Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Teaching Science with Slime

I love all of the courses I teach, but I have a special affinity for my elementary and middle school science methods course, a course about how to teach science. You see, I was a middle school science teacher for 8 of the 14 years I spent in K-12 schools, so it feels like a big part of my identity. I love science, and I loved teaching science to middle schoolers, and I still love teaching future elementary teachers (who often seem to fear science a bit at the beginning of the semester) about this subject I love so much.

I am currently teaching it for the 13th (or 14th?) time--it's hard to remember, because I've taught it so often. It's comfortable for me, though it probably barely resembles the course I first taught back in the fall of 2008 when I was first an adjunct instructor. Some aspects of the content have remained constant; a few activities have become "classics" that I can't imagine not including in the course.

But here's the problem: I realized this semester that I have become too comfortable with this course. With other (newer) courses taking up more of my time and attention in recent semesters, I've let this one quietly, slowly simmer and evolve in the background. I recognized this fact last semester when I really started shaking up the way I taught the course. And I'm continuing to revise and re-envision what this course should look like.

At the beginning of this semester, I decided it was time to give my syllabus a hard look, and I decided to get my students involved in rethinking the syllabus for me. I shared with them the major topics, and the kinds of approaches I had used in the past, and we spent a whole 75 minute class discussing the kinds of things that they felt like they really wanted to know--science content, teaching methods, assessment ideas, classroom management, teaching with an intentional perspective, and the like. Now, I'm not one to just cater to what students want; there are things that I know they also need even if they might not realize it just yet. (There are quite a few things I learned in my own teacher preparation that I didn't realize I needed until several years in to my professional career...) So while I took their ideas into account, I also shaped the syllabus based on things that I believe will help them become stronger science teachers.

One great idea: instead of just talking about all these aspects of good teaching in isolation, let's make sure that we have the chance to pull them all together. (That's a great idea! Why didn't I think of that?) So while we talked about the different aspects of good science teaching throughout the first half of the course, I'm taking a different approach this semester...something I should have been doing all along!

Today, we made slime. Oobleck, to be precise.

Making oobleck has been a must-do activity in my science methods course since almost the beginning. My students love it. And c'mon...I love it too!

We started by reading a section of one of my favorite Dr. Seuss books, Bartholomew and the Oobleck. In the book, oobleck is a horrible green slime that the King's magicians create because he wants to see something new fall from the sky. Of course, this situation quickly goes from bad to worse, and finally Bartholomew Cubbins, the lowly page, calls out the King for his bad behavior, and...well, I won't spoil the ending for you. It's a lovely book for kids...and for grown-ups too. (Like Dr. Seuss stories so often are.)

After this reading, my students are primed and ready to get their hands messy. Out comes the oobleck! I encourage them to dump out tubs of slime on the tables and start investigating.

You might think that college students would be slow or reserved to start playing with slime.

You would be wrong.

Honestly, they can't wait to roll up their sleeves and get messy!

It's pretty fantastic to see twenty-somethings giggling and ooh-ing about the messy glory that is oobleck. It is a strange slime, after all: the more pressure you put on it, the more solid it becomes. If you relax the pressure, it oozes back into a viscous liquid.

After giving them 10 minutes or so to explore, I started asking some pointed questions:

  • What happens if you let a puddle of it spread out on the table and set your hand in it?
  • What happens if you slap the puddle?
  • Can you keep a ball of it from oozing apart for at least 30 seconds?
  • Could you play catch with a glob of oobleck? Are you brave enough to try it?
  • Imagine you had a styrofoam cup full of oobleck and a plastic spoon. What would be the quickest way to empty the cup?
  • What's the quickest way to clean up your table? (Followed by, "let's try it!" Oh, Mulder...you're so clever...)
Now, so far, so good. This is actually very much how I've used this activity in the past, to be honest. But here's the twist: instead of using it as an example to illustrate some particular science teaching technique, I took my students' advice. They know enough about science pedagogy by this point in the semester, that I put them into some groups to discuss key teaching questions:

  • For which grade levels would this activity be most appropriate? (And why do you think so?)
  • Is this an inquiry investigation? Could it be?
  • What background knowledge would students need to get the most out of this investigation?
  • What future connections could be made by using this investigation as a jumping off point?
  • What perspectival truths could be taught through this sort of activity? 
  • What goals or objectives could this activity help meet?
  • How might we assess students' learning in this activity?
  • What special considerations are there for using this activity?
They had about 20 minutes to think and work and develop some answers. I figured that working in small groups was a safe way for them to have this discussion. And they generated some really great ideas! We wrapped up with a short explanation of the science behind oobleck: it's a non-Newtonian fluid which behaves differently than both solids and liquids.

Was it perfect? Probably not. I still--after all these years--have time management issues in the classroom. I could have reduced the amount of Bartholomew and the Oobleck I read, or eliminated it entirely, perhaps. I could have given them more structure in their investigation. I could have made their investigation even more open-ended. I could have assigned them to figure out why oobleck..."does that."

But was it better than my previous lessons that used the oobleck? I think it was a step in the right direction!

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