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Making Content Sticky

We all face the dreaded day when our kids face an exam that is heavy in content and we hope they will be able to remember all that they have experienced and be able to apply that content on the exam. The truth is that we can teach till we are blue in the face but if we are not paying attention to how kid learn the content will simply drop by for a visit in their brain and exit as quickly as it entered.


The key to making content knowledge sticky is to connect it to something the students already know or to have a way for them to experience the content in multiple ways. Those are the two big ways to make content stay longer.

In my class we have been studying the electromagnetic spectrum. You know everything from those long radio waves to those short gamma waves. We also are using the visible spectrum and using Roy G. Biv to remember the order (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet). The Mnemonic name device to remember the order is fine but the big idea is to figure out why these waves are useful. In my online class I started an online discussion in which I asked them to do the following:

“We know that wavelength, energy and frequency are all important aspects of ?electromagnetic energy. We also know that all forms of these waves are important. But, ?here is your chance to think outside the box. ?Early on one group cornered the market in radio wavelengths and made a ton of money ?when radio was our main form of communication. If you could own one type of energy ?(wave) and all the things that energy in that wavelength was used for paid you ?royalties…which wavelength would you want to own? You can make an argument for ?visible light, radio, microwave, infrared, ultraviolet, X-rays or gamma rays (and any ?others).?To post, tell us which one you would want to own and explain why. Then read through all ?the other posts (you will have to keep checking back) and summarize why your selection ?is still the best or why you might want to change your choice in light of other folk’s ?postings. It is OK to argue with others and try to convince them that your energy is ?better too.”

In the course of arguing for their wavelength they had to dig in and understand what the wavelength was used for and how it related to the other wavelengths. At the end of the unit the students could tell me the order of the wavelengths (which were longer or shorter) and what each wavelength was used for. Now that is better content knowledge than a simple name for the visible spectrum.

There is a wonderful graphic of the spectrum in a downloadable pdf at:
www.lbl.gov/MicroWorlds/teachers/emspectrum.pdf

Likewise, a complete explanation of the different waves and their uses can be found at the NASA site:
http://imagine.gsfc.nasa.gov/docs/science/know_l1/emspectrum.html

For those of you working at a high school level with the wavelengths and frequencies of waves check out:
http://amazing-space.stsci.edu/resources/explorations/light/makewaves-frames.html

To connect the material to things the students already know we have to work from their lives. They all know about color and most have played with bubbles. When you blow a larger bubble on a dark surface and shine a light on the surface you get the visible spectrum. An experiment with bubbles and the spectrum at the Exploratorium is great for connecting the content to bubbles:
http://www.exploratorium.edu/ronh/bubbles/bubble_colors.html

If not bubbles you can connect the EM spectrum to our vision, the colors in a t-shirt or a car. A box of crayons is a great start to the visible spectrum. However, the best connection for use in chemistry has got to be fireworks.

We use the spectrum to teach how to identify different ions (elements). For example, a green flame usually indicates the presence of copper in the fire. So, for chemistry we use the NOVA site on fireworks.
http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/fireworks/

Here you have it all from explosions to a careful explanation of how to identify elements by the color they give off when they burn. What could be more connected and interesting than fireworks?

Happy Teaching!

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