Have you ever finished teaching a lesson and said to yourself “Wow. That was awesome.” Sometimes I have good lessons and sometimes I have great ones. But this one was awesome. Best of all my students researched and communicated like real scientists. Want to know why? The lesson was loaded with science and engineering practices outlined in NGSS.
Here’s a summary of the lab: My students were studying polymers. In Part 1 they were asked to create two different polymers using a cookbook procedure. The two polymers were rigged to have flaws. They analyzed the qualitative properties and were challenged to develop two methods of testing the polymers properties quantitatively. In Part 2 they selected one of the two polymers and brainstormed how its properties could be useful to consumers. Their ultimate goal was to create a polymer product that could be marketed for consumer purchase. To achieve this goal they set-out to improve some property of the polymer. This task involved changing an ingredient in the recipe (their independent variable) in hopes of improving some desirable property of the polymer (their dependent variable). In Part 3, students evaluated the success of Part 2 and continued making adjustments to maximize suitable polymer properties. They went back to the drawing board and implemented a redesign of the ingredients.
I’ve been doing different versions of this lab for years so what made this version better? My students’ ability to think and experiment like real scientists blew me away. I credit these improvements to the science and engineering practices embedded in this lab.
The largest practice found in this experiment is SEP-3 (Planning and Carrying Out Investigations.) Over several days my students collaborated with their lab team to plan and carry out an investigation in which data was collected as a basis for evidence. They determined their independent and dependent variables. This aligns with SEP-6 (Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions.) This practice expects students to make “quantitative and/or qualitative claims regarding the relationship between dependent and independent variables.” In the past I told my students to test dependent variables like “bounce height” or “stretch distance.” Putting control in their hands led to much more exciting properties to test. Students brainstormed ways to test “ability to stick to the wall” and “spread-ability” and “compress-ability” and viscosity. My role was the lab gopher. Since our high school lab lacks technical equipment my students had to be clever in ways to test properties. They would come up to me and ask, “Do you have any small masses?” or “Do you have different sized funnels?” or “Do you have straws?” or “Do you have marbles?” The bottom-line is that they had to figure out a way to quantitatively test properties within the limitations of our classroom. Their creativity amazed me.
For the first time I had my students perform a redesign. This aspect falls nicely into SEP-3 because real life scientists and engineers constantly redesign ideas to come up with the best product. Students also had to determine the number of trials, the amounts of the independent variable to use, and all of this was tied into MONEY. In the real-world research and development is not cheap!! I gave my students a $25 budget. This financial constraint challenged them to think ahead and also limited how many trials they could perform.
This experiment also aligned with SEP-4 (Analyzing and Interpreting Data). The redesign encouraged them to “evaluate the impact of their new data” from Part 3 to determine if the changes improved or worsened the desired properties. I believe this addition to the lab improved the success of their ultimate product. In the past many students had complained that their Part 2 was a failure and they would have liked to try something different. The redesign in Part 3 gave them a chance to optimize their success.
But wait!!! I haven’t yet revealed the best part of this lab. Once it was over my students were expected to present the results of their scientific research and design a marketing campaign to sell their consumer product. I teach in a paperless classroom with iPads so an idea came to me. Why not have students create their presentations on their ipads using any app/program of their choice? Better yet, why not have them present in a digital poster-presentation format? Rather than use old-fashioned poster-board, students could Air Play their presentations to huge television screens. I wondered if we could get other students, teachers, and administrators to join us while all eight groups presented at the same time. Have you ever been to a science conference where graduate students are presenting their research? You walk up to them and they start talking about what they’ve learned. That’s exactly what my students were doing. At one point I looked around the crowded room and watched my students presenting their research to adults and fellow high schoolers. I smiled and I thought to myself, “This is awesome. This is incredible. I can’t believe we pulled this off.”
The skill of communicating information clearly lies under SEP-8 (Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information). Teachers and students had an opportunity to ask my students questions about what they learned form their research. Observers even had a chance to vote for the best presentation. My students used a variety of apps to present including Keynote, Google Slides, and Prezi. I felt like a proud mama as I watched them passionately discussing their data, relationships between variables, and results of their graphs. Quite a bit of humor was also brought in from their marketing campaigns. Several students designed artwork or videos which entertained all of us.
I need to provide a few shout-outs to my colleagues for helping this lesson come to fruition. The original Polymer Potions Lab came from one of my mentors, Sue Bober, who teaches at Schaumburg High School. Everything that comes out of this woman’s brain is creative and amazing. Thank you to my Kristy Levanti, my colleague at Hoffman Estates High School, who puts up with all the changes I try to make in our curriculum She is an awesome writer and helped designed various parts of this lab. Thank you to my administrator, Josh Schumacher, who somehow managed to get me a room filled with huge television screens for our presentations. It helps to be surrounded by hard-working educators who believe that NGSS will help us develop more scientists and engineers.
If interested, you can find copies of our Polymer Potions Lab below: