The first group of kids just left the building, and I wait patiently for the next group of second and third graders to enter. It’s a chance to think, a chance to reflect on what I’ve attempted to teach and how the kids reacted. I oftentimes wonder if anything that I say is transferred, if any of the students understand.
Maybe I could have worded that better.
This thought always races through my head, as I’m constantly looking for a better way to teach to reach more kids. I change my wording this time. Better?
I still see blank stares during the discussion of the actual science, but I always see their excitement when I do a demonstration. Perhaps I need to be more hands on, to have more instructive visual aids.
I grab different materials, try a different order, and ask new questions. Nothing seems to convey the science well enough. I still see wandering eyes and fumbling hands, but I keep going.
As I await the third group, some feelings of inadequacy take over. Am I a good teacher? Maybe I don’t know the concepts as well as I thought. Before I have a chance to mull it over, the gym doors open.
This round something changes. It’s not my wording or the demonstration. A single third grade girl changes my perspective. As she walks to my booth, her eyes scan the items. She seems very excited like the rest, but something about her is different.
As I begin my demonstration, I start to see the differences. Her eyes are attentive, and she’s excited—even during my explanations. She tries to answer every question, but only after giving it some thought rather than just blurting out something. And at the end of the five minutes as the air horn sounds, she stays to ask a question, a question that indicates her attentiveness. She obviously learned something, and she is inquisitive enough to allow that to impact her.
The Carnival closes. As I walk outside, I wonder if what I did was worth it. Did it truly impact any of the kids? I think of that girl. Maybe this is what being a teacher is all about—that one student with the drive to learn that inspires you to keep going, to teach to reach more.
In Fall 2014, Tanque Verde High School ChemClub members had an opportunity to work with 3rd grade students in our school district presenting activities about polymers provided by the American Chemical Society. We were assigned to a specific 3rd grade teacher at two elementary schools in Tucson, Ariz. (Aqua Caliente Elementary School and Tanque Verde Elementary School). For some of our veteran ChemClub members it was a second chance to work with elementary school kids.
It took us two weeks to build kits for the students to use during the outreach, as well as to practice our presentation. Most of the ideas were from the “Jiggle Gels” guide, but we included an activity to illustrate cross-linking and expanded the demo to show the making of artificial snow.
Everyone was expecting us at the elementary schools. Kids were very excited seeing us with the boxes full of materials and could not wait for us to start. In all of the excitement, lots of water got spilled on the tables. Luckily we were prepared and brought additional supplies with us!
Sodium Polyacrylate Polymer
Kids were completely stunned by the first demonstration where the water poured into a series of cups seemed to disappear when the cups were inverted. The students were even more interested in this demo when we showed them how properties of sodium polyacrylate polymer made this possible. It was a very good opening to the outreach presentation because this demo caught the students’ attention and made them want to experiment with that substance.
They really liked working with pipets and studying the properties of the sodium polyacrylate polymer.
For our next demo, we made artificial snow. That was a big hit! Everyone was fascinated with it, many saying things like “Wow! It even feels cold and wet like snow” and one student even tried to make off with a handful of the snow before we caught him.
Distributing the Gro-Dinosaurs for a graphing activity was a good break for the kids because they could remove their goggles for a while. But no one complained when we told them to put the goggles back on. They were so excited to make slime!
For the Super Slime activity most of students handled the pipet and borax solutions very well and had no trouble deciding quickly who would stir and who would add the solution. They loved the slime they had created and we could barely get some of them to divide it and store it in plastic bags so they could take it home later.
To help 3rd graders to understand how slime is made, we had a cross-linking activity. We had volunteers to wear green tags with “X-link” written on them. All other students made chains by holding hands, and the kids with the cross-link tags were grabbing to the chains.
Water, Pencils and a Plastic Bag
During the final demo we compared two plastic bags made of different polymers. Kids couldn’t believe that the PVA plastic was dissolving in water. Then we put water into a regular plastic bag to show them that it had different properties. We did this by poking sharp pencils into the bag, but this plastic is so elastic the holes made by the pencils didn’t leak. I had to refrain from laughing when almost every single kid flinched as the presenter stabbed the first pencil through the water filled bag. To be completely honest, I was actually silently praying that the bag wouldn’t rip and spill all over the floor. By the looks of him, the student presenting this was thinking the same thing.
Our students reacted enthusiastically to every part of our presentation, and their comments were the best part of the day. We kept the students engaged with jokes and hands-on demonstrations, both of which they loved. One student cheered “You guys are the most awesome people! You do all the cool stuff!” and another proclaimed “I love chemistry!” I am particularly fond of the second comment, because the girl and many of her peers were taking a genuine interest in chemistry. When we asked “Do you guys want to know how slime works?” the class shouted their approval. The participation was amazing. Whenever we asked a question, nearly everyone raised his or her hand with a grin and enthusiastic expressions. Even as their eagerness peaked, they remained respectful and followed our directions. We kept things interesting, and they did not dare turn away from us because they truly wanted to do more, and know more about what they were doing. Even beyond that, they wanted us to come back because they wanted to know even more about chemistry and what we could do with it.
My favorite part of this activity was working with the students and being able to see their reactions. One student even asked me an in-depth question about the workings of chemistry, which was very exciting to see in someone so young. I loved being able to see how enthusiastic these young students were about learning about chemistry.
During the cleanup, one of the boys walked up to me and asked “Are you going to be here every day?” I was caught off guard and had to ask “Do you mean for the rest of the year?” He nodded eagerly and I, myself, was disappointed to tell him we weren’t. After he sat at his desk a girl came up to me and said “I hope you come back next year! This is really fun.” I couldn’t help but grin and assured her that we’d be back.
I have discovered that third-graders can be surprising in what they do and do not know, so presenters should be prepared for both insights and unexpected questions. I’ve had a great time and could see the enjoyment in the kids. I hope that one day, they follow with the foundations we laid for them and join the ChemClub themselves!
Smart kids tend to love the esoteric, and nothing quite fulfills this tendency better than an obscure academic t-shirt design. The best-known model of this fashion(?) is perhaps the character Sheldon on the TV series The Big Bang Theory. He is rarely seen on the show in anything other than a t-shirt. Sheldon’s shirts feature designs ranging from a periodic tables to the double helix model of DNA. He also sports designs from various comic book super heroes (Superman, The Flash, The Green Lantern) or obscure internet video series (TableTop, The Guild).
When I was teaching I used to receive a small catalog called the Journal of Academic T-Shirts. It was filled with all sorts of designs from music, history and science. It was always a hit when I passed it around in my science classes, and I occasionally ordered something for myself.
When it comes to geek chic, the more obscure the better, as just about anyone can come up with a Periodic Table shirt. But, where can you or the ChemClub students buy such products? Here are a few ideas.
Zazzle has a number of cool shirts on a page titled, “Chemistry Geek Gifts” , from ‘Never Forget’ (the Sliderule) to Maxwell’s Equation. There is also a shirt for ‘the element of surprise’ which features Ah! In the format of a chemical element.
The Think Geek site has a number of shirts and other novelty items, including a Periodic Table shower curtain and a Rutherford-Bohr model atom necklace pendant.
Shirt Woot! has a number of Schodinger’s Cat based shirts and tons of other esoterica. And finally, perhaps the best site of all, Café Press, which listed 288,000 results for a search on ‘science gifts.’ My favorite was one that said “Correlation ≠Causation”. Truer words have never been, well, spoken.
We had a visitor from New Zealand stay with us this summer. While he was here he took a course on building in the Timber Frame construction style. This involved heavy beams, mortise and tenon joints and lots of measuring. His biggest frustration was the measuring. As he is from a metric nation, he had a very hard time with our system using inches and feet. He had a hard time imagining what a 1/16 of an inch was and if 3/8 inch was bigger or smaller than 7/16. With some work, he was able to finish the work and they came out great.
Students in school will be facing a similar challenge, but perhaps in reverse, as they will once again be meeting the metric system in their science classes. In some ways the U.S. Customary system of weights and measures is much worse than any other countries. We are stuck with a Frankenstein’s monster of measurements that involves a mishmash of systems from many different sources. We buy gasoline by the gallon, but soda by the liter. Athletes play football on a 100-yard field, but they run the 100 meter dash in track and field. We measure in fractions of an inch, until things get very small and then we use decimal measures, such as thousandths of an inch.
This is the topic of an article I wrote for the December 2014 issue of ChemMatters magazine. ChemMatters is an award-winning magazine for high school chemistry, which aims to explain how chemistry works in our everyday lives. Each issue includes a Teacher’s Guide containing background information, follow-up hands-on activities, classroom demonstrations, and other resources to facilitate student comprehension.
In my article “A Measure of Confusion” I follow some the issues surrounding our current system of measures, including the loss of a NASA spacecraft that crashed instead of landing on mars. This was due to an incorrect conversion from English to metric units.
By the way, if you join the new American Association of Chemistry Teachers (AACT), you will receive a one-year subscription to ChemMatters as part of your membership. And there is nothing confusion about that!