Get to know your students
When you get a new bunch of kids there is always a learning period for you as a teacher. You need to learn their names, their aptitudes, their personalities, their behavior, etc. etc. But the information I always sought out first was “what do they know and what are they capable of?” Not only that, but your students need a science introduction as well. To this end, I like to start a semester with a lab that is unrelated to content but one that is designed to give me several key pieces of information.
1. How well are they able to express themselves through writing?
2. How well are they able to formulate a plan in order to reach a goal?
3. Are they capable of moving toward a goal without step-by-step instructions?
4. How well do they work together in groups?
I call this my “Mystery Box Lab”. The concept is simple. I give each group a box that is sealed and has an object inside. I also give them an empty box and a baggie of things that may be in the box. They have a lab sheet that guides them to write down their observations and develop an experiment for figuring out what is inside the box. Yes, THEY write the experiment! It will not be perfect but they need the practice doing this! I require a signature at this point before they move forward otherwise they tend to skip the pre-planning. It is also an opportunity to discuss any problems with their experiments, being thorough, variables, repetition, etc. They next step is put their experiment into action while they write down all their steps and the results. Again, I have found that students like to skip writing things down so you may need to remind them several times. They are essentially putting things into the empty box and comparing the feel and the sound of the box in order to make a conclusion about what is inside their box.
Making the boxes
I found 4in square cardboard boxes at the craft store and with a little packing tape they have lasted about 8 years. They are not pretty, but they do the job. Of course, I warn students ahead of time that writing on or poking holes in my boxes will not make me happy! What you put inside is really up to you, I used the typical flotsam and jetsam you find in a science classroom. Marbles, beans, tiny binder clips, pennies, paper clips, marshmallows, etc. Make sure you seal the boxes! You don’t want them be able to peek!
To make it a little tougher I put little obstacles in each box. I just taped squares of cardboard to the inside of the boxes in different locations. This makes the mystery box sound a little different than the test box which makes them question and discuss their results. Some of them even conclude that the sealed box is different on the inside!
Introduce your students to science
Beyond what you learn about your students with this activity, it is a great way to introduce (or re-introduce) your students to science.
1. “Doing science” often feels like you don’t know what you’re doing
No one likes to feel unsure and this is especially true for high school students. However, its important to constantly expose them to unscripted situations that force them to rely on their own brains to figure things out. It helps them build confidence in science which I find is lacking in a majority of my students. It’s important though to constantly encourage them and tell them that its OK to feel unsure. I say things like “try it and see” or “no one else knows what they’re doing either!” a lot! Once they realize that it’s “OK” to be unsure, they will become more adventurous.
2. You have to write everything down!
During the discussion I will usually question a couple of groups about the order in which they tested objects. Some groups will have recorded things well and be able to answer while others will have no idea. This gives me an opportunity to discuss how important it is to write everything down so that you know exactly what happened in the lab. I use the example of scientists making a vaccine. “What if they finally create a vaccine that works after years of trial and error but they forgot to write down everything they did!?”
3. There is a method to the madness
Science has a method to it! My favorite part of doing this lab is the discussion afterwards because as a class we summarize the steps they took to figure out what was inside the box. They always end up being the steps that students learn as “the scientific method”. For example, I have every group to tell me the very first thing they did with their boxes. Answers vary but it’s usually “look at it” or “shook it.” So I guide them to the fact that in science we call all of these things “making observations” and I write it on the board. Some steps are not as obvious to them. For example, they think that the next step was the experiment because they started putting things in the empty box and testing them. But I know that there was some hypothesizing going on when they chose the first objects to test. Their observations made them infer that the object was round, so they chose a round object to test. Continue to guide them through each of the steps of the scientific method. Our list usually comes out like the list below.
-Hypothesis (we chose the marble because the object sounded round)
-Experiment (we put objects in the empty box and shook it)
-Results (we listened for similarities in the sound and how the box felt)
-Re-hypothesize (when it didn’t sound right, we picked another the bouncy ball because it was round)
-Re-experiment (we put the new object in the box and shook it)
-more results (this time it sounded the same)
-conclusion (the bouncy ball is in the sealed box)
This helps to reinforce the idea that the scientific method isn’t a foreign set of steps that only scientists use. Rather, its a method that any inquisitive person (them) trying to solve a problem (whats in the box) naturally follows.
4. Sometimes you may never know the answers to your questions
Once students have narrowed down the choices and decided that they have figured out what is inside the box they always want to know if they are right. But guess what? I don’t tell them what’s in the box! *cue evil laugh* My reason, of course, is not to be evil but to show them that sometimes in science you have to rely on your knowledge and procedures to trust in your conclusion, but you may never have confirmation of your answer. They don’t like this but its an important lesson.
I use this lab with Biology, Chemistry and General Physical science students. All of them benefit from the exercise and I always learn so much about them in the process!