Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Sometimes We Make Slime

One of the courses I am privileged to teach is Methods of Teaching Science for PreK-Middle School. There are challenges in trying to find activities and resources that can be used for all of those grade levels (teaching preschoolers is, after all, a bit different than teaching young adolescents!), so I try to include a range of different activities: some that might work better for early childhood, some for upper elementary, some for middle school. But there are a few activities that we do in the course that seem to work well with every age group, or at least, can be easily adapted for use with any age group.

For example: sometimes we make slime.

Isn't this lovely stuff? You can make some too.
(The recipe...)

Slimes are so wonderfully yucky and tactile, almost every kid loves to play with them. Even my methods students--adults!--get crazy and excited when we break out the slime.
In my science methods course, we explore the idea of the "nature of science." In a nutshell, we take time to develop the idea that "science" is made up of three distinct, but interrelated elements:

  1. "Science" is a Body of Knowledge. Science is a content area; there is a body of knowledge that students should learn in science class. (Though this is often the part that gets all the emphasis, at the expense of the others.) 
  2. "Science" is a Set of Processes. Science is comprised of methods (note that this is plural!), such as observing, measuring, comparing, contrasting, classifying, predicting, hypothesizing, experimenting, analyzing data, inferring, and communicating. These are the sorts of skills used by professional scientists, and student-scientists should develop them as well.
  3. "Science" is a Way of Knowing. I sometimes describe this as "science as an attitude." :-) There are certain habits of mind that scientists employ, such as curiosity, openness to new ideas, healthy skepticism (we want to see the evidence for your claims!), an intellectual honesty about what we know, what we think, and what we wonder about.
In the activities I include as examples for my methods students, I try to model all three of these aspects, so they start to look for activities that do the same for their students: they aren't just fun-and-games (though they should be fun--who said learning can't be enjoyable?), they also are designed to help students learn the content.

Playing with slime can help get all all three of these aspects of the nature of science. How? Here's the way I framed it in class:
  1. The body of knowledge: playing with slime is a great way to explore states of matter. What state of matter is a slime? Is it a solid? Is it a liquid? This can be a great way to check students' understanding, because most slimes don't easily fit into one category (though they tend to be more liquid-like than solid-like...)
  2. The processes: playing with slime is an experience ripe for observation and inference. Depending on the way you might structure the play, it could be a great way for students to make predictions as well. ("What would be the quickest way to move this slime from one bucket to another? Let's try out your plan and see!")
  3. The way of knowing: playing with slime is fun! :-) Allowing students the freedom to learn by playing, and have open communication with classmates about what they are doing and learning creates a space where they can develop a positive attitude toward science learning!
This is how the "nature of science" comes together then: students learn the body of knowledge (content) by practicing the processes (skills) in an environment where the way of knowing (attitude) invites them to participate.

So the future teachers I serve played with slime in class yesterday. They learned by doing. They explored. They shared their learning. They had fun!

Consider having your own students play with some slime! Here are recipes for my two favorite (easy to make!) slimes: Oobleck and Glurch. If you do create some slime, share your slime story with us! What did you do? What did the kids learn? What did you learn?

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