Science is the discovery and interpretation of the physical world around us. It is also about the testing of new ideas. This doesn’t always happen in a secluded laboratory somewhere, or in a college physics environment.
People ask questions on a daily basis seeking answers to something. Children are constantly learning from their surroundings.
Too much of our society thinks that book smarts and good test takers are where the real brains are. Sure, they’re brilliant, but the real “thinking” occurs using inquiry processes to:
Ask a meaningful question
Propose a possible solution
Test that idea
Observe and see how you can improve your results
This is the “Scientific Method,” but I see it as good thinking for any problem you have. I use this method quite frequently in my 8th grade science class, and the following activity, called the “Monthly Science Challenge” promotes this type of thinking in a creative way.
The Monthly Science Challenge (MSC)
The premise of this activity is that students/children will receive a set amount of materials once a month. It is the same set of materials. Then I declare a task for them to complete using these items, say, for example, build the longest bridge. They have a class period/hour to construct it with their team and then we test it out the next day. The next month, we use the same materials and build something new, like a wind car.
This process gets the kids planning the steps to get something built, possibly doing research on existing ideas, actual building, and then revisions/reflections for the next time.
I don’t give a “grade” on this, but I do hold a competition so students feel like they need to do something of merit, and do it well. And that, of course, is better than a “grade” in my book.
Materials I use for the MSC
1. 20 popsicle sticks
2. 10 straws
3. 8 paper clips
4, 4 index cards
5. 1 piece of paper
6. 2 rubber bands
7. 1 foot of string
8. 2 feet of masking tape
10. 4 Dixie Cups
I put most of the materials in a gallon size plastic bag. I usually hand the cups and paper out when I assign the building part.
I ask the kids to use at least half of each supply to build with. I give points for returning pieces to promote conservation. Of course you can alter the materials how you like.
A few days before I want to do the activity, I tell them about the process and the thing they are building. Here are a couple of ideas to get you started:
The longest bridge
The tallest tower
A wind car that gets blown by a fan
A bow and arrow
A paddle boat (moving parts are really tough)
This is the time when I give them computer time to research the idea. Maybe a night or two to draw out an idea the team can agree on. On building day, they must have an idea ready to go.
The day of building
This is where I usually tell them the “Bonus Mission.” Each one of the activities gets points for what I ask (longest bridge, tallest tower) but I also give them an opportunity to really think about how to alter their design to accomodate another task. For example, on the bridge one, the Bonus Mission is be the strongest. I hang a cup off the middle and fill it with pennies until it breaks. For the wind car I have a panel of judges come in and rate their craftsmanship and design. These are a few ideas.
They have an hour to complete the task … and they learn quickly to not use much tape and be sparing with the glue. It takes awhile to dry. (Note the kids will try to out-think you on this. Don’t let them use the glue as a weight by filling the Dixie cups, for example)
The Testing Day
Here is where we bring out all the constructions to test. I give points out 1 point per centimeter covered on the bridge and 4 pennies in a cup equals 1 more point. Make sure the real test gets more points than the Bonus.
This is fun to watch, and the kids enjoy showing off their designs. They could even prepare an infomercial of sorts if they wanted, for the creative ones to shine.
Then a good follow up is required, so they can see the purpose of the project, and to think ahead for next time.
I generally ask questions like:
What worked well with your design?
How did you act as part of your team?
What would you change in your design next time?
I have them put this in a journal and we have a big discussion about the challenge.
How else you can use this activity
I have two children, 5 and 3, and wanted to do this at home. I used the same material and prompted the same question. I didn’t have to alter it much to use this with them, and they loved it.
If you have a few kids and want an activity each month, this would work nicely.
Another great science activity is located in this article, Simple Science Experiments for your Kids
Anything to promote thinking and problem solving is generally fun for kids, as long as you present it in a way that kids enjoy. Telling them about bridges is one thing, having them look at bridges and see if they can design one better is quite another.