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Inquiry from The Start

The students will be marching or sauntering into your classroom this week or the next. There will be a thousand administrative things to do. I think that a good inquiry might be the best way to start the year. You can take care of the paperwork while you wander around the classroom and interact with kids meaningfully engaged in an investigation.

One of the all time favorite activities for many elementary students is “ooblick”. There are hundreds of variations on this classic Lawrence Hall of Science lab. 
http://lawrencehallofscience.org/node/3102
http://www.gk-12.osu.edu/Lessons/4th%20Grade/Slimy%20Physical%20Changes.pdf

To make this an introductory inquiry lab may require a few modifications. I would focus on the concept of characteristics of solids, liquids and gasses. Most students believe they know these well. However, I find that even seniors in high school have some misconceptions about the phases of matter.
We have to get comfortable with student names from the start so I would begin by asking the students to make name tents for their table/desk. These tents are simple colored paper folded in half. On the inside I would ask the students to create a KWL chart of what they know, want to know and have learned about solids, liquids and gasses. They, of course will leave the “L” column blank until the explorations and investigations are complete.
http://www.ncrel.org/sdrs/areas/issues/students/learning/lr2kwl.htm

I cover the tables with newsprint and have bowls of cornstarch with small containers of water next to the bowls at each lab station. I have 10 lab stations so I ask 10 random students to position themselves at one of the lab stations. I then repeat that process until all students are at one of the 10 stations. This divides the group into somewhat random groupings so they get to know each other. Each group selects a chief investigator, a recorder, a timer, and key observers. The chief investigator is responsible for the experiment and making sure the recorder and timer do their work and begins by reviewing the safety rules for this lab and the room and then mixing the cornstarch and water.
While I move around the room I ask the groups to come up with a plan for finding evidence of what state of matter this substance might be. The evidence is the key.  When they have a plan for beginning they simply call me over to check their plan for safety and begin. While I am moving from lab station to lab station I am learning names, asking for information I need for the year (or office) and getting familiar with how this new crop of students work together.
This lab may extend for another day or two if interest is high enough. Even if the lab is only one day the students should have enough evidence to fill out the last column in their KWL chart. This class data is a great place to begin to discuss what we know and do not know about the physical world of atoms and molecules. This lab has generated a rich exploration into how we measure things that are not easily measured and the metric system.
We can cover safety, locations of materials in the lab, procedures for movement and behavioral expectations in the lab. It is wise to cover this the first day or so as many students are much more compliant and subdued before they get comfortable with the class and year. This lesson teaches some key ideas before the first of the year behavior challenges come up. We also have begun the year with a lab and the expectation of any science class worth its salt should be that the students will be actively investigating, gathering evidence, defending findings, and questioning their assumptions throughout the year. I think that all this is a bargain all for the price of a few boxes of cornstarch.

Happy investigating!

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