Starting Middle School with Science Skills

What do you do to engage students on the first day of the new school year? Give a lecture? Probably not! Go over the class rules? Boring!

For my middle schoolers, I like to kick off the school year with a fun science activity that can be used to: 1) teach basic lab skills, (2) introduce a new topic, in this case density and (3) check students’ level of prior knowledge. Ideally the activity gets them out of their chairs, moving around the classroom and working in small groups.

Students will need data collection, data presentation, and data analysis skills throughout their secondary science education. A great way to help students practice these skills is with my Calculating the Density of Different Materials activity. Students work in groups to measure the mass of different volumes of rice and sand, create a data table and a graph to show the volume and mass results, and answer questions that require them to analyse their data.

This activity will engage your students in ‘active learning’ and teach them essential skills that are useful beyond the science classroom. It’s easy to set up and requires readily available materials: graduated cylinders, balances, rice and sand.

We’ve made this activity available as a free resource in our Teachers Pay Teachers store. Visit our TpT shop to access this resource and see the new chemistry and electromagnetism products we added over the summer. You can also click here to sign up for our mailing list. You’ll receive occasional updates about our resources along with three free physics puzzles.

End of Year Fun with Famous Scientists

Do you need an engaging end of year activity that will motivate your students to squeeze in a little more learning before the summer break? The Famous Scientist Cereal Box Project combines research, design, organisation, and presentation skills and is ideally suited for 7th to 9th grade students. My students love this assignment which gives everyone a chance to do well with a little effort and a lot of creativity.

I kick off the project with a group discussion about famous scientists. Who do they know and what do they know about them (besides Albert Einstein!)? Who would they like to learn more about and what kind of cereal should be named after them? I give the students a list of scientists to choose from, but allow them to select a scientist not on the list with my approval.

After selecting a famous scientist, students must redesign a cereal box so that it describes the famous person’s life history and contributions to the sciences. Each panel of the box must include specific items worth a set number of points. The students must research some of the items, such as biographical information, interesting facts, and relevance of the scientist’s contributions. The fun part is that students get to use their imagination for the other items, such as the cereal name and slogan, an activity or game related to the scientist, and a small prize that goes inside the box. To conclude the project, teachers may have the students present their finished cereal boxes to the entire class.

We have posted a free resource in our Teachers Pay Teachers shop with a detailed outline and grading rubric for the Famous Scientist Cereal Box Project. Here’s the link to access this resource: Famous Scientist Cereal Box Project

Storytelling for Secondary Science

Just a few years ago my school principal informed me that I was required to complete more teacher training. Then came the good news. I was being sent to Greece to attend The Mars Mission Summer School sponsored by the European Union’s Erasmus+ Program and the Space Awareness Project. What better place to think about new teaching methods than on the beach in Marathon, Greece.

Experimenting with learning methods that meet the needs of different types of students was something I had done throughout my teaching career. But I had never given my students storytelling assignments and I came away from my Greek summer school experience excited to give it a try.

Storytelling assignments are a fun, interdisciplinary method to help students learn concepts that are central to a given science unit and a great way to stimulate their interest in science. I give my 7th and 8th grade students a storytelling assignment as part of our unit on the solar system. The basic idea is for students to write a story about going to Mars and colonizing the planet. But before the story writing can begin, each group must develop their story world, its characters, their goals… and obstacles they will encounter.

Each group gets a piece of flip chart paper and several 5 x 7 inch index cards. On the flip chart paper they design their Mars headquarters which must include four different buildings and two vehicles used for traveling away from the base. Each building must have a name, a short description of its purpose and a list of its contents. The index cards are used to develop the story’s characters. Students draw a picture of their characters on the front of each card and then use the back of the cards to list the character’s qualities. This can include age, gender, profession, skills, strengths, flaws, likes, dislikes and any other qualities that are relevant to their mission.

The purpose of this preparation is to encourage the students to be creative and to spend time thinking about their story before they begin writing. Students will come up with some wild ideas, such as “Can I bring my dog with me on the trip?”

During our lessons on space science we discuss the similarities and differences between the planets, interplanetary travel and the specific characteristics of Mars as they relate to the students’ stories. Each story must incorporate at least three of the concepts that we have discussed in class, such as: the atmospheric composition of Mars, the high iron content of the soil on Mars, the length of a day on Mars, temperature variation at the surface of Mars and the time needed to travel from the Earth to Mars.

Finally the writing can begin…

NASA’s Mars for Educators website contains lots of lesson plans, resources and teaching ideas. Science storytelling is just one innovative approach to stimulate student interest in science. Your students may even surprise you and get inspired to pursue a space related career path.

Newton and Coulomb: Fatal Attractions and Fundamental Forces

Something that always fascinates me about physics teaching and learning is that the basic concepts are closely interrelated. If you can grasp the concepts of Newton’s laws of motion as applied to the acceleration of objects in one dimension, then this knowledge can be used to evaluate the motion of objects in a variety of situations, including the motion of charged particles in electric and magnetic fields.

Another case where the basic laws of physics are interrelated is in the realm of the very big and the very small. We see this in the example of Newton’s law of universal gravitation and Coulomb’s law.

Newton first published his law of universal gravitation in Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica in 1687. The law states that the gravitational force between two masses is directly proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them.

As an inverse-square law, this law is analogous to Coulomb’s law, first published in 1785 by French physicist Charles-Augustin de Coulomb. It states that the electrical force between two charges is directly proportional to the product of their charges and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them.

Although the laws have important differences, the equations look similar when seen side by side:

Each law is used to describe the forces between two objects, two masses in Newton’s case and two charges in Coulomb’s. Each law also contains a constant. For Newton’s law the constant G is quite small (6.67 ・ 10-11 Nm2/kg2) because the force of gravity is very weak. For Coulomb, the constant k is quite large (8.99 ・ 109 Nm2/C2) because the electric force is relatively large. In fact, the force of attraction between two 1 coulomb charges that are separated by a distance of 1 meter is one thousand trillion times greater than the force of attraction between two 1 kilogram masses separated by 1 meter. That is a very big difference!

One important difference between the two laws is that the force between two masses is always attractive, while the electric force between two charges can be either attractive or repulsive. Watch my latest video for a brief explanation of the difference between the two laws. And post a comment if you have any questions!

A great way to increase student knowledge of Newton’s law of gravitation and Coulomb’s law is through PhET online lab simulations. Students have fun with these simulations and Step by Step Science offers the companion activities shown below for students to practice what they learn.

Resources Galore in 2022

2021 was another year of steady growth for Step by Step Science. With more than 500 YouTube videos and 100 resources in our Teachers Pay Teachers store, we have been able to support and enrich teaching and learning for so many of you during the pandemic. Our goal has always been to offer high quality, engaging science content to teachers and students. The biggest reward for us is the positive feedback we receive.

Whenever I feel so frustrated and beat myself down for not understanding something people like you renew and refresh my love for math and physics. Thank you for helping me see the logic in the solution process. Physics is so beautiful 🙂

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We avoid fancy marketing campaigns and gimmicks, but we also want to cultivate a closer relationship with our followers. That’s why we’ve decided to send out occasional email updates. We’ll be highlighting our different types of resources and offering some free teaching activities. The first issue of our Resource Spotlight is coming soon and you can receive three free physics puzzles if you sign up. We promise not to bombard your inbox and you can unsubscribe at any time.

Click here to sign up for our mailing list. Our first Resource Spotlight will go out in early February and announce a sale on all of our Optics resources. Find out more about the sale when you sign up. Step by Step Science wishes all of our readers and followers a successful year of science education. We’ll also continue to stay in touch through this blog.

Scaffolding Science Lessons

Getting ready to start a new topic in your instruction? Not sure where to begin or what prior knowledge students have? I like to start with an opening question. For my unit on energy, work and power I always ask, “What is the difference between mass and weight?” Most students can not come up with a suitable answer or they often say that they are the same thing.

That leads to the next question for my students, “What is your weight?” The common response is something like “60 kilograms.” “Really, your weight is 60 kilograms?”, I ask with a tone of disbelief. I let that question hang in the air for a few moments and then a hand will shoot up and a student will say, “No, that is their mass because the units are kilograms!” So then I ask, “What is weight?”

Tapping into prior knowledge is a good scaffolding strategy. Scaffolding has become a popular educational term for breaking a subject up into chunks. Whether the subject is English or chemistry, math or physics, students often learn best when the material is organized into progressively more complex or in-depth components.

After exploring students’ prior knowledge, I cover basic terms and concepts that students need to know to move forward in the lesson. To understand terms like mass, weight, energy, work and power, students will watch my YouTube video on The Basics and then answer a few questions. Next, they complete a matching or puzzle activity that requires them to think about how the terms are used in the scientific world. Including an interactive exercise at this stage both engages the students and complements textbook learning. Now the class is ready to step up to the next scaffolding level.

The end goal of this unit is that students understand what is meant by the term conservation of mechanical energy. But to successfully reach this highest level on the scaffold, students must first have an understanding of all that leads up to it. This includes questions like how to change the potential energy of an object, how to increase the power output, and of course, what is the difference between mass and weight? Not only must students be able to use the equations to calculate the necessary values, they must also have a conceptual understanding of the physical conditions that affect the outcomes.

To help your students achieve mastery of these topics, I have created a series of products that are available from my Teachers Pay Teachers store. Each product includes explanatory notes, a set of exercises with an answer key, and two presentations to use for instruction. At the top of each set of exercises is a link to my Step by Step Science YouTube videos that students can watch for review. These products are also available in a discounted bundle and are a great resource for distance learning.

Scaffolding physics topics is a valuable approach that allows students across different grades and ages to master key terms and concepts before developing a broader base of subject knowledge. This methodical approach to teaching and learning is what Step by Step Science is all about.

Educational Evolution in the Sciences

More than 20 years ago I stepped into my first classroom. Before me sat rows and columns of students patiently waiting for me to teach them something. Today when I go to school things look pretty much the same. The science curriculum has changed little over the years and I still need to cover everything from Newton’s laws of motion to kinematics and electromagnetism. I still stand in front of class and teach, but my teaching style has evolved over the years. Nowadays I strive to motivate my students to become independent learners who can dive into problems and solve them on their own.

Demonstrations, interactive activities and lab work have always been at the heart of my teaching, but in recent years I have further refined my student centered approach. One of the ways that I have done this is through the use of computer simulations from PhET Interactive Simulations. Using these simulations and the guided-inquiry materials that I have developed, students discover for themselves the relationship between many physical parameters.  

Before I lecture on the topic of simple harmonic motion, students complete the online Period of a Pendulum Lab. Using this simulation students can learn on their own what physical characteristics affect the period of a pendulum. Students enjoy working with the simulations because they are visual, easy to use, interactive, and give reliable results that can be easily checked and repeated. In my experience, students are more likely to remain focused when using these materials than listening to one of my lectures.

Online simulations reflect the growing role of technology in education. Students and teachers communicate through computers, materials are made available through learning management systems and students have access to an infinite amount of instructional content from websites like YouTube and many others. But, as Derek Muller says in The Most Persistent Myth, technology will not revolutionise education. Education is still based on the social interaction between teachers and learners. Teachers must inspire, challenge and excite students, as well as make them accountable for learning. This is the part of teaching that inspires me to continue after more than twenty years in the classroom.

Strategies to Address Learning Gaps

As the pandemic situation improves around the world, many teachers are able to enjoy face to face instruction again. I’m thrilled to be back in my physics classroom, but that doesn’t mean things are quite back to their usual routine. The challenges of distance learning meant that some students did not manage to complete the curriculum for all of their courses last year. Helping these students to catch up on learning is a top priority for me and many other teachers.

My ninth grade students had lots of fun playing the Motion Graph Matching Game. This is a great activity to review graphs of one dimensional motion.

My school in Berlin has always focused on small group and autonomous learning so we are well-positioned to tackle pandemic-related learning gaps. At the beginning of the school year, my colleagues and I are assigned to work as coaches for a group of students throughout the year. Our regular coaching meetings present a golden opportunity to check in with kids on how they’re doing in classes and how they’re feeling about being back at school. Most students have told me that they are happy to be in school again and more motivated to learn in the school setting. 

Berlin schools are also part of Stark Trotz Corona (Strong in Spite of Corona), a program to collect information and inform parents about their childrens’ academic and social/emotional progress. The program promotes assessments and individualized attention to identify areas where students need to catch up. These assessments need not be in the form of tests and quizzes, but can also be games, lab activities, and group or partner work.

Over the summer I created a motion graph matching activity to check my students’ understanding of motion graphs. The activity contains cards for each of seven possible motion scenarios. Students first work in groups to match the seven motion descriptions with the correct graphs. Then we form teams and the players randomly select a graph and have to place it in the correct location on the board. My ninth graders recently did this activity and said they enjoyed the team competition and the chance to review the kinematics curriculum.

Being flexible and willing to deviate from my standard lesson plans has helped me to identify and close student learning gaps early in the school year. My school also holds monthly team building activities with different themes to promote a feeling of confidence and community in our students and staff. Last month’s theme was mindfulness and this month our theme is personal responsibility. Bringing students and teachers together around themes that are important for their future academic and personal development is another valuable way to make up for lost time during the long phases of distance learning.

Five Fun and Easy Physics Challenges

One of my favourite things about being a physics teacher is doing demonstrations and experiments with my students. Why start a lesson with a lecture when you can arouse your students’ curiosity by bringing scientific principles to life right before their eyes? I like to start with a provocative question like:

How can you pick up a bottle filled with rice by using just one wooden skewer?

You might get some silly answers, but you’ll also see their brains start to click.

The beginning of the school year is an especially important time to spark your students’ interest in science. You’ll find many great ideas online, but they don’t always explain how to set up the experiment or the science behind it. That’s where our next Making YOU the Scientist video comes in. These physics challenges require few materials, are easy to set up, and will bring out the inner scientist in your kids and students.

Watch the video to see the five activities that introduce concepts such as the force of friction, the center of mass, adhesion and cohesion, and Newton’s laws of motion. I hope you enjoy these demonstrations and if you have any questions about how to do them at home or school, don’t hesitate to get in touch.

The Upside of Gravity

What can you always depend on, but will always let you down? Gravity! But in fact, gravity will never let you down as a topic of interest for your physics students. That’s why Step by Step Science has created some great new teaching resources on gravity over the summer.

Gravitation and satellite motion are concepts that affect our lives in ways we rarely think about. Why does the Earth go around the Sun? What is gravity? Where is the International Space Station and how fast is it traveling through space? Here’s an overview of the new gravity lessons in our Teachers Pay Teachers store. These resources include everything you need to give your students a better understanding of the motion of the objects that surround them. These lessons are available individually or at a discount in our Gravitation bundle.

Our PhET online lab resources continue to be the most popular instructional materials we offer. As I wrote in a previous post, students enjoy these activities because they are visual, intuitive and make connections to real world situations. To go along with the summer’s gravitation theme, our latest PhET simulation resource is on Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation. We’ll be adding quite a few more of these simulation resources in the coming months.

Our Step by Step Science YouTube channel includes a gravitation playlist that contains educational videos explaining each of the topics in these instructional materials. Each exercise sheet also includes links to the videos that describe how to solve the problems that are included. A great resource for distance learners and students who need additional help.

The summer wasn’t all work and no play. I had the chance to visit our son Avery who recently began a PhD program in aerospace engineering at Cranfield University. Our daughter Olivia came down from Glasgow for a fun weekend of checking out the aviation wonders on the campus, visiting Cambridge, and exploring the English countryside. Here’s the two siblings sitting inside a Rolls Royce RB211 high bypass turbofan, one of the most successful engines of its generation (1969-1997). Avery is working on a new generation of civilian aircraft propulsion with support from Rolls Royce and the European Union.