Preparing for Robotics

Preparing for Robotics
Students at DC's Whittier Educational Campus with ReSET Volunteer Peter Mehrevari

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

ReSET Volunteer Ed Rock in Action

The ‘Ewwww’ Factor Gets Kids Involved
No, they’re not doing the fox trot! ReSET volunteer Ed Rock demonstrates the size of a whale vertebra.

ReSET volunteer Ed Rock will tell you that owl pellets can be a bit off-putting to your average 10-year-old. But once they get past the general “ickiness,” they are rapt with attention. Rock, who works full-time at the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA), has been volunteering with the Virginia Gardens and Greenbrier after school programs. Last spring, Rock did an experiment at Greenbrier where the class examined a number of variables involved in seed (radish) germination and plant growth (light, water, and nutrients). “The students came up with ideas for some of the things they wanted to look at,” says Rock. “And I helped them to see it in the context of an experiment with control groups. The owl pellet activity was done because some of the students had expressed an interest in animals and anatomy. We used the owl pellets to discuss food webs, digestive processes, skeletons, and scale and size (for example, we looked at the size of vertebra in whales through voles—the typical skeletal remains you see in owl pellets).”
         Rock reflects the impressive commitment and creativity of ReSET volunteers. He typically takes a half day off to do his volunteer work, and he is always looking for new ideas to try out with the children.
            Rock says his students quickly get over their initial squeamishness. “We did a similar exercise in Virginia Gardens using fish (fish printing and dissection). A few students were standoffish at first, but as the activity wore on they moved in closer, and by the end of the session they were diving in and actively participating. Natural student curiosity and the wonders of the natural world can overcome so much inhibition in a group of students.”
Watch Ed on You Tube

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Some Feedback on ReSET

From Principal Michael Cunningham of Columbia Elementary, a new ReSET school in Annandale, VA:
I also want to let you know that I discussed the work you all do at our pyramid principal meeting last week and some of my colleagues are interested in learning more about the program.  I sat in on the session with Dianne Post and was amazed with the level of thinking and engagement the students had in the concept of “waves”!  It was exceptional!  If you don’t mind, I will pass your contact information and website on to two of my colleagues…currently North Springfield and Poe are interested in looking at the program.
 From Volunteer Cheryl Banks:
This past week I have decided to sell my condo, and I will be leaving the Maryland area. I am reluctant to begin the school year with the children, and have to leave them within a short time. I was very attached to the children and Mrs. Bradley and enjoyed the program immensely. I am indebted to ReSET for the wonderful experience of teaching the children. I am thinking of relocating to the NJ area. If ReSET is ever expanded to that state I would love to continue the program. It is with a heavy heart that I bid you farewell. I hope the program has continued success. Thank you for the experience of touching the lives of those special children, and an awesome teacher as Mrs. Bradley
Thanks Cheryl, we'll miss you!

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Exploding Molecules (and Stereotypes)

 We’ve become accustomed to assuming boys do better in science and math, while girls dominate in language and history. But it’s high time these stereotypes became a thing of the past. In Google’s first annual science competition in 2011, all three of the finalists were girls, and they beat out 10,000 other students from 90 countries, demonstrating both female and U.S. prominence in science. One winner discovered a way to make ovarian cancer treatments more effective. Another wants to revise the Clean Air Act using her model, quantifying air pollution among asthmatics. And the third winning project could lead to a barbeque meat marinade that reduces carcinogens.

Girls ruled again in 2012, with Brittany Wenger, a 17-year-old from Lakewood Ranch, FL taking home the grand prize for creating a Global Neural Network Cloud Service for Breast Cancer Detection. Across the country science-loving girls are doing amazing things, and not just in competitions. In February, Clara Lazen, a 10-year-old from Kansas City, MO, accidentally discovered a potentially explosive molecule in her fifth-grade science class. Clara’s assignment was to build a molecule using a modeling kit with colorful balls and plastic connectors. Clara randomly pieced together a combination of oxygen, nitrogen and carbon atoms to create a molecule her chemistry teacher, Kenneth Boehr, had never seen before. “I just saw that these go together more,” Clara told a Fox News local affiliate in Kansas City. “Like they fit more together. And they look better. And all the holes have to be filled in for it to be stable.”  
More on Clara’s discovery.

More on ReSET’s work to further science career interest in girls. See July 2012 ReSET Report.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

From the archives of ReSET volunteer and raconteur David McInnis

ReSET has a handful of well-made student microscopes, called “My First Lab Microscope Ultimate” (MFL-85)  by and look similar to this: 
They are rechargeable, though the batteries on half of them have died (I don’t know how old these are and suspect they were stored without being charged).  They can still be lit with the AC adapter.  Currently they run a about $120 each.   The optics, for this price range, are excellent as is the general build quality.  The base, turret, stage, and eyepiece tube are all metal.  The intensity of the white LED  can be varied.  There is only a coarse focus, which is fine (pun) for this level of use.  The objective lenses are parafocal, or very nearly so.  The stage is translationally fixed.  It’s very nice for the money.
The real point of this lesson is to introduce the students to making careful observations.
We talked about parts of the microscope and went over how we would use them, before passing them out.  We also talked about how we would take turns, a serious concern with only 4 scopes and 20 students. I then explained magnification and gave some examples.
There was often trouble in trying to focus, sometimes the turret would be set between lenses, sometimes the light wasn’t on, sometimes the student would say that theirs was in focus but upon checking there would be nothing but a blur.  Odd that they were just as excited with the blur, I’m sure this should tell me something.   The rest of the class was spent looking and sketching, with Ms. Haynes and myself running around helping and settling disputes about whose turn it was.
Specimens:  I brought pond water, getting lots of really dirty gunk, baker’s yeast that I had started that morning (a tiny amount of dry yeast, a pinch of sugar, in about 1 oz of water), a flower, a leaf, a bug found on the front of my car, and a collection of bought prepared slides.
The prepared slides, the yeast, and the bug were great.  The pond water took too much care for 3rd grade.  Sketching went great too.  We were sure to label them with basic data; specimen, date, observer’s name, etc.   Trying to label the magnification used was too much.   Also, it was carefully explained that they should draw exactly what they see.
I wish I had removed the highest power objective lens from each scope.  We avoided crashing into slides pretty well, but the additional, difficult to focus (for them) lens was distracting.  With a 10x eyepiece having just a 4x and a 10x objective would have been plenty.  The scope did come with a usb camera eyepiece, but I really wanted the students to have ‘real’ experience, rather than something semi-virtual.  The camera, as is expected, is basic; 640×480, high noise.  The refresh rate isn’t too bad, focusing is tolerable.  I don’t know what magnification is on the camera-piece.  I had some issues with the included software and usedMicam instead.  Here is a sample of a “mouth smear” prepared slide using the 10x objective:Again, it ain’t research grade, but it’s pretty amazing for the money.
I have wondered if a cheap ‘pocket microscope’ would be better at this grade level.  I have bought a couple of all plastic (including the lenese) 60-100x scopes that cost around 7 dollars (yes, seven) and believe they would be ok.  A slightly better scope of the same ‘pocket’ design but with glass lenses would be great.   For fourth graders it would probably depend on the class, but by 5th grade the microscope we used would be the way to go.  Of course if you are helping just 1 or 2 students then it would be good for any grade.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

ReSET Panels: June 21 and 24

I always learn new things and get more inspiration from ReSET Panels of Volunteers and Educators, and the thought-provoking follow-up discussions.  

Before the new school year starts, it is well worth your time check out the video of the June 21 panel (with volunteers Peter Mehrevari, Juan Valentin, Ed Rock and ReSET Board member John Newby) at

ReSET also had a very interesting panel on June 24, with Nsombi Brown (K-5 science teacher in MD), Charity Felser (DC Public Schools Central Office) and Terry Dade (Elementary School Principal in VA).   The big take-away for me is the need to provide children with inquiry-based (also called "problem-based") teaching instead of content-driven teaching. Rather than have students memorize an answer, this approach would have students think about how one would get to that answer. And getting it wrong the first time is okay - it's part of learning.  If students are building a structure with straws and marshmallows to support a weight, the most important thing is not that the first attempt succeed, but the subsequent process of discussing why it failed, what changes to make to the structure, and trying again. The focus is on questions that lead to getting "an answer," not always questions that have a single "correct" answer.  The panel discussed that this can be discomforting to students trained to raise their hands when they have THE correct answer, and that younger students seem to be more open to the inquiry-based approach than older students. When students learn this way they are better prepared for today's workplace, where the "right answer" is accessible to all in a digital flash and analytical thinking is a highly valued attribute.    

 Students today are also taught how to work collaboratively in finding answers, another requisite in many professions today.  A technique that ReSET Volunteer Ken Brown uses, which the panel endorses, is opening the class with a statement like "I don't know what we're going to learn today- we'll find out together." Not only does this emphasize collaborative learning, I think it’s spot-on for science experiments with ReSET students, since things can always take an unexpected turn in the classroom. Such an approach can also put teachers at ease, who might not have a science background and feel hesitant about having a STEM "expert" in the classroom.   

ReSET has been expanding to reach younger students – early grades in elementary schools and pre-Kindergarten.  There was discussion of how to present science to younger students; for example, in observing the distance rolling objects travel from ramps of differing slopes, students don’t measure the distance from the toe of the slope, but instead mark the spots the objects stop with masking tape to compare results.     

Another message from the panel is the movement toward "portfolio-based" learning; for example, science is not only addressed in the classroom block of time so designated, but is reinforced in lessons for writing, reading, and math. When I meet my teacher for this fall's program, I'm going to ask if I can help with connecting my experiments to other disciplines.  

Thursday, May 24, 2012

ReSET Chosen for 2012-13 Catalogue for Philanthropy: Greater Washington

The Catalogue for Philanthropy: Greater Washington is proud to announce that ReSET has been selected to be featured in the 2012-13 Catalogue. A panel of over 100 expert reviewers from area foundations, corporate giving programs, and peer non-profit organizations evaluated 220 applications; ReSET is one of 74 outstanding nonprofits to be featured this year.

Now in its tenth year, the Catalogue’s mission is to connect caring citizens with worthy community causes. According to Barbara Harman, President and Editor of the Catalogue for Philanthropy: Greater Washington, "Many nonprofits continue to suffer during the slow economic recovery, and the search for support has been intensified by the loss of government (and sometimes of foundation) funding. Individual donors can continue to make a real difference, keeping great organizations afloat during these challenging times.”

The Catalogue tracked $2,792,000 in 2010-11 donations, $1,335,000 to date in 2011-12 (and counting), and $17,667,000 since its inception in 2003. This year the Catalogue celebrates its 10th Anniversary.

From traditional, direct mail catalogues, to innovative online portals, to special events and social media, the Catalogue's goal is to build networks of engaged donors and great nonprofits who will make a difference in new ways, on their terms. It also provides charities with a stamp of approval that tells donors they can invest with confidence because the Catalogue vets its family of nonprofits with great care. 

25,000 individuals and hundreds of family foundations will receive copies of the print Catalogue in November, and others will visit the Catalogue website (, or access the Catalogue's customized portal at work. The online Catalogue also connects donors with volunteer opportunities, events, news, videos, and more.

"Charities were selected for excellence, cost-effectiveness, and impact" Harman said. “These are certainly among the best community-based nonprofits in the Washington region.”

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Younger Set

ReSET Volunteer Bob Hauptman reports on his program this term:

I want to tell you of my wonderful experience teaching science to kindergarden children.  First, you should know that it would not have been possible without the participation of two great people - Nsombi Brown, the Georgian Forest science teacher, and Harold Williams, the planetarium coordinator and professor of astronomy at Montgomery College, Takoma Park.  I have been guided by ReSET's key consideration: "To what extent does this activity spark an interest in learning more about science?"  I have long wanted to try kindergarten instead of fourth grade.  My rationale for this is that I believe the window in the brain for learning science is probably still open for six year olds, whereas it may have already closed for ten year olds.  In this regard, I also believe that this window may already be open for children younger than six.  I really need inputs from learning specialists to tell me.  Anyhow, the results exceeded my wildest expectations.  One of the main reasons is that six year olds are more pleasant than ten year olds.  They simply have not learned how to be sassy!  Additionally, they absorb information at least as well as older children, although it remains to be seen how well they retain it.  I did modify my approach slightly; so that although the activities are basically the same, I tried to present them at a simpler level.  My approach, to get them to perform on their own and then to try to get them to explain what is going on, remains basically the same.  Examples of what I did are: can/string phones, fossils, balloons for statics and Newton's reaction law, magnets, the solar system (including a visit to the planetarium, that they loved), the earth and rocks, and simple electric circuits.  I am sure much of what I do duplicates or adds to what Nsombi does, but I am not sure that matters.  I am still in a learning curve; so that, as time goes on, I will make some modifications.  For example, I will explain how plants nourish through their roots by demonstrating the rise of colored water through the fibers of a celery stalk.  I may also drop electric circuits.  I do intend to stay at this school (Will you have me, Nsombi?!) and to maintain contact with these children as they progress through grades.  It is also my intent to continue doing kindergarden and maybe even transition to pre-K.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Aerospace Engineer Stephen Leete  reports on his first classroom session as a ReSET volunteer at a school near his workplace, the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center:

I started my volunteer activity at the nearby Catherine T. Reed Elementary School today. I spent about an hour in the classroom of Mr. Pitts and his 26 fifth grade students. I used the AstroCappella Nine Planets song, powerpoint, and scale model activity. I gave out HST lithographs about the planets. I also talked about the formation of the solar system, detecting exo-planets using the Doppler effect and Kepler’s partial occultations, how Pluto came to be demoted from planet status, and a few other things. It went very well! I had been thinking of showing different satellite orbits, but didn’t get to it.

I’ll be visiting the school’s other fifth grade class with Ms. Mauldin next week, and alternating for a total of six visits (three per teacher), on consecutive Friday afternoons. I am planning on a Sun activity next (AstroCappella’s Sun Song, materials from SOHO, SDO, etc.). Not sure yet what will come after that.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Now That’s Using Your Cerebral Cortex!

Figure 1: ReSET students on a science cruise field trip about to violate rule number 1: never eat your science experiment!
ReSET volunteers are passionate about science, and they’ll go to great lengths to communicate that passion to their students. These scientists-in-the-classroom employ some unique and truly innovative methods of engaging children in their STEM field of expertise:
Philip Posner, who has a Ph.D. in Medical Physiology, shows his students various videos of a functioning heart and blood flow to complement what they are learning in Biology. The children then collect data on their own heart rate during rest, exercise and recovery. Their homework is to repeat the data collection at home with parents and siblings. At their next class they compare the results, and discuss how gender, age, size, and time of day can affect the results.
Chemical Engineer, Sonya Mazumdar and her US Patent and Trademark Office Team, provide the children in her class with different types of toy cars with solar panels. Using various factors, she has the cars race each other to see which will go the fastest when placed against the sunlight—each car directed to equal amounts of sunlight. Sonya was amused when her children asked her if she “raced and tested cars all day long.”
Electrical Engineer, Bill Gill, uses a battery, a piezoelectric buzzer, a light bulb, two jumper wires, and a strip of household aluminum foil to make a simple “Burglar Alarm.” He connects the buzzer and bulb in series with the battery connect the in parallel with the buzzer using the jumper wires. He then has one of his students act as a thief and cut the foil. What happens? The light goes out and the buzzer sounds the alarm—“alerting the police.” Bill explains why it works: “The resistance of the buzzer is 10 times the resistance of the bulb, so the demo is really about resistance . . . with a little fun thrown in.” 
Roberta Goren, who has a degree in Microbiology, has her students plant and sprout their own seeds, and shows them how to identify the leaves and seeds from various trees. The children also learn how to make their own slides, which they study under a microscope.
Michael Fitzmaurice, who teaches Astronomy and Optics, uses a ping-pong ball to construct a model of the human eye. The class then discusses the parts of the eye, how we see, and 2D and 3D vision.
John Meagher, who teaches Environmental Science, has a small frog pond in his backyard. He brings tadpoles to the classroom in early spring and leaves them there for the duration of the program. One teacher he worked with at Annapolis Elementary School had the students draw the tadpole each week during art class. As the physical characteristics of the frog change over time, the students are amazed by the metamorphosis. Many of them want to keep the metamorphs, but John explains that the tadpoles have to return to their natural habitat to thrive.
See for more ideas. How do you innovate? Share YOUR STORY on the ReSET blog.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

ReSET Volunteer Wayne Sukow's 5th Grade Program Report

Late in February I finished my 12th one-hour session at Key Elementary School, working with all the 5th grade students (~95) on Longitudinal Waves and Patterns of Sound Waves. The highlight was students seeing and in some cases making Chladni Patterns on square aluminum plates by stroking them with an old violin bow; students saw how the sand sprinkled on top of the plate(s) moved about into the zero displacement regions. The patterns vary and can be striking. Now my goal is to get enough plates, 4-5 so that it becomes a full-lab activity for all students. Next year we plan to get photos. Students also had opportunities to hear audio patterns using resonating tubes…just ordinary cardboard ones.
Earlier I did a session with four classes of 5th grade students (~100) at Key where students produced and drew the resulting patterns when light passes through a prism,  the reversal of color order when light is diffracted with a grating, an item which is ubiquitous in our everyday life. All students had the opportunity to see the effect of varying how tightly slits in the grating are squeezed together. That required the purchase of multiple 35 mm slide gratings with three different spacings between slits. There are enough left to do the same experiment next year. The data was the pattern—both order and spacing as measured from the straight ahead direction of the  resulting color patterns. I have some invoices for you. The frosting on the patterns with light experience included working with polarized light to see how stress patterns in materials such as plastic, are made visible by inserting the plastic between two sheets of Polaroid film.
 As is becoming the tradition at Key, following the temporal order of their science curriculum,  all 100  5th graders worked on geology activities including: learning how to make a mineral streak and recording the streak of a set of minerals, measuring the relative hardness of some minerals after having practiced how to do a scratch test and testing minerals to see if they responded to a magnetic field; I  need to invest in some old nickels, which are made of the metal by the same name for next year activities. Students will be surprised that they are attracted by magnetic too.  We also talked about the production of minerals in tectonic and non-tectonic processes, which drew upon studies they had already done in class. I need three  more pieces of lava with small (< 1mm) gemmy olivine crystals . To expand and follow my inclusive patterns in -------a science topic (light, sound, and soon geology) my intent is for student to learn that a considerable number of science experiments/investigations are is guided by looking for patterns that repeat…..the underlying intent is to accustom students to always look for patterns in repetitive events in everyday life to have  greater appreciation for  and to gain a better understanding of what causes them. Now the data is the pictures or the patterns seen…when they are in 12th grade and beyond they will be ready and accustomed to looking for patterns in data…data which is now numbers….although extreme high energy physics is back to observing pictorial patterns to understand the fundamental nature of matter and the universe. Then, some day one of them will integrate science and literature as they pen,  An  Ode to Patterns.


Friday, March 9, 2012

A ReSET Pre-K Classroom Report

ReSET CEO and Founder Harold Sharlin reports:      
      Today I visited a class of four year olds at CentroNia day care center in Mt. Pleasant in DC.   CentroNia is bilingual.  I had spent 4 one-hour sessions with the day care's 8 teachers.  We worked on a simple series circuit with a 6-volt battery, a wall switch and a flash light bulb in a socket.
            My objective was to so familiarize them with the circuit that they would feel confident to do experiments on electricity.  I supplied each teacher with a kit of:
            six volt battery
            wall switch
            flashlight bulb and socket
            wire stripper
            25 feet of bell wire
             In the class sessions with the teachers I had them assemble a series circuit from scratch.  Working with the wire strippers was hilarious.  They were a fascinating and fascinated group.  One teacher took her kit home to show her husband.  He wanted to know whether he could touch the battery terminals.  Sure, she said, it's only 6-volts.  I also emphasized safety saying that they must tell their children that the 110-volts in their homes was not for touching.
             We talked about electricity in the home and its uses, about generating stations, and AC vs. DC.  Not all of this information was needed for their classes but they all reached a certain level confidence.
At the end of four hours of class they were ready to teach electricity.  I gave each a simple teacher's handbook as backup.
             In the classroom with the children, I was amazed at the teacher.  She had done the experiment with the class previously but they were eager to see it once more.  They sat around in a circle and very well behaved.  Ann, the lead teacher did the experiment and Sylvia sat with the children in the circle.
             Ann emphasized the idea of circle/circuit.  The children identified each part as she held them up: battery, bulb, switch, and wire.  She held up a wire and said where shall I put this:  On the battery they shouted.  Where do I put the other end?  On the switch.  The children were satisfied to watch, quietly, while Ann connected all the wires and threw the switch.  She also had a picture book that had pictures showing electricity including lightening. 
I could not have been more pleased.  This was what I hoped would happen after four hours instructing teachers.  There will be eight teachers teaching 83 two, three and four year olds about electricity.  I am scheduled to meet the other classes also. 
Me?  I was the visitor whom they called, Professor Harold in English and Spanish.  
Editor's Note:  For information on research involving science for pre-K students, check out  

Monday, February 13, 2012

ReSET Volunteer David McInnis: Lessons From The Atmosphere

This week’s lesson was about condensation, the atmosphere, and PV=nRT (without the equation).

I started listing the 3 states of matter (yeah, yeah, there’s really 4, let it go) on the board.  I got as far as solid before students started calling out, “liquid”, “gas”.   I was impressed.  So I asked them for examples, and quizzed them on different materials.  Pudding is a stumper.
Next each table grabbed a cup of water and put ice in it, then we talked about condensation a bit.  To keep things simple and clear I kept condensation limited to water in the atmosphere.  After talking we looked at the cups, where water had condensed on the outside of the cup.
No one was impressed!
However, I asked them where the condensation came from.  This puzzled most of them.  Others answered, “from the water” or “from the ice”.  “So the water went through the cup?”, I asked and then explained what had really happened.
We talked about the atmosphere, starting with how thick or high it might be.   I asked if you could breathe in outer space: “Noooo!”, said everyone.  So then, there had to be some height at which we transitioned from atmosphere to no atmosphere.   We talked about Mt. Everestand how even the most fit climbers had trouble breathing at 5 miles above sea level.  So what guesses did they have about the atmosphere’s thickness.
There’s a bit of a problem I glossed over here.  Namely that somewhere around 6 miles up no one would have enough oxygen to survive, but where space starts is a soft number.  For space flight, 60 miles is considered to be the point where you would become an astronaut.  For most orbital analyses 100 miles is considered a minimal orbit.   For easy math I went with 100 miles,  I should have gone with 10.
Physicist routinely use simple approximations to examine possibilities and provide quick insight to how things work.  Usually this is called order of magnitude approximations or back of the envelope calculations.  It’s an extremely valuable thing to learn, especially for checking to see if your answers or ideas are in the ball park.
We talked about the size of Earth, which required a small detour into circumference anddiameter.  I claimed that it’s 24,000 miles to go all the way around Earth and its diameter is 8000 miles…   close enough.  Then I tried, with questionable success, to explain idea of not being too accurate, of making a quick approximation.  I grabbed a 14″ globe and claimed it was 8″ in diameter.   Holding up a 12″ ruler I asked if this was accurate or a rough approximation…  they stumbled for a sec, but then got it.   Annnndd I introduced the concept of ratios (they did know about fractions).
Phew!  At this point I had knew I was really pushing how much material we could cover, but surprisingly there weren’t any squirmers or any acting out.  They seemed both intrigued and straining to grasp what all was going on.
With ratios in their heads I said we wanted to figured out, roughly how thick the atmosphere would be on the globe.  Guesses generally ranged between 2 to 4 inches.
So Earth is 8000 miles in diameter and the globe was 8″ in diameter.  Our guess at the atmosphere’s thickness was 100 miles.  So how thick was it on the globe?
I started with the ratios and Ms. Haynes jumped in.  It turned out that this coincided with their current math lessons perfectly.  They came up with 1/10 inch.    I found a piece of cereal box and draped it on the globe.  The atmosphere is a lot thinner than most people imagine.
Mostly as a quick fun point we then did a demo showing that air pressure works in all directions.  Over a bucket, students took a mostly full cup of water and placed a piece of paper over the top.  They quickly  inverted the cup while holding the paper in place and then ‘released’ the paper once upside down.  The paper stays in place and the water (mostly) doesn’t spill.
If you try this note that it’s a huge hit on the fun-meter.  Every student will have to try it.  Warning: you will need some large sponges to clean up spilled water.  Also, they will try to use completely soaked paper, so tell them 1 paper per try.  We used small disposable plastic or waxed cups.
After cleaning up I took an empty 2 liter soda bottle and put an empty balloon on it.  The classroom had a sink, so I ran hot water over the bottle, explaining that this would heat the air inside.   The balloon inflates (modestly).
Shocking to me, the students were thrilled by this.
So I asked, what would happen if I then ran cold water over the bottle?
“It’ll shrink” and “the balloon will get sucked into the bottle” were common answers.    ‘Nice!”, I thought.
For the last experiment…  and I can’t believe we got through all of this in an hour!    … we made clouds.   An empty 2 liter bottle with a little  (~1 cup) of hot-ish water gets pumped by a bicycle pump with a ball needle poked through a wine cork on it.   When the pressure builds up a bit the cork pops out, with a bang, and the rapid decompression causes water vapor to form in the bottle, like a cloud.  We had 2 sets of equipment.  Three students at a time are needed;  1 to hold the bottle, 1 to pump, and 1 to hold the hose near the pump nozzle.
Beware!  The pop is quite loud and will startle everyone watching, including you, no matter how many times you see it (it’s a timing thing).  I explained and exclaimed repeatedly that there would be a loud boom but it wouldn’t hurt anyone.  The students absolutely love this and everyone wants a turn pumping.  They also forget to look in the bottle for the cloud, or to clear the cloud out before trying again.  Considering how many ideas they were exposed to during this lesson, a little play time was clearly earned.
Lots of excitement, lots of ideas in this one.   :-)

Thursday, January 26, 2012

ReSET Volunteer David McInnis on Floating and Sinking with 3rd Graders -

This week I was on my own; two classes, about 1 hour each.  That’s about 35 3rd grade Tasmanian devils swirling around with unlimited energy in a small classroom vessel.   The lesson is what I assisted with last week in the 4th grade classes, sinking and floating, aka density.
I dressed up nicely (stopping short of a tie which should only be used for weddings and funerals) , used real anti-antiperspirant, and had a cup of chamomile instead of coffee.  I gave Ms. Haynes a quick warning that this was my first time teaching elementary students and that I was a bit nervous.  She patted my shoulder and with a huge smile declared, “Don’t you worry.  I’ve got your back.”  I felt grateful and relieved.
After being introduced and unpacking the supplies, I started the “Floating and Sinking lesson” lesson, a ReSET standard.  This lesson involved using several containers of water and definitely required a stack of cleanup sponges.
The point of the lesson was to act as a demonstration of the scientific method and as an introduction to what density is.  In last weeks 4th grade lesson we actually weighed a baseball and a golfball.  The 3rd graders haven’t quite learned to read scales so I used a simple balance made of a clothes hanger with sandwich baggies attached at opposing ends.   As a class, we guessed and then measured how many golfballs equals one baseball (3).  I then gave them 150g as the weight of the baseball and asked them to find the weight of one golfball.  As it happens this lined up perfectly with their current math lessons and Ms. Haynes jumped in, taking over and giving me a much needed break.  I was sweating up a storm, my thoughts were jumbled, and I had no idea where we were going next.   Luckily I had written down a simple check list of the activities and located where we were.
Next we formed a hypothesis about what floats and what sinks in water.  They had some wild ideas but generally agreed that heavy things will sink and light things will float.  No one in either class voiced dissent, but I felt a little guilty corralling their ideas toward this conclusion.    We then placed both balls in a large container of water and made an observation…     the heavy item floated and the lighter sunk.
There were 4 tables, with 4 to 5 students at each.  They shared the equipment.   After a few steps chaos was starting to erupt over who was doing what.  It was critical to set up an order of turns; I simply numbered  around each table.
Here I tried to explain density and stumbled, wallowed, and was left facing a room full of puzzled faces.   At this point the teacher rescued me and held up two clear plastic containers holding markers.  One was nearly full, the other only had a couple of markers in it.  She explained that density was like having more stuff packed into a space.   So which of the containers had a ‘high’ density?
Next we tried floating a lacrosse ball in a cup of water and observed that it sinks.   Then, after removing the ball, we added about 1/4 cup of salt to the water.
Several of the kids in both classes had a taste of the material before being told what it was.  Sigh.  So, yes, third grade still requires purely non-toxic materials.
After adding the salt, we placed the lacrosse ball back in the water, where it floated!  Sounds simple, right?  The students went crazy over this.  After things calmed down a bit, we talked about how we had changed the density of the water.
For the final experiment we took some of the salt water and dyed it red…  well, I dyed them red.  When then took a clear cup of water and used an eyedropper to gently place some salt water along the inside of the cup.   It sinks to the bottom and forms a red layer that the students can easily see.  This experiment turned out to be underwhelming, but they seemed to get the point nonetheless.
In the end I learned that you cannot lecture to third graders and that finding great simple examples to explain you idea is critical.