‘Teaching Tips’ Category

5 Fun Ways to Teach Your Students About DNA

Friday, October 5th, 2018

DNA

Some topics are difficult to properly teach to students, mainly because of their complexity. DNA, which is otherwise known as deoxyribonucleic acid, is one of those complex topics, and while it is actually quite interesting and important to know about, communicating that to a student still in elementary school is not the easiest thing to do.

Don’t give up on properly conveying the important things to know about DNA however, because it can be done. Listed below are some simple and easy-to-follow tips that will ensure that even a topic as challenging to fully grasp as DNA will be understood by elementary school students.

Describe the Subject Matter in a Different and Simpler Way

According to Science Daily, DNA “is a nucleic acid that contains the genetic instructions for the development and function of living things.”  As far as definitions of DNA go, the one provided by Science Daily is actually quite concise and easy to understand, but still, some of the younger elementary school students may not comprehend it completely.

This is where the teacher has to step in and simplify the way in which DNA is defined. Instead of going with the scientific definition of DNA, a teacher can opt to share with the students one of the popular terms used to describe it. It may be a bit of a challenge to convey to a student what nucleic acid is, but it’s not as hard to tell them about what a blueprint is and how it is comparable to DNA. Nucleic acid may be tough for them to visualize, but a blueprint is not.

Make Use of Visual Aids

Although DNA is a substance abundant in the body, it still carries a certain abstract quality because it isn’t something that can be seen without the aid of a special microscope of some kind. Young kids will become more interested in something if they can see a visual representation of it, so how can a teacher find a way to show students DNA without bringing in a special microscope?

As noted earlier, DNA is often compared to a blueprint, so why not bring that into the classroom. Obviously, there’s no actual blueprint depicting how a specific human body should be built, but the teacher can still come in with a blueprint for a building, show that it contains instructions for designing the structure and then explain how DNA does the same thing except that it does so for people’s bodies.

Focus on the Double Helix Structure of DNA

One of the most interesting features of DNA is its structure. The double helix model is quite eye-catching and something closely associated to DNA, so why not make use of it as a teaching aid. There are a few ways for teachers to go about doing that.

The first way is to borrow a model of DNA showing off its double helix structure. Again, younger students may tend to rely on their sight to learn more about something, so by entering the classroom with a model depicting what DNA looks like, chances are many of them will immediately perk up and become more interested in hearing more about this unusual object teacher just brought in.

Alternatively, teachers can also show kids the double helix structure of DNA and then ask them to create their own models.  An article from Red Tricycle suggests allowing kids to use items like candy, grapes, toothpicks, pipe cleaners, and even Lego bricks to create their DNA structures. Just be sure to supervise them of course. By doing those things, kids will develop a greater level of familiarity with DNA and perhaps become more invested in hearing about it.

Ask the Students to Answer Questions About Themselves

Many kids are eager to share more about themselves, so take advantage of that trait and get them talking about things related to DNA. Ask them about some unique things they only see in themselves and their families and then explain how DNA is responsible for that.

By relating DNA to them and the people close to them, students will naturally want to learn more about how they have become who they are now.

Have the Students Participate in Games/Contests

Games are fun, and many kids are always up for one. Teachers can make a game or a contest out of who can create the best double helix DNA structure and then reward bonus points depending on how well the student explains what they have just built.

There are also matching games that can come from pairing up the chemical bases adenine, guanine, cytosine, and thymine that are all related to the topic of DNA.

Those are just some of the ways for teachers to make DNA a more interesting topic for their elementary school students. For those teachers struggling with that topic now, they can try out the tips above and see how well they work inside their classrooms.

 

Abby Drexler is a contributing writer and media specialist for Genetics Digest. She regularly produces content for a variety of science and education blogs about the wonders of genetics and DNA.

 

Teaching Children About How Clouds Form

Monday, September 10th, 2018

Teaching children about how clouds form

At some point in our lives, we’ve all sprawled on our backs and gazed in wonder at fluffy, drifting clouds.

Technically, clouds are a massive collection of tiny ice crystals or water droplets — so tiny, they float way up in the air. But for your students, clouds are more than just dust and water. They’re mysterious, puffy objects that wander through the sky and constantly change into endless, wonderful shapes.

It can be challenging to communicate the facts about clouds without losing the wonder of them as well. Let’s take a look at the science behind clouds and their formation, along with some fun experiments to capture your students’ imagination.

How Clouds Form

Despite their cotton-like appearance, clouds are made from billions of tiny droplets of water.

All air holds water. Close to the ground, it’s just in the form of an invisible gas — water vapor. This warm air rises and gets colder the higher it floats. High in the sky, the air pressure drops and the once-warm air expands as it gets colder. Cold air isn’t able to hold as much water as hot air, so as the warm air cools, some of this water vapor condenses around very small pieces of dust or other pollutants. This water forms a tiny droplet around each particle. If the air is cold enough, the water freezes into little ice crystals. Billions of these droplets or crystals gather together to form a cloud.

What Is Condensation?

Condensation is a part of the water cycle and is an essential part of cloud formation. The change of water from a gas to liquid form, condensation happens by a shift in air pressure and temperature.

After a shower, your bathroom mirror “fogs up.” If you wipe the surface of the glass, small drops of water collect on your hand and the mirror. This condensation occurred because the hot air from the shower cooled dramatically when it interacted with the cold surface of the glass. The rapidly cooling air couldn’t hold as much water as warm air, and the vapor reverted to its liquid form.

In the atmosphere, warm air cools as it rises, and water vapor condenses around tiny pieces of matter. These drops or crystals of condensed water form clouds.

Other Common Questions About Clouds

Your students’ questions won’t stop at, “How do clouds form?” Clouds have dozens of fascinating qualities that naturally engage a child’s curiosity, so be prepared to answer a barrage of cloud-related questions. Here are three of the most common cloud questions.

1. Why Do Clouds Float?

How do these giant, fluffy objects stay high in the sky? Why don’t they sink down to the ground?

Because clouds come from warm air, they have a higher temperature than the air around them. As long as the cloud is warmer than the atmosphere around it, it will float suspended in the sky.

2. Why Are Clouds White?

Light travels through the air in waves with different lengths, and each color we see has a unique wavelength. The ice crystals or drops of water inside clouds are big enough to scatter the light of all seven colors almost equally, which makes them look white.

But we all know that clouds sometimes get gray and ominous. This is because the light that hits a cloud gets reflected back towards the sun, so the bottom of the cloud — the part we see — looks gray. In rain clouds, the water droplets are larger and scatter even more light, meaning less light makes it out the bottom of the cloud. Because they are denser than normal clouds, rain clouds are consequently darker.

3. How Do Clouds Move?

Clouds are tossed around by the winds high in the atmosphere. The highest cirrus clouds are carried by the zooming jet stream, which makes them move incredibly fast — sometimes over 100 miles per hour. Thunderstorm clouds generally move fast, too, but not that fast. Typically, a storm blows through an area between 30 and 40 miles per hour.

How do clouds float

The Different Types of Clouds

Clouds come in a wide range of shapes and sizes, but every type is highly specialized — just by looking at a cloud, you can tell how high it’s floating and can even predict the weather.

Clouds are broadly categorized into three groups based on height — cirrus, alto and stratus — although there are a few other kinds as well. We’ll break down the categories and examine the different clouds found within each.

1. Cirrus Clouds

Cirrus clouds are the highest clouds, forming above 18,000 feet in the atmosphere. There are three types of cirrus clouds: cirrus, cirrostratus and cirrocumulus.

  • Cirrus: These common high clouds give this category its name. Made up of ice crystals, cirrus clouds look thin and wispy and high winds blow them into long streams. Usually white, cirrus clouds predict pleasant weather, but watch them closely — they often indicate that the weather is going to change in the next 24 hours.
  • Cirrostratus: Thin and sheetlike, cirrostratus clouds often fill the whole sky. A bank of cirrostratus clouds is very thin, and sometimes you can see the moon or sun shining through them. Typically, if you notice cirrostratus clouds, expect a storm in the next 12 to 24 hours.
  • Cirrocumulus: These small, round clouds form long rows high in the sky. Look for cirrocumulus clouds during the cold winter months — if you see them in your sky, you can expect cold but fair weather. However, in tropical areas, cirrocumulus clouds can indicate the approach of a hurricane.

2. Alto Clouds

The “in-between” clouds, alto clouds hover anywhere between 6,500 and 18,000 feet in the air. There are only two types of alto clouds to remember — altostratus and altocumulus.

  • Altostratus: These blue-to-gray clouds typically cover the whole sky, and they are formed from both drops of water and ice crystals. In thinner areas, you might barely see the sun through them. Grab your umbrella if your sky is filled with altostratus — they often form before storms with continuously falling snow or rain.
  • Altocumulus: Gray and puffy, altocumulus form around water droplets instead of ice. Usually, altocumulus clouds huddle together in groups. Watch out if you see them on a hot and humid morning — thunderstorms will probably come in the late afternoon.

3. Stratus Clouds

These are the lowest-hanging types of clouds and form anywhere up to 6,500 feet. Three types of clouds are categorized as stratus clouds — stratus, stratocumulus and nimbostratus.

  • Stratus: This category is named after these gray and uniform clouds. Stratus clouds will often fill the whole sky, and they almost look like fog that hovers just above the ground. Stratus clouds often produce a light drizzle or mist.
  • Stratocumulus: Puffy, low to the ground and very gray, stratocumulus clouds gather in lines. Hints of blue sky peek out between the rows. Although stratocumulus clouds rarely produce precipitation, they can easily grow into rainy nimbostratus clouds.
  • Nimbostratus: These clouds are a dark, broody gray, and are often associated with continuous precipitation, either snow or rain. You won’t get storms out of nimbostratus clouds, though — just light or moderate precipitation.

4. Clouds That Grow Vertically

Both cumulus and cumulonimbus clouds grow vertically, towering high into the sky. But they have a few important distinctions:

  • Cumulus: These are the dreamy shape-shifting clouds, the ones perfect for lying on your back and trying to decide what they look like. Cumulus clouds are fluffy and white, resembling suspended pieces of cotton candy. Known as “fair-weather clouds,” cumulus clouds have a flat base and rounded tops, and they often float along only 3,300 feet above the ground.
  • Cumulonimbus: Giant and ominous, we all know cumulonimbus clouds as the clouds in thunderstorms. Often, high winds flatten out the tops of cumulonimbus clouds, giving these multi-layered clouds a distinct anvil appearance. With cumulonimbus clouds, expect heavy snow, rain, lightning, hail and sometimes tornadoes. These giants can grow up to 50,000 feet tall.

5. Other Types of Clouds

Some clouds don’t fit into the normal “cloud” categories. Here are a few of the most common:

  • Mammatus: These are the low hanging bumps that hang below cumulonimbus clouds. If you see a massive cumulonimbus with mammatus clouds, you can expect severe weather.
  • Lenticular: You’ll only see lovely lenticular clouds if you live around mountains. Because of both their extreme heights and the low valleys in between them, mountains redirect winds in wave patterns. These waving winds create soft and smooth lenticular clouds, which look like frisbee discs or even flying saucers.
  • Contrail: Who hasn’t looked in wonder at the long slashes of clouds left in the wake of airplanes? These short-lived clouds are called contrails and form from the condensation expelled by jet airplanes. The hot and humid exhaust of a plane reacts with the cold, low-pressure air around it, creating strings of clouds that stitch across the sky.
  • Fractus: These are the small, ragged fragments of clouds that have been torn from larger clouds. Fractus clouds don’t have a clearly defined base, change constantly, and are usually indicative of strong winds.
  • Fog: When we walk through fog, we experience what it’s like to walk through a cloud. This “cloud-on-the-ground” typically forms when warm southerly winds bring a wave of humid air into an area. The warm air blows over a much colder soil or snow, and it begins to cool from below. If the air can’t absorb any more moisture, the water will condense and create a cloud.

    Clouds come in a wide range of shapes and sizes

Hands-On Lessons

For an engaging look at how clouds form, try one of these two easy experiments — you’re sure to keep your students’ attention. Using experiments is a great way to easily communicate cloud facts to children, and to keep them focused throughout the lesson.

1. Cloud in a Bottle Experiment 

You don’t need many materials to create your very own cloud. Try this experiment to give your students a hands-on demonstration of the steps and ingredients required for clouds to form.

Materials

Here are the tools you need to collect:

  • 2-liter clear plastic bottle
  • Warm water
  • Matches

Experiment

Follow these step-by-step instructions to create a cloud in your classroom.

  1. Pour warm water into the clear plastic bottle until it’s roughly one-third full. Twist on the cap.
  2. Squeeze the bottle tightly around the middle and then release. Have your students note that nothing happens — you still need another ingredient to make a cloud. Note — if the inside of the bottle is obscured by condensation, gently shake the bottle to let the water wash it away.
  3. Carefully, light a match and take the cap off of the bottle. Hold the lit match over the opening.
  4. Quickly, drop the match into the bottle and twist the cap back on.
  5. Once again, slowly squeeze and release the bottle. A cloud will appear when you let go and vanish when you squeeze.

Explanation

There are three ingredients to cloud formation — water vapor, dust or other particles and a drop in air pressure. The warm water adds water vapor to the air trapped inside the bottle as it evaporates. But if you squeeze and release the bottle at this point, no cloud forms — the air doesn’t yet have any debris particles.

Once you drop in the match, the smoke gives the water vapor something to condense around. Now, when you squeeze and release the bottle, a cloud forms. The final requirement for clouds is a drop in air pressure. When you squeeze the bottle, you dramatically increase the air pressure, and it drops as you release. Viola — a cloud!

2. Cloud in a Jar Experiment

A variation of the cloud in a bottle experiment, this one requires a glass jar and some ice.

Materials

Before you begin, gather these supplies:

  • Glass jar
  • Ice
  • Jar lid or plate
  • Matches
  • Warm water

Experiment

With only a few steps, give your students an up-close look at a cloud.

  1. Pour the hot water into a jar, until it is about halfway filled. Make sure the water is not too hot or that you have warmed the jar ahead of time — pouring hot water into a cold jar could cause the glass to crack!
  2. Twist the lid back on the jar, or cover the opening with a plate. Place some ice on top of the lid or dish.
  3. Let the jar sit for a little while and see that the hot water is creating some steam.
  4. Light a match and allow it to burn for a few moments. Blow out the match, drop it into the jar and quickly cover the opening with the plate of ice.
  5. The “cloud” will be much more visible. Lift the lid and see the cloud fade into the room.

Explanation

The same principles are at work in this experiment as in the cloud-in-a-bottle process. To form, a cloud needs water vapor, air debris and a change in temperature and pressure. In this experiment, instead of squeezing the bottle, the ice drops the air temperature and pressure inside of the jar and a cloud is born.

Awaken your child's curiosity

Awaken Your Child’s Curiosity

At Science Explorers, we are dedicated to making science fun and engaging for your children. We use interactive and hands-on techniques to foster a kid’s natural wonder and curiosity. Some of our favorite activities include dissection, rocket launches, rubber eggs and tornadoes-in-a-bottle, to just name a few.

Read more about our summer science camps and after-school clubs, and feel free to contact us with any questions. We look forward to learning with you.

Teaching Children About Acids and Bases

Tuesday, July 31st, 2018

Children learning about acids and bases

Have you ever tried to teach kids about the fundamentals of acids and bases, only to be met with groans and other bored reactions? We understand that that’s no fun. Maybe you’re excited about the concept and want to make it interesting for the kids, but are struggling to find a way to make such a potentially dry topic come alive.

The key to doing this is by showing your students just how far from dry this topic actually is. The reason they may be uninterested is because they might think of it as an obscure chemical concept that has no effect on them whatsoever. But what if you could prove that the opposite is the same? By showing your kids all the ways in which this concept is active in their everyday lives, you can help spark interest, exploration and excitement.

To help you do just this, we’ve pulled together a few quick tips and ideas for teaching kids about acids and bases. We’ll go over the basic concepts in simple language that’s appropriate for children as well as look at some fun experiments you can do to play with these ideas.

What Are Acids?

You may have heard of the term acid before, and you have likely heard something referred to as acidic. And while you may have a general idea of what these terms mean, it’s helpful to understand what these terms mean on a scientific level.

Think of beverages like lemonade or orange juice. Think of the delicious tangy taste you get when you sip either of these beverages. That tang is the direct result of these beverages’ acidic nature. The reason that these beverages and many other substances are naturally acidic is because they contain lots of hydrogen ions. An ion is a special type of atom or molecule that has an electric charge. A hydrogen ion, then, is one that has a tiny electrical charge.

Every substance in the universe is made up of hundreds and thousands of tiny atoms, molecules and ions. When a large number of those are hydrogen ions, the substance is acidic. In food, that means it will have a sour or tangy taste. Lots of things other than food can be acidic as well, though.

Water molecule

What Are Bases?

Base is a term we rarely use in everyday life, at least in this context, and that means it might be a slightly less familiar concept. One everyday example of a base substance is baking soda, commonly used to bake cakes, cookies and other sweet treats. If you try to taste this, you’ll see that it’s very bitter. If you rub it between your fingers, you’ll find it has a strange, soapy feeling. This is all because baking soda has a basic nature.

Basic substances contain lots of hydroxide ions. These are a different type of molecule with a small electrical charge. In foods, this means they will taste more bitter. Plenty of things other than food can be basic, however.

What Is the pH Scale?

The pH scale is another concept you may have heard of without much reference for what it is and how it works. But while the name might sound intimidating, the idea is actually pretty simple.

Think of the pH scale as a ruler that we can use to measure how acidic or base something is. There are 14 different possible point values on the scale, and each one represents a possible level of acidity or baseness. A substance is acidic if it has a pH level of 0 through 7, where 0 is the most acidic. A substance is basic, then, if it has a pH level of 7 through 14, where 14 is the most basic. If a substance has a pH of exactly 7, it’s neutral. This means it has equal amounts of hydrogen and hydroxide ions. Pure water is a neutral substance.

If an item measures at a 3 on the pH scale, then, we can see that this substance would be quite acidic, although not as acidic as other substances. Something that measures an 8 would be slightly basic.

pH scale

What Is an Indicator?

We mentioned earlier that certain foods are more basic or acidic, and you can tell this by tasting them. Lemonade, for example, is clearly sour and tangy, helping us realize that it must be acidic. Baking soda, on the other hand, is bitter and we can easily recognize that it is more basic.

What about things that aren’t food, though? After all, plenty of different substances throughout nature have either an acidic or basic nature. Logically, we can’t go around tasting all of these different things to tell where they fall on the pH scale. So how do we test them?

We use an indicator to compare acids and bases. An indicator is a special type of substance that tells us whether the item in question is more acidic or basic. Believe it or not, there are a few naturally occurring indicators that we can use to determine the pH of a substance. Litmus and turmeric are great examples of natural indicators.

Out of all of those natural indicators, the one we use most frequently in a classroom setting is litmus. This is a type of material that comes from lichens, which are plants that grow along walls, trees or rocks. Litmus has a naturally purple color, but it can change its color. When it comes into contact with an acidic substance, it turns red. When a basic solution touches it, it will turn blue. Because of this unique property, litmus is a handy indicator. When we use it today, we most often use it in the form of small sheets known as litmus papers.

Where Do We Find Acids and Bases in Nature?

While acids and bases might sound like obscure chemistry terms that we would never encounter except in a lab, this isn’t true. Acids and bases are all around us in daily life. Lots of plants have leaves, stems, roots and flowers that are either acidic or basic. Plenty of fruits are acidic or basic, and even ordinary things like soda and milk fall somewhere on the pH scale.

Even inside our bodies, there are lots of acidic and basic substances. There are acids in our stomach that help with digestion, and our muscles produce acid when we exercise. Our pancreas is basic and helps in the digestion process as well. All these different acids and bases work together in our bodies to keep things running smoothly.

Acids vs. Bases Experiments for Kids

Because acids and bases pop up all over the place in nature, as well as in plenty of human-made settings, what are some fun and interesting ways to play with these ideas? As it turns out, there are plenty. Try a few of these experiments to get everyone interested in the ideas of acids and bases.

1. The Red Cabbage pH Test

Red cabbage is a great natural indicator and is perfect for use in classroom experiments. To get this test started, slice some red cabbage, put it in a pot with some water and let it simmer for 30 minutes or so. Strain the liquid out, set it aside and then you’re all ready to get started.

Grab a couple of small rectangles of white paper. Index cards are a great choice, but you can also cut out regular pieces of scrap paper. Soak them in the red cabbage water and let them dry.

Take a white paper plate or a thick sheet or white paper and drip a few drops of your cabbage water onto this surface. Take an acid, such as lemon juice, and a base, such as baking soda, and add a small amount into different sections of your cabbage water samples. The water will change color as a result and will look like magic in the process. With a solid explanation of bases and acids under their belts, kids will enjoy watching the colors change in response to the different liquids.

Another way to use this cabbage water is to pour a few inches of it in two separate glasses. Add water to these glasses as well, until they’re about two-thirds of the way full. Finally, add a base to one glass and an acid to the other and watch the entire glassful of liquid change colors.

Once your homemade litmus papers are dry, cut them into smaller strips. Now the kids can perform their very own litmus tests with all kinds of different materials and substances. Pull different things out of the fridge and let the kids use the papers to test them. Some good things to try include pickle brine, apple juice and soda. Before you dip the papers into the substances, ask the kids to guess whether an item will be acidic or basic, and make a game out of it. Show them how to record their predictions, along with whether or not they were correct.

Of course, if red cabbage is unavailable or if you’d rather not go through the process of creating your own litmus papers, you can simply buy prepared litmus papers in many different stores. These pre-made papers will work in exactly the same way and can be used to perform the same tests.

Red cabbage

2. The Copper Coin Experiment

Do you have any tarnished copper coins lying around? If so, they can make a great experiment.

For this to work, you’ll want to take a few different cups and pour a small amount of a liquid solution into each cup. Try a few different solutions that you know to be acidic, and a few others that you know to be basic. Then, all you have to do is drop the copper coins into the solution. You can lay them flat in the bottom of the cup, although the results will be more striking if you can stand the coin on end so that only half gets soaked in the liquid.

The acids will dissolve the tarnish that has collected on the copper coins, restoring them to their original shiny selves.

3. The Raw Egg Experiment

Another great experiment to try involves a raw egg. While this one is fun to do and fun to watch, the kids might also enjoy making predictions with this one and trying to guess what will happen.

For this experiment, keep things simple. Take a raw egg and submerge it in a bath of vinegar. Ask the kids what they think will happen. As you might be able to guess, the highly acidic vinegar breaks down the shell and effectively turns it into an acid-cooked soft-boiled egg. It will even bounce if you drop it carefully.

4. The Jet-Powered Boat

This experiment works best in a bathtub, a large sink or even a blow-up pool in the backyard. To get started, take a regular plastic water bottle and drill a hole straight through the cap. Thread a thin straw through this hole and use some modeling clay to help you hold this straw in place and plug the gaps around it. When you eventually submerge the bottle in your pool, this clay will also help weigh that end of the bottle down and keep it underwater.

Fill the water bottle with a solution of half water and half vinegar. Be careful not to fill the bottle all the way, and instead leave a space of empty air near the top. When your bath or pool is filled, set the experiment in motion by adding about half a teaspoon of baking soda to the bottle. Immediately cap the bottle and cover the end of the straw with your finger before placing the bottle in the pool and letting go.

The acid of the vinegar and base of the baking soda will violently react with one another, fizzing and creating “jet fuel” that will shoot out the end of the straw and propel the boat across the pool.

Child looking into microscope

Keep Your Kids Interested in Science

Did your kids enjoy learning about these fascinating ideas? Did their eyes light up as they watched these concepts come to life in front of them in the form of exciting experiments? If so, it’s important to nurture and encourage these interests.

If any of your science adventures have sparked a kid’s interest in science, consider enrolling them in a science summer camp or an after-school science club. Both of these are great ways to allow kids to continue exploring these interests and learning new and exciting concepts in the company of their peers.

If you live in the Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware or Maryland area, our Science Explorer camps are week-long events in the summer that are held at schools, museums, libraries and other educational settings near you. If summer has already ended, however, there’s no need to worry. We also offer after-school programs for kids in grade one through five, although this will vary from school to school.

Visit our information pages to learn more about our summer programs and after-school clubs. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to contact us. We’ll help you find a program that will be the best fit for your young science explorer!

Guide to Teaching Children About the States of Matter

Friday, May 4th, 2018

Guide to Teaching Children About The States of Matter

Many of us have experienced that existential “wow, science!” moment in adulthood.

It may have occurred while watching an ice cube melt in the sun. Suddenly, it dawns on us that the ice is actually made of crystalline water molecules, that they are absorbing light from a star 93 million miles away, and that it’s causing them to wiggle excitedly until they slide off the ice cube. The colossus of scientific knowledge behind even this simple process can be overwhelming, provided it catches us in the right mood.

But here’s the tougher question — how do you translate this wonder to children in a way that inspires and engages them?

Science is fascinating, fun and extremely useful in children’s futures. Most importantly, understanding its principles allows them to engage with the world around them by thinking critically about everything they see — literally, everything they see. Why are puddles of water frozen in the morning? Why does boiling water create steam? Why is there steam-like mist hovering over riverbeds in the morning?

Let’s take a look at the best ways to teach children about states of matter, one of the most applicable and ever-present scientific concepts in their lives.

An atom is the basic building block of nature

Start With the Building Blocks of Matter

One of the greatest parts about this subject is that nature has put it on display for us everywhere we look. States of matter start with atoms and molecules.

An atom is the basic building block of nature. This is a particle 1 million times smaller than a speck of dust, meaning it is impossible to see it. You can drive the small size of an atom home by asking children how many atoms they think are in a single grain of salt. The answer is 1,200,000,000,000,000,000 — that’s 1.2 quintillion.

molecule, on the other hand, is what results when two or more atoms bond together. This small cluster of atoms forms a new substance altogether. For instance, while gold is made up of individual atoms packed together, water is made of molecules. Specifically, water is made of two hydrogen atoms bonded to a single oxygen atom.

Atoms and molecules often bond to one another, meaning they have attractive forces between them that cause them to stick together. This is why water forms beads instead of spreading apart.

There are loads of fun facts about atoms. If you’re looking for ways to instill a sense of wonder into children about atoms and molecules, sprinkle these facts into your conversations:

  • Atoms are made up of 2 parts: the nucleus, made of protons and neutrons, and electrons that orbit it. Though it’s actually quite a bit more complicated, you can illustrate by comparing it to planets orbiting the sun.
  • Most of an atom is empty space. If one atom were the size of a football stadium, the nucleus would be right in the center of the field and would be the size of a pea. That means the solid thickness of everything around you is an illusion — it’s mostly empty space.
  • If an atom were bigger — say, if it were the size of a period at the end of a sentence — then a human lying on their back would stretch from Dallas, Texas to Los Angeles, California.
  • “Atom” is derived from the ancient Greek term for “uncuttable.” The Greeks supposed that one could take a piece of matter and keep cutting the pieces in half until it was impossible to make them any smaller. This smallest piece was what they called the “atom.”
  • There are about 7 billion billion billion atoms in your body. Through eating, drinking and breathing, you replace 98% of these atoms every year.
  • If a child is having trouble understanding what a billion is, show them a visual representation of 7 billion people. This is the approximate population of earth and gives an idea of how large these numbers are.

There are 3 main states of matter

The States of Matter

Technically there are 5 states of matter, but most people only need to know 3. Here they are:

1. Solids

A material in solid state holds its form and shape. That means it doesn’t flow. Solids can be many different colors, can have different hardness and come in a variety of shapes. Just because an object is solid doesn’t mean it can’t be squished or molded — it means that, if left untouched, the material won’t flow.

Examples of solid objects include:

  • Floors
  • Pencils
  • Trees
  • Cars
  • Skin
  • Books
  • Ice
  • Chairs
  • Computers

There are many solids that can be compressed and molded, such as clay, Play-Doh, cushions, fabric and clothing. Even though this latter group changes shape when we poke and squeeze it, this doesn’t mean it isn’t a solid. If you left it sitting on a table in a moderately cool room, it would have the same shape when you came back to it later as when you left it.

Let’s think about how this relates to atoms and molecules. In a solid, atoms and molecules huddle closely together, which makes them rigid and stiff. This effectively means they are frozen in place and do not flow around one another. This stiffness occurs because the bonds between the atoms or molecules are strong and hold them together.

2. Liquids

A liquid takes the shape of its container. That means if you pour it into a bowl, it will fill the bowl from the lowest points upward and come to rest. Imagine the difference between placing a large chunk of ice into a bowl versus pouring the same amount of water into it. The ice is solid and will keep its shape, while the water will fill the bowl.

Liquids can have different thicknesses, known as “viscosity.” For example, pancake batter is thicker — it is more viscous— than water and flows more slowly. Examples of liquids are:

  • Water
  • Juice
  • Oil
  • Blood
  • Coffee
  • Gasoline

Mercury is an example of a metal that is also a liquid.

To better understand viscosity, picture yourself waking up on a cold morning. You don’t exactly throw the covers off and jump out of bed. Rather, you pull the covers farther up and are slow to get moving. Many liquids react to cold the same way — the colder they are, the slower they move. This is the case for substances like syrup, oil and liquid bath soap. Note that water does not react the same way, but as we shall see, water is one weird substance.

The atoms and molecules in liquids are farther apart than in solids, which gives them the freedom to move around and lessen the bond between the individual atoms. In the liquid state, atoms and molecules are far enough apart to flow around one another but not so far as to be in the final state of matter — a gas.

3. Gases

A gas is a substance that behaves like the air around us. Gases also take the shape of their container, but they are much lighter than liquids. That means they will expand to fill any container they are placed in. If you poured water into a glass fish bowl, the water would fill the container from the bottom up. If you did the same with gas, it would expand to fill every part of the glass fish bowl, not just the bottom.

It is not hard to move through gases, and if they escape their container, they will quickly spread through the surrounding air. You can’t measure how much gas there is using a scale or a measuring cup. To figure this out, you have to use math. Examples of gases include:

  • Air
  • Steam from boiling water
  • Smoke from smokestacks
  • Exhaust from cars

Within a gas, atoms and molecules are far apart from one another and bounce around independently. They do not flow around one another as in a liquid, but rather ping off each other freely in all directions.

Changing States and Temperature

Now that we have covered the 3 states of matter, it’s time to discuss a phenomenon that we can see in everyday life. This is the changing of states, or the tendency of matter to shift between solid, liquid and gas.

We see this all the time — butter melting on hot toast, ice melting to form water, water boiling to form steam, beads of water condensing on cold surfaces or sweat evaporating. In our everyday experience, the most common reason formatter to change states is temperature. A material in solid form is colder than the same material in liquid form, which is colder than its gaseous form.Kettle on stove

Let’s look at some of the changes that occur between the states of matter.

1. Changes Between Solid and Liquid States

To understand the shift between solid and liquid states, it’s helpful to try a very delicious example for yourself: butter melting on a piece of hot toast. Butter is quite hard when it comes out of the refrigerator. When you place a chunk of it on a piece of toast fresh out of the toaster, however, it begins to soften up and turn to liquid, making it easier to spread.

Let’s zoom in now on the atoms and molecules making up butter. When they come out of the refrigerator, they are huddled close together and are cold and rigid. Then, a giant knife slides in and whisks a whole section of them away, only to plop them onto a hot piece of bread. The heat from this bread spreads into the butter. It disperses among the molecules, warming them up and causing them to move apart from their neighbors.

Eventually, they are far enough away from each other that they can begin to flow around one another. Zooming out, this is the liquid stage of butter. Because the cold butter absorbed more energy in the form of heat, its molecules began wiggling around and were freer to move.

Before we move on, let’s look at the reverse process with a liquid-to-solid experiment. Picture a bowl of melted butter placed in the fridge. We know that the butter molecules are freely flowing around one another in liquid form because they have enough heat to do so. But as the butter’s heat gets sucked away by the freezer, the molecules within it begin to huddle together and slow down. Eventually, they will congeal and form a solid.

2. Changes Between Liquid and Gaseous States

Teaching kids about the state of matter is easier when you have something for them to look at. Try using a liquid-to-gas experiment to illustrate this change.

Boil a pot of water on the stove. You turn up the dial and begin to heat it up. This heat passes into the water through the bottom of the pot, and, in response, the water molecules start to move around. More and more heat is added. They move around more and more in response. But how long can this go on? Will they just keep moving faster and faster?

At a certain point, the water molecules absorb enough heat energy that they turn into a gas. This means they move so rapidly, they rise to the top of the water and escape into the surrounding air. From our vantage point outside, this is steam rising from the pot of water. This process eventually leads to evaporation.

The reverse of evaporation is condensation. There is water in the air around you at all times. It has evaporated off of rivers, lakes and oceans and out of the soil and is a large part of our atmosphere. These water molecules are in gas form, and even though they are not at boiling temperature, they are light enough and far enough apart that there is no reason for them to turn liquid again.

However, imagine now that you’ve got a cold glass of iced lemonade. The moist air around the glass, which contains water, comes in contact with the cold glass. The cold causes the gaseous water in the air to “condense” — that is, it collects on the glass because the heat has been sucked out of it, until there is enough of it to form liquid water. This liquid water collects and forms the drips and drops we all recognize as condensation.

Water expands when cold

Water: One Weird Substance

It is worth noting that water, the most important liquid in our lives, is also probably the strangest substance we know of. Scientists regularly scratch their heads at its bizarre tendency to break all the rules. Here are some of the strange facts about water you may want to mention when explaining states of matter to kids:

  • It expands when cold. It is a basic universal rule that substances contract, or shrink, as they get colder. That’s why we’ve been doing all this talk of atoms and molecules “huddling” together when they lose their heat. But water expands when it freezes. For example, ice frozen in a glass will produce a seemingly smaller amount of water in the glass when it melts.
  • It takes a lot of energy to heat it up. Water can absorb a lot of heat before turning to a gas — kind of like a boxer who can take a lot of blows before losing the match.
  • It can dissolve almost anything. For being such a nourishing part of life, water sure does tend to tear things apart. It can dissolve sugar, salt and many other solids — more than any other liquid known to man.

Let Science Explorers Awaken a Child’s Inner Scientist

Bolstering your child’s science education can open new doors for them and help them understand the world. Science Explorers offers fun summer camps and afterschool clubs that let children explore and interact with the world around them. This leads to greater motivation, understanding, performance in school and general interest in their surrounding environment.

Our life’s work is to make science fun for kids. In the words of our owner and founder, Jupiter Jen, “If it’s not fun, we’re not doing it.” This program is perfect for children ages 4-11, allowing them to become engaged with science and remove its stigma as a tough subject. We focus on a hands-on format with cool experiments like dissections, chemistry, creating cool materials, looking at organs, launching rockets and much more. Get in touch today to learn more about our programs.

Teaching Science to Different Learning Styles

Wednesday, March 7th, 2018

Most successful teachers are personally invested in their students’ success. The best are instructional chameleons, changing colors and adapting to each unique situation. No two students are alike, both in terms of personality and learning style. As a result, no single teaching style is going to be effective in all situations. Further complicating the issue is the fact that each academic subject also tends to have a specific style of instruction that works best. Anyone who thinks teaching is easy has clearly never done it.

What Kind of Teacher Do You Want to Be?

If the entire goal of a child’s education is the acquisition and practical application of knowledge, the teacher has to choose from a number of paths to get each child to their end goal. The two most common teaching personas are:

  • The Lecturer: The lecturer will dictate information to the child, expecting rote memorization of information to be regurgitated on an assessment at the end of the unit. In some subject areas, this is an acceptable strategy. If you’re attempting to teach students about the important causes and battles of the War of 1812, it’s hard to picture a better way to do it than in a lecture.
  • The Mentor: A mentor puts the students in position to make their own discoveries and think about the subjects with their own thought processes. Taking a mentorship role requires creativity, patience and an interminable well of emotional support. It’s tough to watch students struggle and get frustrated, but in many cases, this puts the kids in position to take control of their own learning.

Each teaching style has its positives and its negatives, and a successful teacher must be adept at employing both styles to suit all situations and learners.

Learning Styles: Covering the Spectrum

The education field has spent a considerable amount of time and energy over the last three decades on understanding the wide variety of learning styles and developing a varied arsenal of teaching techniques to match. Teaching is no longer a matter of standing at the front of the room and handing out papers, dictating knowledge to a group of eager youngsters. Every teacher must adapt to accommodate all of the kids in their class.

Science is the perfect subject for keeping students and teachers on their feet. Each new topic offers a brand new experience and opportunities for discovery. The possibilities for differentiating your instruction are practically endless. With so many options, you can plan lessons that speak to each and every student in your class.

Let’s talk about each learning style and what you might need to consider when you plan your lessons.

Visual Learners

Have you ever talked to a student and felt like everything went in one ear and out the other? Sure, some of that can be chalked up to kids being kids, but don’t discount the fact that some students truly don’t process information just be listening — visual learners prefer to get their eyes on the information. This isn’t to say they always enjoy reading assignments and diligent note-taking, but visual learners are exactly the audience that graphic organizers were designed for.

Handouts and worksheets can be effective in small doses, but science is all about interacting with the physical world around us, so why wouldn’t you expose them to the real deal, rather than giving them a worksheet about it?

Teaching science to visual learners means giving them hands-on demonstrations, graphs, charts and creative projects. Don’t just tell them about the hardness scale and cleavage types of rocks and minerals, bring the rock samples in and pass them out. For your astronomy unit, assign a project that requires your students to build a scale model of the solar system.

Computers can be particularly effective with visual learners, especially YouTube videos that combine fun graphics with solid information.

Kinesthetic Learners

The kids in the class who just can’t seem to sit still or keep their hands to themselves are probably your kinesthetic learners.

For these kids, a reading assignment is less fun than a trip to the dentist. Lessons should include hands-on demonstrations as often as possible. Computers can help put lessons into motion with simulation programs or games. Get the students up on their feet and use the class to demonstrate simple lessons about gravity.

If you ever teach a lesson about magnetism without sitting a pair of magnets and a cup of metal shavings in front of each student, you’ve missed out on a huge opportunity.

Social Learners

We’re sure you have students in your class who can’t seem to go more than five minutes without talking to the kid next to them — they’re your social learners.

The truth is, some students process information better by discussing it with others, whether that’s other students or you the teacher. Group discussions and projects will be much more effective for social learners than worksheets and reading assignments. Allowing students to work in groups puts them in a position to talk through hypotheses and the best way to approach a problem.

Say you’re teaching a physics lesson about gravity and you hand each group a ball of paper and golf ball. Have the students record some observations about the two objects — size, weight, shape, etc. Ask them to talk as a group and decide, based on their observations, which object will hit the ground first. Then, let them drop the objects at the same time and talk about whether their experiment matched their predictions.

If you were to simply stand in front of the class and do all of this for them, you might have engaged ⅓ of the class, while the rest were just watching. When it comes to these types of simple scientific observations, the instructional style that best suits the social learners in your class can also provide value for all learner types.

Auditory Learners

Auditory learners are the students who most effectively learn in the traditional, didactic style. These students process information best when they hear it, so offering clear, detailed oral instructions can be the simplest way to engage them with a task. These kids are far more likely to retain a lecture lesson than other students. If you’re going to give a handout that explains the assignment, do so because you want your students to build reading comprehension skills. It may not be the most effective way to communicate with your auditory learners, but reading comprehension is certainly important for everyone!

When you’re dealing with young children, even the auditory learners will need something more than a boring lecture. Wrapping your information up in a fun and engaging story is a good way to provide kids with concrete associations for important details — this is why the Magic Schoolbus series was so successful. Rather than providing a boring textbook account of life on the different planets, Miss Frizzle and her students visited them and experienced each environment.

Using Blended Lessons to Reach Students With All Learning Styles

While it’s true you can’t teach all students with the same educational style, you also shouldn’t tie yourself in knots trying to cater to your kids every single time. Find a balance between speaking to their learning style and forcing them to grow. It’s unreasonable for a student to expect to receive the same type of instruction all the time.

Part of challenging your students will involve forcing your kinesthetic learners to take notes, your visual learners to listen to a lecture and your auditory learners to complete a reading assignment or two. Students should learn to adapt just as much as teachers do, and a successful academic career will require resilience and adaptability.

In practice, this isn’t difficult to achieve. In an average class size of 20, you’ll likely have a variety of learning styles among the students in a single class. No one expects you to deliver five versions of your lesson simultaneously, so you aren’t going to be able to cater to every learning style every time.

Instead, it’s best to rotate between visual lessons, hands-on lessons, lecture-based lessons and group projects throughout the course of the year. This keeps your students from getting bored, while challenging them every single day — it’ll keep you from getting bored, too.

The Case for Rote Memorization

Sometimes the completion of a task requires you to recall information. It’s not always about doing something — often the trick is knowing something. The recent emphasis on critical thinking and problem solving is inarguably positive, but it would be a mistake to downplay the significance of knowledge for its own sake.

How many jobs in the modern economy require employees to keep track of rules, criteria, guidelines and technical information to produce work that is accurate, timely and compliant with relevant requirements? It’s easy for a student to posit the argument “When am I ever going to need to know this?” with the companion assertion “If I need that information I can always look it up.”

The internet has changed the way all humans interact with information. While it’s true that a student will likely never have occasion to recall the details of the War of 1812, it’s not the information itself that is important. What’s important is the exercise of learning about a topic and being able to recall relevant details when prompted.

Consider the training regimen for a team sport. Practices usually involve running drills that focus on a fundamental skill. These drills often involve movements and routines that the players will never actually repeat in the course of a game. Think of the agility ladder used in gyms and on football fields all across the country. At no point will an athlete ever run in a pattern that involves very small steps in a zig-zag pattern, but these drills build footspeed and agility to help athletes in the heat of the game.

Didactic education and rote memorization is the mental equivalent of the ladder drill. Learning information and using it to complete a task or an assessment is at the core of the traditional educational model, and this instructional method still has merit.

Incorporate this style into your science lessons carefully, though. At a young age, science class is all about discovering the world around you and how it works. You shouldn’t spend too much time with your head buried in a book when nature is right there on the other side of your classroom’s windows.

Differentiated Assessments

As we all know, learning new information is only half the equation in a traditional educational setting. The other half of a teacher’s job is to effectively assess the students’ knowledge. Testing is the most controversial subject in the field of education now, with discussions taking place at every level about the effectiveness of standardized testing for measuring student mastery.

While you may not have control over how well a student performs on their state exams, you absolutely have control over how well they perform on assessments in your own class. Not every student possesses the skills to complete a multiple-choice test, and we shouldn’t ever confuse that with a lack of understanding of the material. We are reminded of the famous quote: “Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole live believing that it is stupid.”

These words, whether they were Einstein’s or not, should have a powerful impact on every educator, no matter your subject matter. We spend a tremendous amount of energy crafting lessons that allow each student the opportunity to engage the material and learn in their own way, so why would we funnel them all back into a traditional pen-and-paper assessment model? After all, no matter how you slice it, a student’s performance is determined not by their ability to learn and master the material, but by their score on an assessment of the teacher’s choosing. We don’t want to coach students up to run the race, but then put a brick wall in front of the finish line so they can never complete it.

Strongly consider offering multiple options for how your students demonstrate their knowledge. Vary your assessment style from unit to unit, and when possible tailor it to the strengths of each individual. It’s impossible to follow every single “As an educator, you should…” statement out there — you’d never have enough hours in the day to incorporate every last best practice that has ever been suggested.

We understand you won’t be able to offer six different assessment types to accommodate the six different learning styles in each classroom, but it should always be in the back of your mind to consider whether you’re putting your students in the best position to succeed on your assessment.

Perhaps you could offer your kinesthetic learners the ability to create something that demonstrates your knowledge, while the visual learners can take the paper test and the auditory learners can write their responses to the test questions that you read to them. Allow social learners to complete some sort of group project.

We understand that no teacher has three assistants to manage all of this chaos on a single day, but varying your assessment style from unit to unit can help to make sure no one is getting left behind. You’ll also be encouraging your students to adapt to the learning styles different from their own.

Pulling It All Together

Keeping different learning styles in mind and playing to all your students’ strengths is a lot easier said than done, but no one said teaching would be easy. In the end, your sole focus is the success of your students, so don’t you want to make sure you did all you could to help them?

As a science teacher, you have the advantage of being able to put the learning in the students’ hands — oftentimes literally. You have options an English teacher could only dream of. Science inspires wonder and curiosity like nothing else in the elementary school classroom, so tap into your personal passion and enthusiasm so you can give all your students an experience they’ll never stop talking about.

If you notice students who can’t get enough and want to encourage their enthusiasm for science, consider recommending an after-school program or a summer program to their parents. At Science Explorers, we happen to have both! Contact us today for more information about our fun, hands-on programs for your budding scientists!

How to Teach Kids About Pollution

Wednesday, January 3rd, 2018

With climate change continuing to be a hot topic, many parents and teachers are trying to figure out how to teach kids about pollution. It’s important for children to know about it because when they’re familiar with what it is, knowledgeable about its consequences and informed about how they can reduce or eliminate their own carbon footprints, they can help prevent it.

What Pollution Is

Put simply, pollution is anything that’s introduced into the environment that has the potential to negatively influence the quality of life for humans, animals or plants. Nine kinds of pollution are widely recognized throughout the world, including:

  • Air Pollution
  • Water Pollution
  • Land Pollution
  • Radioactive Pollution
  • Thermal Pollution
  • Noise Pollution
  • Light Pollution
  • Visual Pollution
  • Personal Pollution

Some types of pollution are visible or smelly, such as smoke coming from a factory, and others can’t be seen or smelled at all. Similarly, some kinds of pollution affect the planet on a global scale, while the effects of others are sometimes experienced in a more localized, smaller area.

Pollution Facts for Kids: The Consequences of Pollution

Pollution has very real consequences that affect people, animals and plants located all over the world. Even remote areas such as the Arctic Circle are impacted by manmade pollution. There isn’t a single location on Earth that’s untouched by pollution — not even the bottom of the deepest ocean nor the highest point in the sky.

Here are some pollution facts for kids that clearly demonstrate the harmful effects pollution has on the Earth and every living thing that inhabits the planet:

  • 40 percent of the rivers and 46 percent of the lakes located in the United States have too much pollution for fishing or swimming.
  • Approximately 50 percent of the globe’s population has to deal with polluted drinking water.
  • Around 250 million diseases caused by polluted drinking water are reported every year, which leads to anywhere from five to 10 million deaths annually.
  • About 70 percent of the industrial waste generated in developing countries is dumped into the water untreated. This pollutes the potable water in many locations.
  • Pollution is responsible for global warming. Global warming changes our weather patterns, which can lead to disasters such as cyclones, earthquakes and the premature melting of the world’s glaciers.

Educational Pollution Activities for Kids: Reducing Pollution

While your children can learn about air, water and other types of pollution by looking over the consequence listed above, they can get hands-on with the topic through pollution experiments and activities. Then, those activities you participate in can even lessen your carbon footprint and make a beneficial impact on the environment.

Here are some of the activities you and your kids can do to learn more about pollution and help reduce its severity:

  • Pick up discarded items and dispose of or recycle them properly.
  • Turn off lights and electronic devices when they’re not needed.
  • Walk or ride a bicycle instead of taking a car.
  • Use eco-friendly and energy-efficient products whenever possible.
  • Reduce, reuse and recycle as often as you can.

There are plenty of other things you can do to teach your kids about pollution and its dangers. You can make compost using your food scraps, for instance. Composting doesn’t have to take up much space, and it can even be done in a small apartment setting.

You and your kids can plant trees, and, depending on where you live, you can also grow your own fruit and vegetables. If you can’t grow your own produce, you can be sure you only buy produce that’s grown locally.

As you do things to teach your children about pollution, be sure you share facts that will emphasize the importance of what you’re doing. For example, when you’re recycling things together, you can explain that recycling just one glass bottle reduces air pollution by 20 percent and causes 50 percent less water pollution compared to making a brand-new bottle.

Contact Science Explorers

At Science Explorers, we give kids across Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, New York and Virginia. the chance to learn all about science. From exploring the effects of pollution to investigating the mysteries of space and everything in between and beyond, kids learn about science while having a great time at our after-school clubs and summer camps. To learn more about our fun-filled educational programs, contact Science Explorers today!