Tuesday, February 24, 2004

Days Until Science Expo: 28

The Science Expo - the event formerly known as the Science Fair - is coming up. My students have divided up into groups of 2 or 3.* Over the next month, they have to develop their own experiments - choose a Question, write a Procedure, gather Materials, write a Hypothesis, identify the Independent and Dependent Variables, carry out the experiment, collect Data, interpret their Data, draw Conclusions, do Background Research, identify Sources of Error, think of a few New Questions.

We got off to a slightly rocky start thanks to late notice from the Region, followed by today's revelation: We are not, as a school, on the list of Regional Science Expo participants! My principal showed me a memo (dated Feb. 6th, but that's another whole post) stating that our Region will have three spring celebrations, the Science Expo in March, the Literacy Fair in May (don't ask, I have no idea), and the Arts Fair in June. Each school is to participate in one of the three celebrations, and do all three over the next three years. Fine. Page two? Assignments! Yes, each school was assigned, using heaven-knows-what-criteria, to participate in one of the three celebrations. Were we - the Region's Math, Science, & Technology Magnet School - assigned to the Science Expo? Of course not. That would be logical! No, we are signed up for the Literacy Fair. So, I telephoned the Regional Science Office and left a message asking - soooo politely - for permission to participate; whatever happens, our school will have a Science Expo - I just hope we get to send our best exhibits to the Regional Expo!

Today, I started to get excited! Sure, we're a little short on time. But the kids are psyched, which is infectious. Some of them have already started gathering their materials, recruiting human subjects (mostly for psych experiments), etc. We have started new classroom routines. Vocabulary warm-ups and alternate-week quizzes are out; opening announcements and end-of-class accomplishments/goals journals are in. I don't walk around the room as much as I did before. Now, I sit at my desk and call students up when they raise their hands to indicate that they have a question or need advice or have something to turn in.

By the end of tomorrow, each group will have a question, hypothesis, materials list, and procedure, and they will have identified their variables. Some of these things inevitably will need work, but it's a start.

Here is my favorite question so far: Which kind of soda makes kids burp the most?

One group of really nice seventh graders wanted to study whether a child's home life affects his or her behavior in school. I told them it was a really, really important question - one that means a lot in the real world - but a very sensitive one. They wanted to interview classmates about their home lives, then rate their in-class behavior. I advised them that this might lead to hurt feelings... kids might not want to share that kind of information with them. I told them to hold onto that question, though, until they were in college, when it might start to be possible to research it. I steered them towards surveying students on their TV habits, then comparing hours of TV per day to grades - I said I would fill in the students' grades and make the whole thing anonymous so that even the student-researchers would not know their friends' grades. That should work (I hope).

Another group brought in slices of different kinds of bread and put them in plastic bags in the back of the room. They want to know which kind of bread will mold fastest. I freak out whenever I find sour milk or moldy anything in my fridge, but I think mold makes a GREAT subject for Science class! Visible, smelly, colorful, gross, interesting under a microscope, real-world relevance, oh the wonders of mold! Another group is also growing mold, to see how different chemicals (acids, detergents, etc.) affect it.

I'm also enthusiastic about a group of two seventh grade boys who want to swab kids' feet and see whether boys or girls have more bacteria on their feet. One of the boys rushed up to me yesterday, a few periods after Science class.

"Ms. Frizzle! We have a problem!"

"Yes?"

"No one will volunteer to be in our experiment!"

"It's okay, I'll make sure you have subjects when the time comes..."

I've got plenty of experiments with plants - plants watered with different liquids, plants "listening" to different kinds of music, plants with different amounts of fertilizer. Thank god for Wisconsin Fast Plants! The seventh graders are all enthusiastic about psych experiments - whether music helps or hurts concentration, if listening to a recording while you sleep helps you learn, whether violent movies affect people's moods, and so on. I've had to do some steering to help them find ways to measure these intangibles. My favorite psych experiment - in part because the girls involved are really smart and spunky - is trying to find a link between personality type and snack preferences. They will, at the very least, get some practice using surveys...

*Tip for teachers out there: I force them to choose groups of two at the start, then let things shake out over the first week or so. Inevitably, one or two groups in each class melts down, and I give those students the option of choosing to join an existing pair to form a group of three. For the first time this year, I am allowing one student to work by himself, because he is really psyched about his project, but was not getting along at all with his partner. You'll hear more about that one in the next few weeks, I'm sure!

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