of a sphere (although the balloons aren’t perfectly sphere, this gives a pretty close measurement). Or, I give my students a graph that they can use to estimate the volume like this one, which is found l here at
  3. Repeat this two more times, then find the average of all three.
  4. Next, students take in a normal breath and breathe it into the balloon. Be careful not to push too hard! This should be a normal breath.
  5. Record the diameter and then find the volume either using the formula or the graph.
  6. Repeat this two more times and then find the average diameter and average volume.

The average adult male has a vital capacity of a little more than 3000 cm3 and the average female’s vital capacity is about 2700 cm3. Of course, this also depends on height, weight, health and several other factors.

You can have students compare their lung capacities to their classmates. You can also ask follow up questions such as:

  1. What would you expect a professional athlete’s lung capacity to be? Why?
  2. What would you expect the lung capacity of someone who smokes to be?
  3. How might a musician’s lung capacity compare to others?

What a great way to lead into talking about health concerns and the importance of exercise!

Radioactive Pennies

Teaching chemistry in middle school is difficult. You can’t see atoms and you can’t feel electrons moving around.The material leans toward the abstract, even though atoms are what make up all concrete objects! To make it worse, this unit comes during the mid-winter, still not close enough to spring break time of year.

I always try to use hands-on simulations or interactive labs to help students connect to the information. (For example, these cereal Bohr model projects). Radioactive elements are another great one to simulate (I mean, you have to simulate it… highly radioactive elements are frowned upon at school). Radioactive Pennies a mini lab that can bring the concept to life. This lab uses probability and flipping coins to simulate what happens to elements that undergo radioactivity. Each round represents a half-life of the penny element. So after discussing what happens when an element becomes radioactive, students participate in this!

Materials Needed:

  • 50 pennies per group
  • Ziploc or paper bag
  • Blank graph

Instructions for Radioactive Pennies

  1. Students put all the pennies into the bag, shake, then dump them out onto the table
  2. Any pennies that land on heads are the ones that have changed elements. Put these in a pile to the side.
  3. Place all the tails back into the bag to be dumped again
  4. Repeat the process until all the “element” has changed
  5. Students record how many pennies landed heads after each round and create a line graph plotting the number of heads each time on the y-axis and rounds on the x-axis.

    This shows how many pennies were heads after each round

Comparison to a half-life of an element

Students should notice a pattern of about half the pennies being flipped to heads each round. Of course, it is not always half, but this idea is the same as an element’s half-life. It takes each element a certain amount of time to fall to half its size. It takes one round for the group of pennies to fall to half its size. From this, you can predict about how long it would take for all the pennies to flip, just as scientists can predict about how long it takes for certain elements to “fall apart.”


Science Fair

Every year, our school has a different academic theme. Every 4-5 years, it is science’s turn. And this was the year. This also means this is the year I am in charge of many extra activities for our students to participate in. This past week, our school held a science fair. This was an evening open house event for parents to come and see the different projects students have been working on (some since September!)

Putting together a night like this was not easy, but overall, I would say it was worth it. Both students and families enjoyed seeing the different projects and taking part in different STEM activities.

Here are some ideas that helped make our science fair a success this year:

Start planning early!

We began having meetings in October to plan for an event taking place at the end of February. My committee consisted of 3 other teachers and myself, which is not large by any means. However, 6 weeks before the event occurred, we had ideas for all activities, an outline for the night and each person knew which items they would be responsible for. We did end up making a few changes in the days before, but this were not a big deal since everyone knew their responsibilities.

Inform teachers of expectations

We made informational packets for each grade level teacher to inform them of guidelines for student projects. Obviously, the guidelines for 1st grade looked very different from the 8th grade. Our goal was for students to learn at their own level. Some classroom teachers allowed their younger students to simply research a science topic and write it, displaying what they learned on small posters. Other teachers in the middle grades walked through the scientific process by doing a whole class experiment. Students were responsible for collecting their data during the school day, then they did their write ups and posters in class with teacher supervision. Middle school students were responsible for coming up with their own experiments. Although I walked them through each step throughout the year, most of the work was done by themselves. They displayed their work on trifold display boards. Differentiating the projects in this way made sure students were learning at their level! Students also were very proud of their final projects

Include activities for the family

From the very beginning, we promoted our fair as a family event. We encouraged families to come together to see the student experiments! Creating simple stations for students and families to “do science” together helped! We decided three activities were enough to provide variety, but still not overwhelming for us to plan and staff.

  1. Snowman Paper Challenge – using 2 pieces of plain paper and a small amount of tape, families had to create the tallest snowman, making sure it still had the shape of a snowman
  2. Density Exploration – We had three different liquids in beakers with a variety of different small objects. Participants predicted if they thought the objects would sink or float and then tested it out!
  3. Oobleck! – This station was by far the biggest hit. Participants could mix up their own batch of the mind -boggling non-newtonian fluid and play around with it. Parents and students alike had fun with this one!
Announce Winners!

During the day, our middle school projects were judged by volunteers associated with the school. These judges all had science backgrounds and used a rubric to score the different projects. At the end of the night, we announced the winners to the families! Students won a ribbon as a prize and I also gave them a “100 Grand” (since no prize money was involved). Even though the prizes were not huge, the build up to who the winners might be was very exciting for both students and families!

There are just a few basic tips that helped our science fair night be a success!

Music to My Ears

This is an activity I almost didn’t do with my class. I found this great resource for sound and pitch on PBS Design Squad and liked it, but wasn’t sure if I woudl do it. One of my classes this year has been somewhat of a challenge for me. They struggle with socializing. Although that is not anything new for middle school, this class seems to be the extreme. We’re working on it, but it makes me a little hesitant at times to try new activities when a lot of instructions may have to be given.

String Thing Game

I found this cool inquiry activity online and knew it was perfect for investigating pitch. But did I really want the students to work together on the Chromebooks to see what kind of noise they could make? It was a Friday after a pretty crazy week and to be honest, I did not have any other activity prepped, so this was it. And it was amazing! The student pairs worked quietly, stayed on task and LOVED doing it. Of course there was noise in the classroom – it is a sound game – but it was that awesome hum of productiveness. It was music to my ears!

String Thing Game, created by PBS Design Squad, has students explore how changing the length, tightness and type of string creates different pitches. Students can manipulate the features and to create different sounds and pitches. First, I had students just explore. How could they make a sound lower? What happened to make a sound higher? There are also demo songs where students can see all the different strings. Once they played on it for several minutes, I gave them the worksheet that the site created which asks specific questions on how different sounds are made. Finally, students attempted to make a song or tune online.

I originally had planned to only do this for 10 to 15 minutes, but when I observed how well the students were doing, I let them continue working until the end of the class! I even had students come up to me the following Monday to say they had played it at home. Win!

Build an Instrument

On Monday, I had students work in the same groups to create their own musical instruments and Build a Band, using their knowledge from the game. Cardboard boxes, rubber bands and wooden dowels were the only materials needed. I challenged them to create a song using four “strings”. Some groups immediately knew the song they were singing and could adjust the bands accordingly. Others decided to put the bands down, and then try to come up with a song. Although rubber bands are a little tricky to keep “in tune” because they can stretch or become looser, most students recognized how to adjust the pitch. I’m not saying that all the songs were perfect, but when the groups “performed” their songs, most students could figure out what tune was being played.

The class had so much fun with this activity – they could be social and musical at the same time. Yet they were still learning! Thanks PBS Design Squad! I’ll definitely be looking to them for more lessons in the future.

The Olympics are Coming!


The 2018 Winter Olympics are just around the corner. I feel like the games sprung up on me pretty quickly this time around. Didn’t we just have the summer games? But that’s ok, because I do enjoy watching the different events, especially the more unique ones! I mean, where else would you get to watch curling? Or the Biathlon?? Super cool.

Maybe this week you will be doing things in your classroom that relate to the games. You really can tie them into any subject area! 

Science and STEM

I plan to try at least one STEM activity I found some good ideas here from a TpT site that I may try. During the 2014 Olympics, NBC posted many videos about the physics of the events. Show some of these to your students as introductions to your lesson to get them pumped up about certain events and the science behind them!


You can take some of the information and create math problems. A great resource to use for that is here  from For example, did you know that 3,000 athletes will be competing in the games. There are 15 “disciplines”, or types of these events. In total, there will be 102 events!  

Just a few math ideas:

  • Find out how many medals are expected to be given out (If each event gives a gold, silver and bronze medal)
  • Calculate the percentage of gold medals the US wins (or total medals) as the games play out
  • Keep track of all the different countries that medal
  • Find how heavy those medals are and simulate it with other materials in your classroom
Social Studies or Economics

Why not make Olympic connections in your social studies or economics class? The history of the games is a great place to start. Assign mini research projects on the various countries competing. Students also may enjoy calculating the cost of traveling to PyeongChang for a “visit”.


For some writing projects, ask students what event would they most enjoy competing in for these Olympics? Maybe you can watch some of the highlights of the opening ceremonies on youtube later and students reflect on which parts they found intriguing or confusing, etc.

For more ideas as we go through these games, you can follow my Pinterest board here

Enjoy the games and Go USA!

Wave Stations

This week my 6th graders are learning about waves and wave behaviors. Rather than just talking about how waves interact and the different places we see effects of waves, I had them move around to different stations to actually SEE what happens.

I got the station ideas from the Coastal Carolina University website. The have a NSF Fellows Program that has many great lesson plan and activity ideas!  You can look around here. The direct link to the lesson plan I used is here

Station 1

Students fill a pan halfway with water. They place blocks in the pan and use a dropper or ruler to make waves. Students then observe how the waves move. This station demonstrates diffraction – the waves spread and move around different barriers

Station 2

This is the classic “broken pencil”. Students look at how the light travels at different speeds through different mediums, which is refraction.

Station 3

Using two meter sticks as a track, students roll marbles and watch how they transfer energy, similarly to waves. It also demonstrates reflection of waves. This is very similar to a momentum activity I’ve done, which you can see HERE.

Station 4

Shine a flashlight through tissue paper and watch what happens! Students look at how certain light waves with still come through and how others are absorbed. Light will also appear a different color!

Station 5

Stretching out a slinky, students pull back a few rings, then let go to watch the wave! They time how long it continues to send the wave back and forth before stopping. This demonstrates wave reflection, but also how the energy is absorbed into their hands.

Station 6

Students use a mirror and a flashlight to try and reflect the light onto the ceiling. Playing around with the flashlight can demonstrate how the law of reflection works. If you hold the flashlight at a larger angle, you can see that the light is reflected with the same angle!

Station 7

Using ear cancelling headphones, or even just plain ear muffs, students noticed how much the sound waves are absorbed. Wearing the headphones muffles the sound quite a bit in a noisy classroom!

Station 8

Cool shades! Putting on sunglasses demonstrates how certain materials will absorb light waves, making light appear dimmer with less glare.

Students enjoyed participating in the different activities. Afterwards, while discussing each station together, I had the students try to identify the wave behaviors they saw. They did pretty well, and now have these pictures in their heads to connect to the ways waves can react.

Now if only I could wear those noise cancelling headphones everyday…

Ex-CELL-ent Analogies

We are in the midst of learning about cells in my science class. Every year I have students that struggle to understand how all the parts of the cell work together. We look at pictures, we label cell organelles, we color diagrams, but that still isn’t enough for some to connect the dots. Students can’t see inside a cell with their own eyes. Most classrooms don’t have the microscope power to see details either.

How does a teacher help students make these connections? Make comparisons to something students are familiar with! Using analogies in the classroom is a great way for students to better understand many concepts. When students can make their own cell analogies, it is even better.

Cell Analogies Activity

To introduce the activity to my class, I showed students this slideshow by Chad Foster on SlideShare.  My students thought the idea of a cell as a restaurant was hilarious – but they were understanding the connections! After we discussed the restaurant example, I had students work in groups to come up with their own analogy.

I helped provide a few ideas to get them going:
  • Sports Team
  • City/Town
  • Backpack
  • School
  • Supermarket

I also wanted students to use at least 4 different cell organelles to make their comparisons. What would the nucleus of the cell be in their analogy? How would the cell membrane be represented? Some groups immediately took off and came up several different ideas. Others though struggled at first. With these groups, I asked them – since the nucleus is the control center of a cell, what could be a control center in your example? The prompting helped them come up with their own ideas!

One of my favorite analogies made was a group that decided to compare a cell to a soccer field. They said the vacuoles of a cell are like the coolers the soccer moms keep – they store all the food!

Here are the posters in progress – I didn’t get many pictures because some of the groups got so into making details on their posters that they didn’t have time to finish!

A cell is like a city…

We will be working on these ex-CELL-ent analogies again this week!

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 . 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

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!