Learning Science by Doing Science: 10 Classic Investigations Reimagined to Teach Kids How Science Really Works, Grades 3-8


Alan Colburn

  • Citations
  • Add to My List
  • Text Size

  • Chapters
  • Front Matter
  • Back Matter
  • Subject Index
  • Copyright


    What Your Colleagues Are Saying . . .

    “Now that the real work of NGSS implementation has begun, there is a high demand for quality instructional resources that show how core ideas and concepts, practices, and the nature of science come together in meaningful, intellectually engaging science investigations supported with content and pedagogical background information for the teacher. Thank you, Alan Colburn, for providing a resource that addresses the challenges and practical reality of transitioning to quality classroom instruction that mirrors our current best thinking about teaching and learning science.”

    —Page Keeley
    Past President of the National Science Teachers Association

    “A lot of research points to elementary teachers not feeling comfortable with science education because they don’t have strong background knowledge in science. This book provides an easy to understand method of teaching elementary students how to do science. The sample activities and implementation pointers will help novice teachers approach science education in a thoughtful manner.”

    —Ryan McDonnell, EdD
    Assistant Principal, Animo Jackie Robinson Charter High School

    “Most books of this sort concentrate on theory. This one includes practice, and well thought out and explained examples of how to get your students to meet the chapters’ objectives . . . Elementary teachers may do little to no science teaching that doesn’t involve reading the book and answering the questions. This is a ‘how to’ manual for hands-on, minds-on science inquiry.”

    —Deanna Brunlinger
    NBCT Science Teacher, Science Department Chair, Elkhorn Area High School

    “I think this would be a great book for college classes in teacher education. Future teachers can think about this before ever beginning teaching and go into [it] with the expectation that this is how they should approach science teaching.”

    —Mandy Frantti
    Teacher, Munising Public Schools

    “Many science teachers are struggling when planning using the NGSS. The alignment is not evident. This book shows how to establish connections between science content and the standards (NGSS).”

    —Rosario Canizales, PhD
    Science Lead Teacher, Irene C. Hernandez Middle School

    “The classroom practitioner’s path to authentic, effective science teaching is littered with cast-off ‘how-to’ manuals that are too dense, too pedantic, and too variable. Not in this case. Dr. Alan Colburn builds meaningful context using familiar and accessible activities in a relatable, charmingly modest conversational tone, equipping elementary and middle school science teachers with a trifecta—a firm grounding in the key tenets of science, immediately deliverable classroom activities, and alignment to the Next Generation Science Standards.”

    —Jeff Weld, PhD
    Executive Director, Iowa Governor’s STEM Advisory Council

    Dr. Colburn has taken common activities used in classrooms and expertly retools them utilizing the three dimensions of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) while modeling components of the 5E lesson design and making explicit connections to the Nature of Science (NOS). This book is a must read for new and experienced science educators and expands the connections and possibilities of familiar activities in the new NGSS context.

    —David Crowther, PhD
    Executive Director, Raggio Research Center for STEM Education
    Professor, Science Education, University of Nevada, Reno


    I started my professional life thinking about going to medical school and becoming a doctor, so I volunteered to work in a hospital after my first year of college to learn more about the medical world. I discovered hospitals had a lot of sick people, who were understandably in bad moods. It didn’t take long for my career plans to change.

    I was working that summer in a hospital lab where I was supposed to look through a microscope at a large square grid showing patients’ stained blood samples. It was like looking at spots on graph paper. I was supposed to randomly choose five squares and count the total number of cells I saw inside the squares. But the number I got depended on which squares I examined, as well as how I counted cells that were partway in one square and partway in another.

    Although the technicians in the lab helped me with these issues, I learned that doing science was not as cut and dried as I thought from school. In my K–12 education, I’d come to see science as absolutes. The formula said F = ma, and the book said limestone fizzed when you dropped acid on it. If the numbers didn’t come out the way they were supposed to, or the rock didn’t fizz, I did something wrong. I screwed up somewhere.

    It turned out science wasn’t all objectivity and getting the right answer. Sometimes, it seemed, it was subjective. It wasn’t (always) me screwing up somewhere that accounted for my “wrong answers.”

    In this hospital lab, I was being initiated into the way science really worked. And I’d like to do the same thing for you and your students.

    Science Class Then and Now

    Science is coming back to elementary schools, receiving more emphasis than it has for a generation. World economics has brought renewed attention to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics; STEM seems to be everywhere. More and more states are including science as a part of their K–8 testing score cards. And, most important of all, new standards are sweeping the nation. One by one, little by little, states are adopting the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) or similar standards as their own. If you are reading this, there’s a good chance you teach in one of those states. This book is about the kind of science envisioned by documents like NGSS. It is about helping students understand what the nature of science is, how it works, and how they can practice it the way the scientists do.

    This means that the elementary or middle school science classroom can be really different from the cookbook labs and round-robin textbook reading that science classes have commonly looked like for decades. The NGSS vision is different from the one I was raised with. Maybe it’s different from the one you were raised with, too. You’re familiar with what we often call a cookbook activity if you have ever experienced a science lab where you followed a series of predetermined steps (like the steps in a recipe), filling in a premade table, wondering whether you got the “right answer.” Someone else told you what to investigate, how to do it, what to pay attention to along the way, and what you were supposed to have learned. Someone else, in other words, did all the thinking.

    NGSS, on the other hand, is built around science instruction that’s always about students exploring and explaining the world around them, using a combination of specific and general ideas combined with underlying mental processes. The NGSS authors call the specific ideas disciplinary core ideas and the more general ideas crosscutting concepts.

    The intertwined mental processes are science and engineering practices. I discuss NGSS more in Appendix A for readers unfamiliar with it.

    The eight science and engineering practices describe what scientists do; the eight understandings about the nature of science describe characteristics of the knowledge that results. A classroom with students exploring and explaining, using SEPs, is almost certainly also a classroom where students are illustrating key tenets about the nature of science. In a real sense, it’s a classroom where students are doing science.

    Why You Need This Book

    In the years that followed that summer hospital experience, I studied science, worked in science labs, taught high school, and eventually became a college professor. I learned that most elementary school teachers don’t like, feel comfortable with, or feel successful in science. Many are afraid of it. That’s not surprising. Most people feel the same way. As one who teaches children you may have added concerns: What if something blows up? What if it gets really noisy and I lose control of the classroom? What if a kid asks me something I don’t know?! These are legitimate feelings and concerns.

    These worries may keep you from teaching science, or turn science into reading lessons about the natural world. Maybe, through the years, you have grown comfortable teaching a handful of science topics, a few set procedures you feel comfortable doing with your students year after year—but that’s all. Or maybe science is a hands-on adventure in your classroom, with students exploring the world around them every day, all year long.

    Regardless of where you fall in this spectrum, if you are reading this book, you know science is important and undoubtedly recognize the times they are a-changin’ (and you recognize Bob Dylan lyrics). You care enough to put the time in to read a book about science teaching, and you have the desire to teach science effectively. For that I thank you.

    You are probably less familiar with the NGSS science and engineering practices than their entwined content ideas. That’s because science has often been taught as if it was nothing but content ideas—we’re taught the conclusions, with little context for understanding where the ideas came from or how anyone figured this stuff out. However, science and engineering practices, when applied to data—our observations about the natural world—are ultimately the source of all scientific knowledge. And that’s what this book is about: science and engineering practices, the nature of scientific knowledge, and how to help your students understand these the way real scientists do. There’s an added payoff: When students are engaged in the kinds of hands-on, open-ended investigation activities I describe, they learn and apply science and engineering practices as a means toward learning science ideas. They learn science by doing science.

    If you are implementing NGSS or other similar state science standards in your classroom, and you want to understand what you’re doing, you must understand what’s in this book. You really do.

    Nothing about scientific knowledge and where it comes from makes sense except in the light of clear, convincing thinking about data. Science and engineering practices are about asking questions, collecting data to figure out answers and explanations (sometimes with help from mathematics, computers, and models), and ultimately convincing others the answers and explanations are valid. NGSS envisions your classroom as a place students are learning science by exploring and explaining.

    I recognize this may sound a little scary if you’ve always felt uncomfortable around science. But fear not. I’ll illustrate ideas with classroom activities you can relate to and give examples based on real scientists and their work. You can try the activities with your students. Most of the investigation activities I’ve chosen are classics that teachers have been implementing successfully for generations. That means they are tried and true, you may be able to find other teachers familiar with the activities, and you can find lots of additional guidance and resources. The best way to learn science is to do science, and doing science works better if you understand how science works. That’s what I’m going to show you.

    How to Use This Book

    You will get the most from this book if you read it in order, chapter by chapter. It’s not a strict requirement, but some of the ideas in later chapters build on earlier ones. I tried to write as succinctly as possible so reading the whole book would not be burdensome.

    Each chapter discusses at least one investigation activity appropriate to the 3–8 level that you could teach in your classroom. The activities are hands-on examples of ideas I discuss in the same chapter. Even when I mention particular grade levels, the investigations are almost universally appropriate across the Grades 3–8 spectrum; in some cases, I discuss how they might be taught differently in elementary and middle school. So, even if you decide not to teach an activity right away, or it seems to be aimed at grade levels other than yours, it still provides an example or application of an important idea related to the nature of scientific knowledge. Beside the practical application, and chance to introduce you to an investigation activity you might not be familiar with, I figure classroom examples might feel closer to your experiences as teachers than stories of scientists in their labs.

    Each chapter is organized similarly, with common features to make this book easier for you to work with. These features include:

    • Try It! These are step-by-step directions for a classroom investigation activity. Activities are presented as succinct plans for easy reference, including not only directions, but also necessary materials, NGSS connections, and other useful information, usually followed by a brief description of how the investigation activity fits with one or more aspects of the 5E or learning-cycle model of instruction.
    • I try to include enough detail for you to be successful, without inundating you with too much information or slighting your teaching skills with details about nonscience teaching related classroom management. Although I provide some guidance about grade level appropriateness, you know your students and their abilities; I do not. So take my guidance with a grain of salt, and use your own judgment about what’s more and less appropriate for your kids.
    • Teaching Tips provide hints, suggestions, tips and other supporting ideas to deepen your understanding and readiness to execute one or more of an activity’s steps. One of the really nice things about discussing time-tested activities is how easily you can find more information online related to an activity, if you feel the need for it. But I provide a couple of starting places for most of them.
    • What’s Going On in the Science? provides additional information about the science content ideas being illustrated and developed within an investigation. This book is about science and engineering practices, and the nature of scientific knowledge, but there’s no such thing as a content-free activity. This section provides a little background.
    • Practices in Practice sections discuss connections between an investigation activity and one or more of NGSS’s science and engineering practices. Most of these sections also include a slightly more extended discussion about one or more of the practices, including information contrasting expectations for students in Grades 3–5 compared to those in Grades 6–8.
    • Connecting to the Nature of Science sections discuss connections with specific aspects of the nature of science illustrated in the activity. The conception of science and science’s methods that students often get in school and even the larger society is somewhat inaccurate. Real science is richer, more creative, more human, and I think ultimately much more interesting than how it’s often portrayed.

    But wait, there’s more! A third of the chapters include Case in Point case studies of real scientists, further illustrating how science works in real life, as well as some of the human aspects of science difficult to illustrate with classroom activities. They are written with language simple enough that you might feel comfortable sharing them with your students.

    In addition, I’d like to draw your attention to the appendices. Appendix A provides a brief overview for readers completely unfamiliar with NGSS. I’m not assuming anything beyond the most basic familiarity with these standards, and always provide greater discussion whenever writing about parts of the document you’re more likely to be unfamiliar with—its appendices, as well as the National Research Council’s Framework for K–12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas, the foundation document to NGSS. I usually refer to it simply as the Science Framework.

    Whatever I have to offer, I recognize teachers prefer guidance from their peers more than anyone else. I do, too. So for Appendix B I talked with several of my colleagues with extensive experience teaching at the elementary and middle levels to get their specific suggestions about teaching hands-on open-ended science activities. They offer advice you don’t want to miss.

    In the pages to come, I’ll show you how ideas about the nature of science, and science and engineering practices connect to science and the classroom. Together we will make sure you can show your students, and have them experience for themselves, how clear thinking about data leads scientists—and students—to new ideas.

    It’s not scary. It’s fun. If you’ve never seen how excited kids can get when engaged in hands-on, inquiry-based science, you are in for a treat. You can do this. I know you can do this. So let’s get started!


    Writing a book is an interesting experience. On one hand, it’s a solitary activity. You sit in a room and write, by yourself. But on the other hand, lots of other people are involved. Without them, this book wouldn’t be nearly as good as it is. My science colleagues Lora Stevens, Galen Pickett, and Christine Whitcraft graciously let me interview them, providing insights into how cutting-edge scientific research works. Josh Chesler provided information about graphical data display in elementary and middle school classrooms. Jill Grace, Marissa Stillitano, Amy Argento, and Susan Gomez-Zwiep shared their extensive elementary and middle school science teaching experiences, helping a college professor look like he understands teaching in today’s classrooms.

    Thomas Anderson (www.thomasanderson.net) created the book’s illustrations. I think he did a great job.

    My editor at Corwin, Erin Null, has been with me throughout the project. She’s been instrumental in guiding the work to what you hold in your hands. The book is much better thanks to her tireless and professional efforts.

    I started my teaching career in 1986. Through the years I’ve taught most of this book’s activities to many students, most of whom are now experienced teachers themselves. Throughout the book, I stress the importance of relevant concrete background experience toward learning. Teaching these students has been my relevant concrete experience.

    Finally, I want to recognize my wife Laura. She’s been nothing but supportive, even when I was racing to meet writing deadlines, barely able to think about anything else. I am grateful for her support and guidance. Thank you, sweetie pie. You are so the one.

    Publisher’s Acknowledgments

    Corwin would like to thank the following individuals for their editorial insight and guidance:

    Deanna Brunlinger

    NBCT Science Teacher, Science Department Chair

    Elkhorn Area High School

    Elkhorn, WI

    Rosario Canizales, PhD

    Science Lead Teacher

    Irene C. Hernandez Middle School

    Chicago, IL

    Mandy Frantti


    Munising Public Schools

    Munising, MI

    Dr. Rita Hagevik

    University of North Carolina at Pembroke

    Graduate Director of Science Education, Associate Professor

    Pembroke, NC

    Linda Keteyian


    Detroit Public Schools

    Detroit, MI

    Olayinka Mohorn-Mintah

    Science Teacher, 9–12

    Chicago Public Schools

    Chicago, IL

    Christine Ruder


    Truman Elementary School

    Rolla, MO

    Tom Shiland

    Chemistry Teacher

    Saratoga Springs High School

    Saratoga Springs, NY

    Tony Willits

    Raymond Park Middle School

    Eighth Grade Science Teacher

    Indianapolis, IN

    About the Author

    Dr. Alan Colburn is Professor of Science Education at California State University Long Beach, where he has been a faculty member since 1995. Recipient of CSULB’s Distinguished Faculty Teaching Award, he holds a PhD in Science Education, an MS and BS in Biology, and a science teaching credential. Dr. Colburn has written and presented extensively during his career, including a previous book, monthly column in The Science Teacher magazine, and sections about instructional models, the 5E model of instruction, and the nature of science in California’s Science Curriculum Framework.


    To all the students I’ve taught in the last 30 years, and all those still to come.

    Thank you for the meaning you’ve given my life.

  • Appendix A: An Introduction to the Next Generation Science Standards

    Science standards in the past were generally created by individual states or national organizations. If you currently teach, or were recently a K–12 student, you are probably familiar with your state’s standards. Educational standards in the United States are adopted on a state-by-state basis. We have no legally binding national standards. Nevertheless, organizations have created national standards documents. Examples in science include 1996’s National Science Education Standards, developed by the National Research Council and 1993’s Benchmarks for Science Literacy, developed by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

    Early in the 2010s, a consortium that included the National Research Council, AAAS, National Science Teachers Association, Achieve (a nonprofit organization involved in developing standards in other subject areas), and a consortium of about half the U.S. states developed new science standards—the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

    NGSS’s supporters are interested in making common science standards in the United States, as found in many other countries. Nevertheless, each state individually adopts standards, deciding whether their science standards will be based entirely, partially, or not at all on NGSS. In my state, California, officials solicited—and received—quite a bit of public feedback before adopting a slightly customized version of NGSS as the state’s science standards in 2013. You may also live in a state that has adopted NGSS as its legal standards.

    NGSS differs from past science standards in a few key ways. First, NGSS addresses fewer science concepts than other standards. U.S. science standards have long been criticized for being “a mile wide and an inch deep,” addressing many ideas superficially at the expense of devoting instructional time to helping students develop deeper understandings of key ideas.

    The teams behind NGSS (and the National Research Council’s K–12 Science Framework, the foundation document for the Standards) tried to identify science’s core ideas, accenting big, explanatory ideas and ideas that might be personally or socially useful to citizens. They called these disciplinary core ideas. Disciplinary core ideas, or DCI’s, are statements about science content that may be akin to the kinds of science standards you are accustomed to seeing. Every NGSS student performance expectation includes a disciplinary core idea.

    NGSS’s authors also recognized some ideas are not limited to individual science disciplines; some ideas are shared or cut across all sciences. The authors called these crosscutting concepts. Every NGSS student performance expectation also includes a crosscutting concept.

    For purposes of this book, however, the most important difference between NGSS and past standards is an increased emphasis on the kinds of thinking constantly employed by anyone doing science, which the authors called science’s practices. In addition, recognizing how often science and its use in the wider world are connected, the authors included not only science practices, but also engineering practices. Together, they called these science and engineering practices. Every NGSS student performance expectation includes a science and engineering practice.

    Putting it together, all NGSS’s performance expectations include disciplinary core ideas (DCIs), crosscutting concepts (CCCs), and science and engineering practices (SEPs). For example, one performance expectation says

    Students who demonstrate understanding can:

    5-LS2-1: Develop a model to describe the movement of matter among plants, animals, decomposers, and the environment. [Clarification Statement: Emphasis is on the idea that matter that is not food (air, water, decomposed materials in soil) is changed by plants into matter that is food. Examples of systems could include organisms, ecosystems, and the Earth.] [Assessment Boundary: Assessment does not include molecular explanations.]

    Here’s how to understand what it says. The content ideas within the performance expectation are about interdependent relationships within ecosystems, and how matter and energy cycle in ecosystems. The idea of a system, and describing systems in terms of their component parts, is one of NGSS’s crosscutting concepts. And students being asked to develop a model to describe (and explain) what’s happening in an ecosystem is one of the science and engineering practices.

    I know all this because I retrieved the performance expectation from the NGSS website (www.nextgenscience.org), more specifically http://nextgenscience.org/pe/5-ls2-1-ecosystems-interactions-energy-and-dynamics. Take a look, hovering your mouse over various words in the performance expectation.

    Note also how the performance expectation is labeled. It’s 5-LS2-1. The “5” means it’s a fifth-grade standard. Middle school performance expectations are all prefixed “MS.” “LS” means it’s life science, and “LS2-1” specifically refers to the Science Framework’s LS2 core idea.

    The people behind NGSS created an extensive website. The URL is www.nextgenscience.org. More information about how to read the standards is online at www.nextgenscience.org/how-to-read-the-standards. On the NGSS website, you will find useful resources about understanding the standards, their relationships to each other, how student abilities develop over time and experience, etc. The site also presents a search engine allowing you to explore the document in all sorts of ways. The National Science Teachers Association’s website is also a great resource for learning more about NGSS (ngss.nsta.org).

    This book, however, is not about NGSS. It’s about the nature of science, NGSS’s science and engineering practices, and understanding how instruction can help students understand these ideas. The eight NGSS science and engineering practices are

    • Asking Questions (for science) and Defining Problems (for engineering)
    • Developing and Using Models
    • Planning and Carrying Out Investigations
    • Analyzing and Interpreting Data
    • Using Mathematics and Computational Thinking
    • Constructing Explanations (for science) and Designing Solutions (for engineering)
    • Engaging in Argument From Evidence
    • Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information

    Each NGSS performance expectation includes one of these SEPs; practices are central and vital to NGSS.

    The practices themselves are discussed more fully in the NRC’s K–12 Science Framework. As I write this, a print version of the document can be purchased, or read online free at www.nap.edu/catalog/13165/a-framework-for-k-12-science-education-practices-crosscutting-concepts (or http://bit.ly/292Gtx8).

    Appendix B: Teacher to Teacher

    Advice From Elementary and Middle School Colleagues

    Throughout this book, I have discussed hands-on, inquiry-based science activities appropriate for students in Grades 3–8. Most of the activities are classics or otherwise taught often in real-life classrooms. With only minor changes, the activities work well throughout the entire third- to eighth-grade spectrum. As readers, I recognize you as skilled teachers, knowledgeable about your students, your classrooms, and the kinds of activity modifications you would need to increase the chances of student success.

    Nevertheless, I also realize you might feel a little more confident with added information or guidance about teaching open-ended science activities to students in your grade levels. To help answer those questions, I went directly to the field, interviewing four of my colleagues uniquely poised to help because they regularly work with both Grade 3–5 and 6–8 teachers. This chapter summarizes what they told me.

    Jill Grace is an elementary science specialist and middle school teacher, which means she’s taught science at both the elementary and middle levels. She’s currently mentoring other K–8 teachers learning to implement NGSS’s practices as a regional director for the K–12 Alliance/WestEd. Marissa Stillittano and Amy Argento are both former teachers of the year for the Torrance Unified School District, in Torrance, California. They’re currently on assignments as science resource teachers in that district. Marissa taught seventh-grade science for 10 years, and Amy taught sixth-grade science for 6 years, fifth grade for 3, and fourth grade for 1. Susan Gomez-Zwiep is one of my colleagues in the Science Education Department at California State University Long Beach. Susan also has extensive experience teaching both middle- and elementary-level science.

    I was initially seeking information about how this book’s activities differed by grade level, so I asked them questions like, “How does teaching mystery powders differ when taught to Grade 3–5 students versus 6–8 students?” All four teachers stressed similarities teaching the activities to different grades levels, however. The differences they expressed related to broader levels outside the details of individual activities.

    Working With Younger Children

    Naturally, they notice differences between younger and older students. Differences exist, for example, in their thinking abilities. I discussed age-related cognitive differences throughout this book when writing about student expectations for applying science practices. But Jill heavily stressed the need for both content and behavioral expectations to be concrete, visible, and tangible with Grade 3–5 students, while she and Susan talked about Grade 6–8 students as being more varied in their thinking abilities. Older students are expected to be a little more developed in their abstract reasoning skills.

    Most of the science content in this book’s activities, the ideas and concepts, are pretty tangible; that’s why they are appropriate for multiple grade levels. In addition, using common materials and, whenever possible, tapping into students’ experiences helps make the activities less cognitively demanding as well.

    Emotional differences between Grade 3–5 and 6–8 students are also readily apparent to all four teachers. Elementary students are really curious and even more enthusiastic than middle-level students. Younger children readily share their ideas, feeling less inhibited than middle school students about whether or not their ideas are “correct.” This lack of inhibition fits well with the open-ended natures of this book’s activities. It is great for teachers interested in understanding and responding to children’s ideas, because the children share those ideas with little prompting. In fact, I think middle school teachers are sometimes jealous of the enthusiasm they see in elementary kids.

    Elementary teachers know the enthusiasm, however, is accompanied by impulsiveness, short attention spans, and a great divergence of ideas being expressed. Although important to science, sometimes teachers fear this latter point, worried children will ask questions the teachers don’t know how to answer. With inquiry-based instruction, however, not knowing the answer to a question often presents the chance for teacher and student to figure something out together. Questions are often investigable and a response of “I don’t know. . . . Let’s see if we can find out!” or “What an interesting question! How do you think we can find the answer to that?” can lead to some pretty cool explorations.

    Even while elementary teachers probably spend more time redirecting students than do middle school teachers, as Susan pointed out, Marissa and Amy repeatedly stressed how children find good, well-planned, activity-based science lessons to be extremely engaging. A question answered with “I don’t know” is but a momentary distraction to a child engaged in exploring straw structures, and is certainly not a harrowing experience from the child’s perspective.

    Jill added a few specific suggestions of her own related to Grade 3–5 students’ enthusiastic, impulsive, distractible nature when it comes to teaching science. She advises a prelaboratory lesson that’s fast yet clear and simple, not burdened with lots of rules and presentations, so that those short attention spans can get going. Once instructed to connect a battery, bulb, and wire to make the bulb light, perhaps with a brief discussion about ideas students have about how to make that happen, for example, students (already trained in proper laboratory behaviors) can get right to work!

    To get kids used to having materials out and available at individual work tables, without being overly distracted by the materials, she also suggested always having something out early in the school year to teach whatever lessons need to be taught about how to deal with materials, while simultaneously getting students used to having stuff out so they learn.

    Teachers should similarly think through how to distribute materials to students as quickly and efficiently as possible. If all the materials a group will need are in a tub or small container, a selected student can grab the container for the groups. If watching ice melt on different materials, for example, the teacher could make up tubs with blocks of metal, plastic, a cup of ice cubes, and paper towels (for clean-up) ahead of time, call one student from each classroom table to get the group’s materials, and get students working independently quickly. The “materials distributors” are preselected, chosen specifically by teacher or by some seat-related system, for example, the seat with the “yellow dot.” (Although Jill was talking about Grade 3–5 students, the point applies just as strongly to 6–8 students.)

    If one part of an activity is slightly more unsafe than the rest, teachers can have a station where they directly supervise students when performing the activity. In Mystery Powders, for example, an activity involving a lit tealight candle might be performed only at one station under the supervision of a teacher (or perhaps another adult volunteer in the classroom). Finally, on the other end of the attention spectrum, Jill also noted the value in not removing materials children are still observing or otherwise fascinated by, if at all possible.

    Susan added that Grade 3–5 student expectations for communication differ from those for Grade 6–8 students. Non-written communication is more common with the younger students, like talking about results or summarizing data together in a big chart or table. Older students typically have higher expectations for recording, summarizing, and communicating their thinking via writing. Whatever grade levels you may be teaching, in an era when writing and communication skills are stressed and assessed at multiple levels, I am certain you are aware of your school or community’s expectations about how your students should be communicating, so I won’t expand on the point here.

    Differentiated Instruction and the Use of Instructional Stations

    Elementary and middle school teachers must both work within very diverse classroom settings. Educators discuss accommodating these differences so much that in some districts differentiated instruction seems to imply not only a concept, but a particular set of teacher behaviors or pedagogical approaches. And among those approaches, the use of instructional stations seems to be one of the more common ones employed during science instruction. Marissa, Amy, and Jill all discussed it.

    Amy, for example, discussed at length classroom activities with students working in stations and the activities differentiated for student ability levels via “differentiation cards.” They’re literal cards, perhaps even laminated ahead of time, for students approaching an activity from different levels. “Helper cards” provides hints or tips some students may want for starting the activity. “Extension 1 cards” provide an additional activity for students finishing early, and “Extension 2 cards” provide a challenging activity for those finished with the activity and its extension. The tasks are set so the majority of students will complete the Extension 1 activity.

    As a listener, my first thought was the technique would require a lot of work! Amy and Marissa pointed out, though, that one does not always need to have three cards for every station; sometimes there might be just one extension activity, for example. They also pointed out that extensions are sometimes questions to answer—like the “exit tickets” so popular in K–12 classrooms—rather than entirely new activities. That made the concept seem more realistic to me, as did the recognition that not every activity must have extensions, etc. It’s a suggestion for some activities, not a rule to be followed for every activity. Further, some stations may be duplicates of others. A classroom with 10 stations might only have five unique stations, with each one duplicated.

    In an activity like Sinking and Floating, for example, when students are shaping a piece of clay to make it float, a helper card might encourage students to try molding clay into a bowl shape or suggest they make their clay thin when testing whether various shapes will float. An extension activity might challenge students to make a “boat” that can hold a given amount of weight, and a second extension activity might challenge students to make an object that is simply suspended in water, neither floating nor sinking, like a submerged submarine standing still in the water. Because this activity takes longer than simply placing objects in water and predicting whether or not they will float, students spend more time at the station, and it might be worth having multiple stations with clay so they don’t all bunch up together.

    Because stations are so widespread in elementary school science, especially when teachers have issues related to insufficient materials for all students, I asked Amy and Marissa about common fears holding teachers back from experimenting with stations. On the issue of insufficient space for stations, they told me the issue can be addressed with a little creativity. Stations can be on bookshelves, student desks (if the desks are in groups), the floor, and even outside the classroom—kids can go outside, go to the cafeteria, etc. This jibes with the way Jill treats the entire classroom as a laboratory on days when students are performing open-ended hands-on activities. She may keep students outside the classroom door, preparing them for the special circumstances of working in “the lab,” like they are entering a special, privileged space (which includes new behavioral expectations).

    I think some Grade 3–5 teachers may also fear all the movement in the classroom, if the teacher and students aren’t used to this. “Kids will be moving around and messing around and I can’t control them. There’s only one of me. I can’t be everywhere!” For this issue my experts recommended starting small, trying stations with a subject in which you feel comfortable. Or trying stations in science, but starting with a gallery walk, where the stations are photos students answer questions about. For example, in the activity where students examine photos of animal skulls, predicting whether the animals are carnivores or herbivores, the photos could be spread around the classroom with students given one minute to look at a photo, decide if they think it’s from a carnivore or herbivore, and write what they saw leading them to their conclusions. After 1 minute, the teacher makes everyone rotate to the next station. Students who don’t finish can come back later (after lunch, etc.) or even take photos down to look at later.

    Jill mentioned another variation, where some fraction of the class (say one-third) are at a station with the teacher, while the rest of the students are engaged in independent seat work.

    From a management perspective, everyone agreed it was important that group sizes and tasks be assigned in ways such that there were enough materials and groups were small enough that every student had something to do at all times. When students are engaged in tasks they feel capable of completing, and they understand what they are supposed to be doing, behavioral problems diminish. You already know that!

    The part you may be less aware of comes from adding in students having some choices in what they are doing—which always happens in somewhat open-ended hands-on science activities. If the other conditions are present (clear directions, students understanding and feeling capable, sufficient materials, everyone having something to do), behavioral problems diminish even further and the classroom becomes even happier and more productive. (Or, if opening things up this way feels a little intimidating, choices can be made at the group level rather than individuals. Teams can try to reach consensus or, if necessary, make their ultimate decision the old-fashioned way—rock, paper, scissors.)

    Working With Middle School Children

    Turning specifically to middle school, Susan, Jill, Marissa, and Amy all described Grades 6–8 children as being more sophisticated than younger children, but also more complacent. They think a little more abstractly than younger children and communicate with more sophisticated language. They also learn from text more readily than younger children. But, by the time they reach Grades 6–8, children often have become accustomed to direct instruction. Following rules, getting “right answers,” and avoiding trouble by doing what the teacher expects are high on their list of in school concerns. Middle school teachers hear questions like “How long do we have?”; “What are the rules?”; “Are we allowed to . . . ?”; “Is it OK to do. . . ?”; “Am I doing this right?” Where younger children pay attention to anything and everything, older children pay attention to each other and depend upon the teacher.

    So some of the challenges to middle school teachers interested in inquiry-based instruction relate to helping students learn to do things by and for themselves, and tapping into the curiosity they still have. Marissa, Amy, and Jill each mentioned asking questions or statements as important ways to draw out students’ curiosities. “What do you think would happen if . . . ?”; “How do you think we might <do> . . . ?”; “What do you think should come next?” are all examples of questions middle school-aged children can often handle, which simultaneously helps draw out their curiosity. (Meanwhile, I have stressed the value of similar questions throughout this book as starting points for helping students understand what science is and how science works. Asking, “what do you think would happen if” questions taps into curiosity, following up with a statement about how scientists make and test predictions reinforces a lesson about how science works.)

    To help develop students’ independence, not always relying on the teacher for confirmation or directions, Jill mentioned simply not always answering questions or problems for students—instead suggesting they figure out a solution on their own—and rewarding or recognizing the students when they have struggled, whether they succeeded or not. She also pointed out the advantages to teachers in not rewarding work simply because it’s “pretty,” as in a child spending hours carefully coloring a picture and then being rewarded for his or her attractive results. Some of the messy papers can get just as much credit, too.

    Finally, early adolescents—especially boys becoming accustomed to their new bodies—sometimes treat materials rather harshly. Any middle school teacher or parent who has seen kids slam notebooks down understands this point. This is not always great for the materials, so Jill pointed out the need to instruct and reinforce students in how to move carefully through the laboratory and always treat materials gently.

    Working Together

    In my conversations, I was also struck by the importance everyone placed on students learning to work together productively and maturely in groups. Grade 3–5 students have issues from one student in a group taking over and being bossy, as well as the tears that can come when feelings are hurt. Grade 6–8 students have issues from off-task behavior, students fooling around, and students paying more attention to each other than instructional tasks. And students of both ages can have issues when one student “mooches” off the rest, doing little or no work, possibly diminishing an activity’s value to others.

    Each person also talked about the need to train students to work together, how they need instruction, practice, more practice, and reinforcement to help them develop social skills and collaboration skills to work together cooperatively and productively. Managing materials and tasks to make sure each student has something important and specific to do helps a lot (as does giving each child a different color to write with, which permits monitoring each individual’s contributions). Jill discussed roles students can be assigned in groups, like having a single person responsible for getting or putting away materials, or allowing only one person in each group to ask questions of the teacher (accenting how assigning this “communicator” role can decrease the demands on teachers when lots of students are asking questions and vying for their attention). But, through it all, training and retraining are still vital. Persevering to make the skills routine pays off. The skills can be learned within lessons in any subject areas, not just science, and their values transcend school. We all need to know how to get along and work together for success in life as well as school. Jill put it this way:

    I do think it’s worth it for teachers to hear that the struggle is worth it, especially when having kids work in teams and needing to communicate with each other. Things may not go as you planned the first couple times, kids may goof off, but given time, students will usually exceed your expectations. When this happens, the learning that comes from the collaboration is extraordinary.

    Classroom Management

    Although my colleagues discussed cognitive and emotional differences between upper-elementary and middle school children, differentiating instruction, and group work, it was clear to me the key skills prerequisite to success in activity-based science related to classroom management. If you have a good lesson, with clear directions students understand and feel capable of completing, with sufficient materials and everyone having something to do, then you and your students are going to have a good day!

    Here, however, are seven specific management suggestions my experts noted:

    Use and practice using an attention signal when you want students to transition from working independently with materials to paying attention to the teacher. In the case of inquiry-based science this seems to often include an action where students literally take their hands off the materials (hands on the table, or in the air, or on their shoulders, etc.).

    Teach students time management. As activities progress, warn students a few minutes before they will be moving on to something else. Project a timer for students to monitor.

    Think proactively. Think through an activity, anticipating places where students might behave inappropriately and see if materials can be structured to minimize the probability of misbehavior. Similar thinking can be used for grouping students. The best way to deal with problems is to figure out how to avoid them in the first place. If you anticipate a few students would use food coloring inappropriately during the Milk Fireworks activity, structure the activity so other students handle the material, and it’s not passed out until it’s needed.

    Catch them being good. Correcting misbehavior only goes so far. Recognizing expected behaviors, even calling parents to let them know, has more long-lasting effects than trying to change misbehavior.

    Communicate clear expectations. Students can only behave properly if they know exactly what that means. Children understand science ideas concretely and tangibly—and they often understand teacher expectations the same way. Expectations should be clear, described via observables, few in number, and repeated often.

    Make routines routine. Along the same lines, routines should not only be taught but used extensively, predictably, and daily (especially for absent minded middle school students). If the teacher has a special routine for transitioning from whole-group work to laboratory activities, for example, students should be taught the routine, practice it, be recognized for meeting expectations, and then the same routine should be used at the beginning of all laboratory activities.

    Model new skillsbefore students go on to practice them. Help students see and hear what they are expected to do, rather than only communicating the ideas verbally. It’s all about clarity. If students working with Mystery Powders have never used eye droppers before, show them how it’s done, maybe even have them practice with water before moving on to the activity itself.

    Everyone I spoke to agreed transitioning to new instructional methods takes time. Sometimes it takes patience, too. I tried to show you how to transition slowly in another appendix, but I recognize open-ended, inquiry-based science to help students learn about the nature of science and science practices can be a bit daunting for a few weeks.

    Once you get the hang of it, though, once you see how excited and engaged students get during the activities, once you see how much more interesting, fun, engaging, and ultimately easier—that’s right, easier—it is to teach good open-ended activities than cookbook procedures, you will never want to go back again!

    Enjoy the journey.


    5E model:

    an updated version of the learning-cycle model of instruction, adding explicit instructional phases for engaging students’ attention and evaluating their learning; usually discussed in terms of its five instructional phases—Engage, Explore, Explain, Elaborate, Evaluate. See also learning-cycle instructional model.

    Categorical variable:

    variables with two or more categories, and no inherent order to the categories.

    Conceptual change:

    a model defining learning as the process of changing preconceived ideas about how the world works; usually discussed in terms of learners changing ideas, frameworks, or mental models to better align with current scientific understandings.

    Continuous variable:

    see numeric variable.

    Controlled variables:

    in an experiment, controlled variables are factors the experimenter consciously keeps the same to ensure a fair test; ideally, the independent variable is the only difference between groups being tested.

    Crosscutting concepts:

    the overarching ideas shaping the worldview or framework NGSS’s authors believe scientists use when understanding the natural world.

    Deductive reasoning:

    the activity of using well established general premises to create more specific conclusions; often used when testing explanations by making predictions about specific situations.

    Demarcation problem:

    the philosophical issue of distinguishing what is and is not science.

    Dependent variable:

    in an experiment, the dependent variable is the measurement or observation being recorded as a result of changing the independent variable; it’s the experiment’s outcome data.

    Disciplinary core ideas:

    the concepts or ideas NGSS’s authors believe everyone should know and understand; NGSS’s content core.

    Discrepant event:

    a demonstration that produces an unexpected outcome, something differing from what students’ previous experiences would lead them to believe was true.

    Empirical evidence:

    the kind of evidence that comes from the senses—seeing, smelling, listening, etc.; often referred to as synonymous with data.

    Fair test:

    a controlled scientific investigation; an investigation where the experimenter strives to keep all variables the same other than the one being investigated. Differences in the dependent variable can then be attributed to the independent variable.


    investigable scientific claims; they can be theory-like explanations or law-like generalizations.

    Indirect evidence:

    evidence establishing a conclusion only when combined with one or more inferences; also called circumstantial evidence. All evidence other than direct eyewitness observations is considered indirect.

    Independent variable:

    in an experiment, the independent variable is the factor the experimenter is consciously changing or testing, it’s the thing he or she is trying to find out about.

    Inductive reasoning:

    the activity of using details, observations, and other information to make or infer a generalization.

    Interval data:

    see numeric data.

    Learning cycle:

    an instructional model in which students explore ideas before being formally introduced to them, and then use their learning in new contexts afterwards; usually discussed in terms of exploration, content introduction, and application instructional phases.

    Nominal variable:

    see categorical variable.

    Numeric variable:

    variables that are number measurements.

    Operational questions:

    questions that can be investigated and answered directly with evidence from an investigation.

    Ordered variable:

    variables with separate categories, but an inherent order to the categories.

    Ordinal variable:

    see ordered variable.


    things in the natural world that can we can observe and wonder about.

    Randomized, controlled experiment:

    an experimental procedure in which test subjects are randomly assigned to various treatment or control groups; random assignment minimizes preexisting differences among experimental groups.

    Ratio-level variable:

    see numeric variable.

    Retrospective experiment:

    an experimental procedure in which researchers begin with an effect and search backward in time to find potential causes, examining differences in subjects that did and did not exhibit the effect.

    Science and engineering practices:

    the behaviors and understandings NGSS’s authors believe scientists and engineers use when investigating the natural world and solving problems; essentially the cognitive processes scientists and engineers use when doing science and engineering.

    Scientific law:

    a generalization or description of repeated observations; laws are generalizations coming from data, while theories explain laws.

    Scientific theory:

    a broad explanation for some aspect of the natural world; strong theories are well substantiated by their abilities to explain and accurately predict a wide range of phenomena.


    Allen, P. (1996). Who sank the boat? New York, NY: The Putnam & Grosset Group.
    Alters, B. J. (1997). Whose nature of science? Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 34(1), 3955.
    American Association for the Advancement of Science. (1993). Benchmarks for science literacy. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
    Bergman, D. J., & Olson, J. (2011). Got inquiry? Science and Children, 48(7), 4448.
    Bowen, M., & Bartley, A. (2014). The basics of data literacy: Helping your students (and you) make sense of data. Arlington, VA: NSTA Press.
    Bybee, R. W. (1997). Achieving scientific literacy: From purposes to practices. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann Educational Books.
    Clough, M. P. (2007). Teaching the nature of science to secondary and post-secondary students: Questions rather than tenets. The Pantaneto Forum, 25. Retrieved from http://www.pantaneto.co.uk/issue25/clough.htm.
    Elementary Science Study. (1968). Teacher’s guide for sink and float. Toronto, Canada: McGraw Hill.
    Elementary Science Study. (1970). Teacher’s guide for structures. Newton, MA: Elementary Science Study.
    Franklin, C., Kader, G., Mewborn, D., Moreno, J., Peck, R., Perry, M., & Scheaffer, R. (2007). Guidelines for assessment and instruction in statistics education (GAISE) report: A pre-K–12 curriculum framework. Alexandria, VA: American Statistical Association. Retrieved from http://www.amstat.org/education/gaise/GAISEPreK-12_Full.pdf.
    Gudrais, E. (2012, November/December). Soda and violence. Harvard Magazine, p. 11. Retrieved from http://harvardmagazine.com/2012/11/soda-and-violence.
    Keeley, P. (2013, January), Formative assessment probes: Using the p-e-o technique. Science and Children, 50(5), 2426.
    Lee, E. J., Cite, S., & Hanuscin, D. (2014, September) Taking the “mystery” out of argumentation. Science and Children, 52(1), 4652.
    Loundagin, J. 1996. The Checks Lab. Retrieved from www.indiana.edu/~ensiweb/lessons/chec.lab.html.
    Marek, E. A., & Cavallo, A.M.L. (1997). The learning cycle: Elementary school and beyond. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann Publishing.
    McDonald, J. R. (2012). Does it sink or float? Science Activities, 49, 7781.
    McGrayne, S. B. (1993). Nobel Prize women in science: Their lives, struggles, and momentous discoveries. New York, NY: Birch Lane Press.
    National Research Council. (1996). The national science education standards. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
    National Research Council. (2012). A framework for K–12 science education: Practices, crosscutting concepts, and core ideas. Committee on a Conceptual Framework for New K–12 Science Education Standards. Board on Science Education, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
    NGSS Lead States. (2013a). Appendix F of Next generation science standards: For states, by states. Retrieved from http://www.nextgenscience.org/sites/ngss/files/Appendix%20F%20%20Science%20and%20Engineering%20Practices%20in%20the%20NGSS%20-%20FINAL%20060513.pdf.
    NGSS Lead States. (2013b). Appendix H of Next generation science standards: For states, by states. Retrieved from http://www.nextgenscience.org/sites/ngss/files/Appendix%20H%20-%20The%20Nature%20of%20Science%20in%20the%20Next%20Generation%20Science%20Standards%204.15.13.pdf.
    NGSS Lead States. (2013c). Middle school engineering design. Retrieved from http://www.nextgenscience.org/sites/ngss/files/MS%20ETS%20Storyline%20-%20DCI%20and%20Topic-6.13.13.pdf.
    Osborne, R., & Freyberg, P. (1985) Learning in science: The implications of children’s science. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
    Reed, R. (2016). What about pillbugs? Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. Retrieved from http://science-ed.pnnl.gov/pals/resource/cards/pillbugs.stm.
    Shipstone, D. (1985). Electricity in simple circuits. In R. Driver, E. Guesne, & A. Tiberghien (Eds.), Children’s ideas in science (pp. 291316). Milton Keynes: Open University Press.
    Smithenry, D. W., & Kim, J. (2010, October). Beyond predictions. Science and Children, 48(2), 4852.
    Smith, M. U., Lederman, N. G., Bell, R. L., McComas, W. F., & Clough, M. P. (1997). How great is the disagreement about the nature of science: A response to Alters. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 34(10), 11011103.
    Watson, B., & Konicek, R. (1990). Teaching for conceptual change: Confronting children’s experience. Phi Delta Kappan, 71, 680685.
    Wolpert, L. (1992). The Unnatural Nature of Science: Why science does not make (common) sense. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
    Yin, Y., Tomita, M. K., & Shavelson, R. J. (2008, April). Diagnosing and dealing with student misconceptions: Floating and sinking. Science Scope, 31(8), 3439.

    • Loading...
Back to Top

Copy and paste the following HTML into your website