The dilemma of a “fun science activity”
It’s the end of the year. The kids are worn out. If you teach seniors you know that they are done, done, done! They are so stressed about becoming adults that they can’t see straight. You want to give them a bit of a break in content but you don’t want to show a movie (like that teacher down the hall) and you can’t give them free time (because you know better). Maybe this is the curse of the typically A-personality science teacher. We just can’t waste time or do anything that isn’t educationally relevant. It’s just not in our DNA. So how do we justify fun science activities?
Make the fun relevant!
You pull out your list of fun science activities and find one that suits your kids. The mistake a lot of science teachers make is discounting an idea because it doesn’t link directly to their subject area. (i.e. chemistry, biology, etc) I think that at the secondary level there is a tendency to focus in on our subject and forget about teaching the “nature of science.” Is building a paper tower something that is relevant in chemistry? Not necessarily but the process is relevant. The brainstorming, trial and error, re-design, collaboration, etc. are all scientific ways of thinking and something that should be taught in every single science class. I would argue that it’s equally, if not more, important to teach the nature of science than it is to teach concepts and practices. So here are a few concepts that you can teach with fun activities.
- Uncertainty – The process of science is inherently uncertain. Students feel uncomfortable when you don’t give them a plan. That’s why we need to do just that…often! The more they are asked to develop their own procedures the more comfortable they become.
- Problem Solving – I like challenges because students are posed with a problem to solve and its up to them to come up with a solution. I honestly don’t think they could ever have enough practice with this. We need to let them figure things out!
- There are many ways to solve a problem – my students have always had the misconception that each problem has only one solution. Maybe they get that from math, I don’t know. However, they need to know that sometimes, there are many ways to solve a problem. When multiple kids come up with workable solutions that are very different form each other, they begin to realize that there is no “one right answer.”
- Trial and Error – Scientists often fail! They have to go back to the drawing board over and over again in order to get a design to work. Students get frustrated, but keep encouraging them. Remind them that, like scientists, they should learn from their failures and change the design based on what that failure taught them.
- Collaboration – Collaboration can be tricky, especially with students. When trying to solve a problem students have to work together and incorporate each others ideas. Groups of two seem to work for these little challenges. Working with another student also helps get students over the “I don’t know what to do” hump.
- Creativity – Yes! Creativity in science. Often reserved to describe disciplines like art and photography, creativity is vital to science. The most creative people are the ones that come up with a solution to the problem that has stumped all others. Presenting students with a challenge forces them to think creatively to solve a problem.
- Process – Just the act of following a procedure or recipe builds essential science skills. Students must be precise in their procedure in order to get the outcome they desire.
Activities with little or no set-up
Paper tower challenge
Challenge: Give students 1 sheet of 8.5 x 11 paper and 50 cm of tape. Challenge them to build the tallest tower in the room. It must not be taped to the table and must stand on it’s own to be measured. If they fail and want to re-design their structure they must recycle their whole design and obtain new paper and tape.
This is my go-to activity. I use it on those days when something unexpected comes up like half the class is on a field trip or the computers are down. The reason that is my favorite is because the supplies are always on hand and the instructions are simple. When I tell students that I once built a tower taller than myself with one single piece of paper, they can’t believe it and immediately want to beat me! Don’t let students give up after one try! Encourage them to take what they learned and re-design. Also, depending on your class, set aside an area for the failed attempts and discuss what might have been the cause of some of the failures. Such a valuable learning experience. (I dare you to resist joining in on this one!)
Challenge: Create a paper bridge that will span two stack of books and hold the largest amount of mass with only one piece of computer paper and some tape. (I usually use pennies as the mass)
This one is more of an event because as each bridge is put to the test, students gather around to help count the pennies that are being applied top the bridge. There are cheers and gasps when the bridge finally succumbs to the weight of the pennies. Then it is back to the drawing board to try to create an even stronger bridge!
Activities that require supplies and set-up
Ok, so this one is really for me. I love ice cream day! It just makes everyone so happy and agreeable. I usually do this with chemistry or physical science students because it is easier to tie it in to the content. (phase changes, thermal energy, atomic speed, etc) However, I have done it with biology and I asked students to tie it into what they have learned. Boy, did they think hard! They tied it to macro-molecules like fat, protein and sugar, even trying to imagine what is happening at the molecular level to cause the ice cream to solidify and applying it to a living organism getting frost bite, etc. They were thinking, so I was happy. Either way, following a recipe is like following lab instructions and how well they do that determines the outcome. This gives them more practice in those skills.
I rejected doing this on at the secondary level for a long time because I didn’t see any value in it. However, even seniors think that slime is awesome! Students are following a recipe to produce an outcome, just like in a lab. The quality of their slime is dependent on how well they execute instructions. With physical science and chemistry you can talk about polymers, Newtonian fluids, and viscosity. In biology you can get them to think about places they see slime in nature (eewwww!) and what purpose it serves in those organisms. You can also open a discussion when (inevitably) some students’ slime is sticking to the table and not the right consistency. What do you think went wrong? What does it have too much of or too little? etc.
Spaghetti and marshmallow challenge
Challenge: Students use only spaghetti and mini marshmallows to create the tallest structure. As an alternative to this challenge, you can challenge students build a structure that is capable of holding a certain amount of weight. (I used mini pumpkin pails with pennies. See pictures below.)
So messy, so frustrating, so fun! The marshmallows get sticky, the spaghetti breaks, kids cry…well not really. When their structure finally stands, or when they’ve added another level and made it the tallest one in the room, students get soooo excited! It takes real perseverance, a light touch and ingenuity to win this challenge.
Challenge: Students use the materials that you place in a plastic baggie to create a wind powered car that they can blow down the hallway. Bonus: Its fun watching them crawl around on the floor and get so competitive!
What you put in the bags can vary. I usually include 4 mints, a couple straws and index cards as a minimum. Then I add whatever I have laying around like some rubber bands or paperclips. Sometimes I throw something odd in there like a marble and watch their little minds try to figure out what I want them to do with it! WARNING: mints are fragile, which is part of the challenge. I have had several 3 and even 2 wheeled cars at the finish line because when students break a mint, I don’t give them another one. Instead, they have to get creative and come up with an alternative design.
*Teacher tip* Make up bags at the beginning of the school year so that you can pull this out whenever you have unexpected down time.
I encourage you to step outside of your content bubble and let your students stretch their thinking skills! Whether you try some of my fun science activities or re-work some of your own, I hope you will try new things in your classroom.
I’d like to hear about some of your favorite challenge or fun science activities! Let us know in the comments.