Hands-On To Minds-On Learning By Exploring Atmospheric Currents

When I first started using discovery-based learning and the NGSS, my students struggled. They were used to traditional science classrooms where they were told information, took notes and completed worksheets, and then did a lab to wrap up the concept.  They used flashcards to memorize ideas. They took quizzes and tests where they spit back those ideas. And they moved on.


Discovery-based classrooms don’t work that way. NGSS classrooms don’t work that way.  Students must be actively, intellectually engaged in their learning in order for it to stick. “Hands-on” doesn’t always mean “minds-on,” and while activity may be fun either way, it’s important to help students bridge the gap and make the connections they need to.  It’s the only way they will truly learn (understand and remember) the material.


So how do you do that? How do you make hands-on learning activities into minds-on learning experiences? And how do you do it without making students struggle too much?


Hands-On Learning: Modeling Convection

In my Organisms and Their Environments unit, students spend some time learning about the factors that affect climate. One important factor is atmospheric circulation – or convection currents in the atmosphere. To guide students to understand how convection works in the atmosphere, students complete a simple lab with food coloring. 


In a large transparent container filled with room-temperature water, students place one blue ice cube at one end and drop warmed food coloring at the other end. As the ice melts, they observe the cold blue water sink to the bottom while the warm red food coloring remains at the top.  While this simple lab doesn’t show the rising and falling of these currents as they warm and cool, students can still draw some very important conclusions from its simple setup. Our job as teachers is to guide them to those conclusions by focusing their observations and helping them to make connections.


Minds On Learning: Developing Connections

One of the first things I do to help students make meaning from any exploration is simple – ask them to record their observations.  Sometimes I ask for a list. Other times, I ask for a drawing. It is important they document what they see and experience in order to build meaning from it later.


For this activity, I asked for a drawing. What did students see happen?  But it’s important to go beyond what they saw on the surface, especially at the middle and high school levels. The Crosscutting Concepts of Scale, Proportion, and Quantity – and even the Science and Engineering Practice of Developing and Using Models – asks students to consider phenomena at multiple levels — what can be seen and what cannot be seen.  Therefore, I ask students to consider what the red and blue water would look like at the molecular level. (Students who may not be familiar with this concept actually complete a “Thermal Energy and Particle Motion” activity before diving into this lab at all!)  I ask students to consider both the arrangement and the movement of the water molecules, and they add these depictions to their initial model.


Before students can understand why cold fluids sink and warm fluids rise, they must understand the differences at the molecular level. They must know that molecules in colder fluids are closer together and are moving more slowly, while molecules in warmer fluids are spreading apart and moving with more energy.


Through additional guiding questions, students connect the concept of density to their model.  They realize that the cold water is more dense, while the warm water is less dense. They can then use this information to describe what they observed initially, putting the ideas together to construct explanations (SEP!) for the phenomenon they observed.


Minds On Learning: Convection In The Atmosphere

But students have yet to connect the lab back to the actual content.  Students have an understanding of convection, but they aren’t yet seeing how it connects to the atmosphere or climate. Too often, this is where the teacher steps in and wraps up the lab. “And that’s how convection works. Convection works in the atmosphere!” 

Unfortunately, this is an incomplete understanding.  Yes, that is how convection works. But why is there cold air and warm air to begin with? And also, who cares? What does it matter if warm air is rising and cool air is sinking? What does that have to do with climate?


Because students have already completed lessons on the relationship between solar energy and latitude, they are ready to understand that warm air “originates” at the equator. In fact, by referring back to their previous lesson on Climate Factors: Exploring Latitude, I am able to review previous content and build from it. It’s a great way to review in context, which is ultimately going to lead to longer-lasting learning gains.


So through reviewing the impact of latitude, students develop their understanding that solar energy heats the surface (and then air) at the equator, which causes it to rise.  It flows northward and eventually cools. It sinks around 30 degrees latitude. (This circulation is going to connect for students later as well, as they realize this explains the wet, humid climates near the equator and the dry deserts in the horse latitudes!)  

Using this information, students can construct another model – applying convection to the actual atmosphere and including what they had discovered about thermal energy, particle motion, and density in driving this phenomenon, the Hadley Cell. 

From Hands-On To Minds-On

When we are doing hands-on activities in our classroom, it’s incredibly important that we take the time to walk students through the meaning-making process.  For one, it’s the only way they truly connect the activity to the content. And more importantly, the “walking (and TALKING) them through” is what is going to reduce the struggle.


Our ultimate goal is certainly for students to make meaning on their own.  But they aren’t going to turn around in one day and be comfortable with this different way of learning, just as we aren’t going to turn around in one day and have mastered this new way of teaching.  By guiding students through their explorations – structuring their observations or guiding their connections – you can help students persevere through the initial struggle to reach that “aha moment.”  The more times they experience that “aha!,” the more comfortable and confident they become in the process. 


I’ve seen it again and again in my own classroom. While students really demand high supports early on, they need them less and less as they become comfortable with the “figuring it out” approach. That said, whatever level of support your students need, it’s so important to ensure they are making meaning (the “minds-on”) from your “hands-on” activities.