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news & tips

A collection of helpful articles on teachers and teaching

Bringing Science back to the Front Burner

This Christmas each of your students has had an opportunity to view, wish for or even open new toys as gifts. Each of these gifts has a connection to science. The first day back is an excellent time to bring that science back to the front burner.Care needs to be taken to make certain that you do not ask kids to name the gifts they got in class. That is fun only for the kids who actually got great gifts. For the students whose family does not exchange gifts or cannot afford gifts that would be an exercise in depression. So I ask the kids what the hot toys were this season (not which toys they received) and to record them in their notebooks. Then, I ask them to add the regular gifts they see given on TV to the list.


The list usually has a fair amount of technology, some clothing and even a few odd insertions.Using their list I ask them to select one item and do a quick write (http://www.lpb.org/education/classroom/itv/litlearn/strategies/strat_quick.pdf) on how that gift connects to science. I ask them to specifically connect the gift to a specific concept.Last year one of my students thought the hot gift was a down vest. It is rather cold in the Midwest. This student connected this to the specific heat of air and mused on how the coat should not be made of any material that would give up heat easily.

Great connection to thermochemistry (ftp://ftp.prenhall.com/pub/esm/web_marketing/Chem/blb9/ch5.pdf).

Another student thought an I-Pod would be the gift of the season and the science connection was to nanotechnology (which started a fascinating discussion) and how batteries work (http://www.howstuffworks.com/battery.htm).

Even “Tickle Me Elmo” got in the act. The connection to this is not as direst but one student spoke of the red dye on the fur and the mechanics of the movement that occurs when Elmo is tickled. That is a little physics and a good dose of chemistry.For younger kids it is appropriate to select the toy from a list the kids brainstormed and guide the students through a discussion and then let them pick one on their own. For this part it is important to have a few toys on the list that have some pretty tight connections. One elementary teacher last year used “silly putty”, a flashlight, a remote controlled car and a toy flute. Toys are an excellent science topic and it will allow some of the kids to bring in their favorites and become the center of the science discussion.

There are a lot of sites on science and toys but my favorite allows you to make toys from common household supplies that directly relate to science concepts. http://scitoys.com/

Miami University offers an entire series of workshops on teaching science with toys. http://www.terrificscience.org/programs/toyscience.jsp

Simple toys like “Silly Putty” often have web sites. This one gives the history of this interesting toy and the science connections. http://www.sillyputty.com/silly_science/silly_science.htm

The classic “slinky” has some wonderful web sites. My favorite is from the Exploratorium. http://www.exploratorium.edu/snacks/slinkyinhand/index.html

To investigate the science of ice skates check out this physics site .http://users.obs.carnegiescience.edu/jrigby/skating/main.html

I love to stress that great toys do not need to be expensive. What could be easier than bubbles? The science behind this toy is all over the web .http://www.exploratorium.edu/ronh/bubbles/bubbles.htmlhttp://www.bubbleology.com/BubbleologyFrame.html

No discussion of toys would be complete without mentioning video games. There is an excellent article on the top ten hurdles that video game developers are trying to overcome. http://www.popsci.com/entertainment-gaming/article/2007-09/hard-science-making-videogames

I have a fair number of students who think that they might like to pursue a career in game development. That opens up a great opportunity to make a connection between preparation in science creating opportunities in careers. One article that helps make that point comes from IBM. http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_pwwi/is_200611/ai_n16870982/

At the University of Houston one teacher holds a toy construction competition to help create interest in engineering. The article on this program holds some great ideas for a classroom or school competition. http://www.prism-magazine.org/mar04/toys.cfm

Electrical toys present a wealth of opportunities to teach science. My favorite web site for ideas comes from “essortment”. http://www.essortment.com/hobbies/childrenseducat_smch.htm

So, as the students return to school bubbling with excitement about what happened over vacation you can tap into some of that excitement and channel the energy towards science by allowing the conversation to center on a topic that is both familiar and interesting to you students (all ages by the way), toys. Our job as teachers is just to channel that talk to the science behind those toys. If you have time in your curriculum it is a great opportunity to show kids that not all of the fun toys have to be plugged in or loaded with batteries. A simple lump of purchased or home made silly putty will provide a lot of fun. A bottle of bubble soap, a yo yo or a “slinky” can be the catalyst to begin a discussion that leads towards a richer deeper understanding of science in 2010. And that would be the best gift any student could give their teacher.

Shannon C ‘de Baca is a passionate educator who teaches at Iowa Learning Online. Visit her blog at HotChalkScience.com.

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