Young Scientists 2016

I started my YOUNG SCIENTISTS course again this term. I’m trying to get primary children thinking and working scientifically!
Last year, when I presented this course for the first time, all the children had plenty of fun but I had to re-think what I was doing after the first few classes. This year’s course has loads of new activities plus some old favourites like making slime. It is still my hope that in carrying out all the activities the children will start to understand about what the scientific method means.

The photos above are from last year’s course.

This term, we started by discussing the questions “What is science?“”What do scientists look like?” and “What do scientists do?” The children sorted some cards with pictures of real scientists and other famous figures. They also drew a picture of a (stereo)typical scientist on my  whiteboard. The aim of this was to show them that scientists do not conform to the stereotypes and that anyone can be a scientist.

We used my mystery boxes (based on the instructions on the Understanding Science website) but I didn’t spend very much time on this. I’ve done this activity with some of the children already and it is a great activity but I probably should have cut it out from this class to allow more time for the measuring activity which followed.

I was trying to get the children to appreciate the value of quantitative observations. I had provided three activities that required the children to take averages. I asked them to find the mass of one M&M (without precise scales), the thickness of one piece of paper and the time for one heartbeat. I’m not sure that many of the children understood what they were meant to do. I instructed a few children on how to take their pulse, and I set a minute timer on my phone but not all children did this, and one child still insisted that his heartbeat was once every 2 seconds, without measuring it.

In the second class I talked a little about last week’s activity and then introduced the idea of testable and non-testable questions. In order to investigate a question scientifically, we must first of all pose it as a question. Simply saying “I am interested in the water absorption properties of nappies (diapers)” doesn’t provide a question that can be tested. Instead you could say “Do certain types of nappies absorb more water than others?” Then you can turn it into a testable question by choosing several named brands and setting up an experiment where a measured volume of water is poured onto them and you measure how much is not absorbed.

The activity for this week was making slime, but doing so in a quantitative way. There are instructions all over the internet for this. I used the instructions from the Science Buddies site because it is set up more like an experiment than just a sensory activity. In this experiment you compare the slime produced with different ratios of glue solution to borax solution. We discussed the safety aspects of using borax and all children decided to wear safety glasses when doing the activity. I wanted the children to fill out an investigation sheet including their hypothesis and predictions, but again this meant that the time for actually making the slime was limited. I’ll try to learn from this and allow more time for the activities in later classes.
I provided the investigation sheet because towards the end of the course the children will carry out their own investigation and present it to the rest of the class. This will probably be done in pairs or groups. I want them to get used to the planning part of scientific investigations and not just carrying out the investigation.
Here’s a brief outline of the next few weeks:
Class 3: Variables. Another hands on activity (investigating the foam produced by dishwashing liquid). Planning an experiment to do next week.
Class 4: Carrying out the experiments planned in Class 3. Recording the results and drawing conclusions.
Class 5: Analysing results and sharing results (communication and collaboration between scientists). I will show a poster of a scientific experiment so they see one way that scientists share their work with others. Start to plan the experiments they will carry out and present to the group.
Class 6: Carry out the experiments they planned in Class 5. Record results. Discuss and decide if they want to change anything.
Class 7: Final experiments – repeating or changing what they did last week. Starting to prepare their talks or posters for the last week. (The rest of the preparation will need to be done at home.)
Class 8: Final talks/posters, presenting their investigations to the rest of the group.

Young Scientists

PotionsIn May and June this year I trialled a course I called ‘Young Scientists’. I wanted to cover the whole of the ‘Thinking and Working Scientifically’ syllabus here in NSW, and give the children a real chance to understand experiment design.

In our younger group  we spent several weeks exploring liquids, following the instructions in this series of 3 lessons from the Understanding Science website. We started off with a few different liquids in bowls and talked about what they looked like, tasted like, sounded like, felt like (weight). The idea of ‘density’ was introduced. The children had great fun seeing if items floated or sank in the liquid. We briefly looked at what makes different shapes buoyant. We explored miscibility and viscosity and the children mixed bicarbonate of soda, acid (citric acid powder or white vinegar) food colouring, oil, plastic beads and sand to make ‘potions’.

Liquids in jars    Immiscible liquids    Viscosity

The older group started out investigating what might be in some mystery boxes. These were boxes I had prepared earlier with mystery objects inside them. I had done this activity when training as an Explainer in the Science Museum and I think it is a great hands-on metaphor for scientific investigations. Many children were frustrated to learn that they were never going to know if their guesses were correct or not. It was still a good activity. The children really had to think about how they could investigate the boxes without damaging or destroying them, and how they could at least corroborate their guesses even if they would never know for sure what was in the box.

Then we went on to cover testable questions, dependent and independent variables and galaxy classification.

Galaxy classification

Early on in the term I gave the children some handouts for them to record what they were interested in and what questions they wanted to investigate. I was hoping to lead them through a process for designing experiments. At the end of the term I wanted the children to have designed, carried out, recorded and communicated about their own experiments.

This didn’t quite happen as planned. Nevertheless, each child had the opportunity to carry out many experiments, which I tried to link to their interests which they told me about earlier on in the term. I’ll probably forget some of them but these are a selection of the experiments we tried out:

Chromatography

Chromatography before Chromatography after

Using cabbage juice as a pH indicator

Cabbage juice indicator

Pond skaters

Pond Skaters

Candy Snap

Paper Gliders

Moon craters

Dissolving salt

Mentos + Coke

I realised in the middle of the term that this course wasn’t going quite the way I had planned, so I rejigged the sessions (particularly the ones for the older group) to make it more fun. I still hope to repeat this course. Next time I would make sure there is far more of a focus on the children’s own areas of interest.

Children have so much interest in the world around them, and I’d like to tap into this. I might even start off every class with children talking about their questions. Then we can narrow our focus to the questions that can be answered scientifically.

I think the children would need more scaffolding to help them to plan their own experiments. Even with a small group, I find it hard to work with each child individually, so I would probably ask them to get into pairs or groups of three.

I still believe in the importance of children doing science rather than just learning scientific information that has been discovered by someone else. That’s why I wanted to offer this course. It needs a few tweaks but I think I’m on the right track.