Sunday, 2 August 2015

High-Impact Scientific Inquiry Experiment Ideas for the Secondary Class

If you haven't started working with Scientific Inquiry you are missing out!  Bye-bye cookie-cutter labs!  Hello independent and creative thinking!  Here are some of my favorite inquiry-based labs to start off the school year.

Borax Bouncy Balls
This one is my favorite!  Create a borax solution in water and mix with a blob of liquid glue.  Add one drop of food coloring and roll until it turns into a ball.  There are lots of different recipes for borax bouncy balls online. My preference is to give the students very broad instructions, inevitably they make very different bouncy balls (or slime!) and this leads into a great conversation about precise measurements and instructions in the procedure.  I have them test which recipe creates the ball that bounces the highest, with dropping the ball from 1.0 meters as a controlled variables.  There are at least 10 variables they can test with this inquiry experiment – for example: amount of glue, amount of borax solution, type of glue and if you have a more advanced class they can test the concentration of the borax solution.
Here is a good starter video on how to make borax bouncy balls:
Best for: general science, chemistry, physical science

Paper Helicopters (Gyrocopters)
Gyrocopters are so easy to create and fun for the students.  Cut a piece of paper into eleven 1” strips, then create blades by cutting 4” down the middle of the strip.  Bend the strips in opposite directions and there you go!  I have my students develop an inquiry-based test on which design allows for the slowest (and therefore safest) descent.  Drop the gyrocopters from a height of 2.0 meters as a control.  Students can test lots of variables with this experiment including blade length, blade shape and material.
Here is a nice tutorial for making a paper helicopter:
Best for: general science, physical science, physics

Daphnia – testing water quality
If you can get your hands on some daphnia, or water fleas, you’ve got a great opportunity to teach skills as well as inquiry.  Daphnia can be used to test water quality.  Set up a control, and experiment with different pH levels, temperatures or adding different chemicals. 
Here is a great video on how to properly measure daphnia heart rates.
Best for: biology, environmental science

Blast off – Rates of Reaction
If you can get your hands on film canisters and don’t mind the smell of vinegar this is a really fun inquiry lab.  Fill a film canister with baking soda and vinegar (or another safe acid and base combination) Students will love the suspense as they countdown to the film canister top exploding off and the film canister going flying into the air!  This one is nice for students who have already had safety training, since eye protection is key in this inquiry lab.  Students can change the amount of acid, base, add an extra layer between the two (like a piece of tissue).  More advanced students can change the concentration of the acid and observe the rate of reaction.  It’s SO MUCH FUN!  But yes, your classroom will smell.
Here is a video explaining how you can do this experiment:
Best for: chemistry

If you haven't started used the Inquiry-based approach yet, I highly recommend checking out these resources.  They'll make your life SO much easier!

Scientific Inquiry Graphic Organizers
 Scientific Method Bundle

Competent and Confident: Tips for Teaching SKILLS

“Are you competent and are you confident?”  That’s how you know you’ve mastered the skill.

Mrs. Marty was my Technological Design teacher in Grades 10-12.  She truly was a phenomenal teacher with so many great traits.  I was instantly intrigued when she began to talk.  A British woman teaching me how to use AutoCAD, saws and CNC machines!  YEAH! Most of my high school teachers had been male at this time. 

What really stood out to me, especially now as a teacher, is how she ensured that you knew what you were doing in the wood shop.  In order to meet the expectation you would demonstrate to her that you could perform the skill.  So we students we show her that we could use the planers and saws.  That would prove yourself to have a Level 3.  This showed your competence.  If you wanted to reach for that Level 4, you would have to teach someone else how to perform that skill (under her watchful eye).  This demonstrated to her your confidence.

Years later, when I became a teacher, this idea of competence and confidence really resonated with me.  The expectations were clear to all students.  Students could work within their own comfort and ability levels.  It pushed motivated students like me (shy and female) to interact with and teach my fellow, mostly male, classmates – that was a whole other confidence boost for me!  Not to mention, this strategy allowed Mrs. Marty to observe an entire class within the shop, assess every day and delegate duties. 

I love how this idea of competence and confidence can translate into the science class.  You can, and should, assess skills in the science course.  Whether it is lighting a Bunsen burner properly, working with electronic probes, performing a dissection or a titration, why not try this method?  Directly teach a small group of students that are ahead of the class (while the rest do independent work).  Show them how to perform a scientific skill.  Observe that they can perform this skill on their own, then, observe again as they teach another student this skill.  While they are teaching, make sure the students talk about proper safety procedures and reasoning.  Now you don’t have to explain this skill to 30 students, you have more time to observe and your students are growing both as scientists and leaders.

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