Confession: Teaching properties of matter, atoms, and molecules has not always been my favorite area of science. I’m a big picture thinker, and I’ve always been drawn to the concepts with the big connections (and typically an Earth Systems or Life Science lean) — ecosystems, evolution, climate, and water resources, and so on. And yes, of course, you know matter — the stuff that makes it all up! — is a big thing and so important… but I’m being honest here: I’ve struggled with teaching these concepts.
Until I found my right phenomenon. (Not every good phenomenon is the right phenomenon!)
Baking Cookies: An Entry Point For Properties Of Matter, Atoms and Molecules, and Chemical Reactions
When we were all cooped up at home last year (you know, that year that sped by but also somehow dragged on and on so it feels like lightyears before now), we did our fair share of baking. My kids are all young, so baking was often a disaster (cue the super basic – and not in the fashionable way – biscotti after my son dumped in too much baking soda)… but hey, we were learning, right?
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Anyway, between all of this baking and my love for Food Network shows, it seems so natural now that approaching physical science standards could so easily come through work in the kitchen! And believe it or not, a science lab can be turned into a simple cookie-baking kitchen pretty easily — all you need is a microwave or toaster over. Voila! You’re good to go. (And students at home can always participate with relative ease as well!)
Thus Chemical Kitchen, the first iExploreScience Curiosity Spark, was developed. With this Curiosity Spark, I focused my lessons initially on what I envisioned as the “first pathway” — into an understanding of the properties of matter and what atoms and molecules are. The big questions students dig into are, How are sugar and brown sugar different? What makes sugar sugar and salt salt? What do substances have certain properties?
But this anchor experience – and it certainly is designed to be an experience – easily flows into concepts like chemical reactions and thermal energy transfer. I plan to flesh out more explorations that focus on those ideas over time.
The Anchor Experience: Engaging Your Students With A Phenomenon
The first anchor experience is designed to engage students in the baking process — providing a tangible experience to spark student interest and curiosity, building their intrinsic motivation to learn. Students bake sugar cookies, following a recipe that substitutes only one ingredient. This activity lays the foundation for the case at hand — an investigation into fundamental ideas about matter, its properties, and how it changes. During the activity, students are prompted to make observations in order to generate questions that will then drive the storyline forward.
While the instructions are designed for students to use a real oven, I’ve known teachers to adapt this activity for both toaster ovens and microwave ovens, and even invite students to complete the baking at home during virtual learning last year. (I would not recommend requiring students to bake at home, but some students may enjoy the extra step). Along those lines, if baking at all isn’t possible, simply examining the ingredients and watching a timelapse of cookies baking makes for an easy alternative. (Less yummy but still valuable).
The point of the anchor is to draw student attention to something that’s happening and get them curious, so however you do that… works for you!
While baking cookies created a tangible, personal connection to the content, I’m always asking myself… but what is the bigger connection? Why does this matter in the real world? To answer that question, we developed a second anchor experience. In this activity, students examined a petition in which parents from a fictional school are demanding the removal of snack items made with high fructose corn syrup. Students took on the role and perspective of a school board member and had to determine how to move forward. They evaluated the claims made, identified what claims and evidence required additional investigation, and generated questions that were necessary to fully analyze the claims presented by the petition.
The goal in this activity was to again spark engagement and curiosity. Students were not yet answering questions — they were just asking them. They weren’t investigating the claims — they were understanding what the claims were really saying, what evidence was (or was not) presented, and figuring out what they needed to figure out.
Ultimately, if we want to move toward a more student-driven classroom, our students need to learn the art of asking questions and figuring out how to answer those questions. The first step is identifying what questions need asked and answered. As we move toward a more student-driven approach, we can bring more student voice into determining how to answer those questions as well.
Launching The Unit: Properties Of Matter
Technically, properties of matter is an elementary standard. But I’ve found middle school students benefit from a refresher, and it’s a great opportunity to review observation practices. Because atoms is often one of the first units taught in the school year, focusing on making observations in one of the first few activities is an authentic way to build that science skill without separating it from a context-rich approach. Thus, we started the unit by simply seeking an answer to… What’s In The Cookie?
We were looking to understand more about the ingredients that went into each cookie (one made with brown sugar and one baked with white table sugar).
How Does Observing Matter Help Us Identify It?
Students reviewed physical and chemical properties in general by examining objects selected and presented on an inquiry tray. Students used a Properties Of Matter Challenge Guide to figure out how they can identify and group objects — by testing their magnetism, for example, or by examining their solubility. In this first activity, students were simply “playing with” different materials — comparing and contrasting them based on suggested properties and “tests.”
Students then applied their understanding of properties of matter to the ingredients in the cookie recipe. They investigated the properties of each ingredient to determine how it might be identified if it were presented as an unknown. (This flowed right into the assessment at the end as well!)
Building From Student Questions: Salt Versus Sugar
Usually, students start to notice and wonder about salt and sugar. They appear very similar. This question segues into What Can I Learn From A Grain Of Salt?
In this activity, students started to explore what makes one substance different from another. To guide students forward, we can always introduce new phenomena — investigative level phenomena. So in this task, which serves as an investigative phenomenon to spark questions and activate prior knowledge, students are introduced to the idea that matter is made of particles that are too small to see. Yes — this concept is supposed to be mastered at the elementary level. That said, it can be helpful to review this idea, and this is a tool to introduce a closer look at salt and sugar, which becomes important as we investigate how the structure of a molecule impacts its observable properties.
What Is Everything Made Of?
At this point, students are ready to dig into abstract concepts like atoms and molecules. This is one of my favorite activities, and I especially love bringing the tangible LEGO blocks into the activity here. In this lesson, students discover that those small particles that matter is made of are called atoms — and that atoms can join together in different ways to form molecules. They can join with the same type or different types (different elements) to form these molecules.
While I provided a “paper puzzle pieces” template you can cut out (and I’ve used this method myself and students still enjoyed it!), giving your students a chance to build with some LEGO blocks (or whatever brand you can find) is really fun. One teacher who recently used this activity mentioned her student asking, “Can I take some blocks home to keep building?”
And another of her students – a challenging student who hasn’t been engaged at all this entire year – even participated. (Granted, he did not build molecules as instructed… but he was still quiet, and focused, and doing his thing with his LEGO blocks. She considered it a win.)
The valuable thing with these blocks – or puzzle pieces – is that it makes a really abstract concept so much more tangible. And unlike the “build an atom mobiles” and all of that (yah, I’ve done that, too), the activity focuses on the relationship between the structure and function. That some atoms can join up, and others cannot. That some join up in many ways, and others – it’s more limited. They even start to understand that the new properties are totally different from the original properties, as they begin to connect their LEGO creations with actual real world compounds (like salt! Hello, phenomenon!).
Extending Student Learning: Digging Deeper Into Atoms and Molecules
For students who are ready to go further (or if your school or district requires it), students are now primed to dig deeper into atoms, looking at their subatomic structure. This could be argued to be high school content and is actually assigned to the high school levels in the Next Generation Science Standards. However, if your learners are ready to look at the structure of the atom and its subatomic particles, they can discover in greater detail what makes one atom different from another using an awesome PhET Simulation.
And one step further, students can start to think about the science practice of modeling through a discussion of what atoms and molecules really look like. Since we can’t actually see individual atoms and molecules, scientists use models to represent these “things” so that they can better explain and predict phenomena. By examining different ways of modeling atoms and molecules, students refine their own understanding of the structure and behavior of atoms and molecules. This activity is really an extension of the Disciplinary Core Ideas targeted in this unit and at the middle school level, but the NGSS is designed to be the floor — not the ceiling. Some students may be ready for more!
Matter: The Relationships Between Structure And Function
At this point, students have developed their understanding of the structure of matter — atoms, molecules, so on. But to truly meet the standard, students have to actually develop their understanding that the structure of the atoms and molecules impacts its observable properties.
Thus we come back to… salt versus sugar.
But we’ll address that next time.
You can grab this entire storyline framework – from anchor experiences to assessments to the explorations described here – when you join the Spark Subscription! Learn more here.
Bring Wonder Back: Becoming A 3D Teacher
If this type of learning sounds like something you want to embrace, but you aren’t sure where to start (or you just need a refresher), Bring Wonder Back: Becoming A 3D Teacher is perfect for you. This free workshop series is designed to take you from 3D-huh? to a prims-master. What? I don’t know. My point is, you’re going to walk away knowing what 3D teaching is and what it looks like in the classroom, on a lesson level. In a few short videos, I’ll walk you through:
- the mindset shifts we need to make in order to embrace a new, 3D teaching approach, (so you can actually prepare your students for the demands of their futures)
- what phenomena are and how they fit into your curriculum, (so you can create a classroom built from curiosity and intrinsic motivation)
- teaching through exploration and discovery, (so you can shift the work of learning from yourself to your students)
- and what 3D teaching looks like, (so you can see how the pieces of the puzzle fit together seamlessly)
You can sign up to access Bring Wonder Back: Becoming A 3D Teacher right here!