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A collection of helpful articles on teachers and teaching

The Periodic Table of Stuff

Each year when my students encounter the periodic table I assign them to create a periodic table of “stuff”. They select and organize some category of items into a table that has trends both vertically and horizontally. It is not easy but it has lots of ties to complex scientific thinking.

As I write this any one of my students will be working on how to place items in a periodic table like grid so that the characteristics they selected have a trend that tracks left to right and a different characteristic that tracks vertically. I know that right now some are probably using colorful language to describe this task. It is not easy.

Let’s say you selected cars as the “stuff” you wanted to organize. You might arrange the vertical columns as periodic families by placing the cars based on brand. In the horizontal groupings you try types of cars (pick ups, sedans, sports, vans). You could try to arrange the cars so that the most fuel efficient was at the top and the least at the bottom. This might work for one brand but often does not for all. What numeric value would track across a row horizontally? These sorts of activities sound pretty easy on the surface but the cognitive demand of such a task is huge.

My students have selected everything from nail polish to Twitter users and successfully organized them into a periodic table of sorts. What they learn is that the table is tough to construct but useful when completed. Think of a periodic table of football players with trends that track as well as the periodic table of elements. A sportscaster would be able in an instant to identify a player with specific characteristics and know by who is around him on the chart how he compares in those same statistics. Is he the largest player, highest paid, best yardage gainer, most injury prone? Any of these statistics could be placed on a chart and tracked. Whoever constructed such a chart would have to know the players well. So, perhaps the constructor would gain the most from the activity and use of the chart.

You know what I am thinking? Next year, I want to select the “stuff” that the kids categorize on their charts. That way, they are learning about how the periodic table is constructed and about a category of science items. I could have them create a periodic table of common reactions, famous chemistry experiments, famous chemists, plastics, products from oil, solids, liquids, gasses or any science set that might be interesting. I wonder why in the 20 years I have been using this activity I had never thought of this. Perhaps it is that we do become wiser as we age.

The activity is not original. It appears on the web in many forms:

It is a worthwhile activity just for the creativity but while we are at we should make use of the time and let the kids get familiar with some aspect of science as well. I cannot wait to see how this turns out next time. I will keep you posted.

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