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.

The Physical World: Light and Sound

There is so much to cover in this term’s classes. I am a former physical chemist and I probably could spend the whole year going over physics as I enjoy every part of this subject.

We started off with waves, specifically sound and light.

In the first class I told the children we were thinking about these two questions:

What are waves?

What is sound?

I asked them all to say what was the first sound they heard as they woke up in the morning.

We felt our necks while singing, and looked in books about the human body, to find out how human voices produce sound and how it gets to our ears.

In one group we brainstormed different musical instruments and talked about what part of the instrument was vibrating, and classified them into the different groups of instruments (wind, percussion or strings). This was too much discussion and not enough hands-on activity so I dropped it from the class for the next group.

We went around the area with strings hanging from coat hangers to do this ‘secret sounds’ experiment from Science World British Columbia.

From these activities we started to talk about sound as a vibration.

I introduced the term ‘longitudinal wave’ and the children used a slinky to model longitudinal waves and transverse waves.

The children modelled these kinds of waves themselves too, standing in a line.

In the second class we converted plastic milk bottles into vortex cannons, using rubber bands, plastic bags from the supermarket and plenty of duct tape. This was a very fiddly activity and the children needed loads of help and supervision. I would do this differently next time!

For a slightly more advanced version of the vortex cannon see these instructions from G A Brown design, who did this activity in a scout group.

Or for a far larger one, see this video:

The children arranged cards with different colours on, to show the order of colours in the visible part of the spectrum. We talked about how different animals can see ultra-violet and infra-red, so we added them on to the electromagnetic spectrum. We added other electromagnetic waves and some cards to show the wavelengths of all of these waves. I think this went over the children’s heads! Another class I will do some more activities to reinforce ideas of scale and the units we use at different scale.

I also talked about the speed of electromagnetic waves, frequency and wavelength but I think this would need more reinforcement too.

I used UV sensitive tattoos and UV-reactive face paint in one group. The other group has those pleasures to come. I also want to cover the dangers of UV light, and each child has the opportunity to do a presentation about light and how we use our scientific knowledge to solve problems to do with light.