Friday, September 20, 2013

Science Experiments for Reading and Writing

These last two weeks have been so much fun in science! I have to admit that I like it as much as the kids. I love how scientific experimentation naturally leads to reading and writing. Here are some snapshots of our lessons.

Setting up for science
    Last year I was lucky enough to have an empty classroom across the hall. How amazing! We could go over there and make as much of a mess as we wanted and then leave for the rest of the day.
    Now I have a fantastic colleague across the hall instead. So I needed to come up with a way to squeeze in room for science in my own classroom. In late August I snagged a rectangular table that was sitting in the hallway labeled "Please take." (Don't you love the late August giveaways just before school begins?) I set up this table next to the sink in my room and covered it with a reasonably attractive vinyl tablecloth. The science table!
   This was spur of the moment decorating choice, but it has influenced my decisions in planning for science. Just having a table dedicated to science really leads to better activities. 

    You must have trays. Plastic trays like the kind at the mall food court. Trays are so amazingly useful--they can hold materials, sort items, quickly set up to share things at student tables and across classrooms. If you have a limited science budget, you will not regret buying trays. How many should you buy? I have 10 and still run out sometimes!

Litmus paper

    Our first science investigation was a very structured activity with litmus paper and household items. Students tested various liquids to see if they were acids or not. Litmus paper is inexpensive, but has that wow factor that gets kids excited early in the year. (You can buy litmus paper here.) I didn't teach students about the chemical properties of acids and bases, but used the litmus paper as a practical application of classification. This investigation also helped me to see how well the students work together, which students are natural leaders, and whether I will tear my hair out with science. (Happily, they did really well!)

Student-created experiments

    This is the best part. After we learned about the scientific method, students had a scaffolded experiment planning page. We brainstormed testable questions that they could ask for the materials that I had available. Then, they created a materials list and wrote out procedures.
    Many students struggled a bit with writing procedures. We talked about how each step needed to have a verb--something that you do. I showed students where to find the word "Observe" in the classroom after seeing it misspelled in the beautiful variety of transitional spellers. Everyone, even my reluctant writers, made sure to finish writing their procedures. To keep things simple, I told students that they had a limit of three items for their experiment.
    On the experiment day, I set students up with finishing their other writing tasks (we are doing the daily sentence writing--it's working fabulously!) while I called students over to the science table to get their materials. One student paid two coupons for the privilege of being the science assistant for the morning. So at any one time I had about 8 experiments going at different places around the room. They were all very simple things, mostly along the lines of mixing baking soda with various liquids to observe what would happen. But the kids were thrilled with the experience. "This is such a good day!" one girl gushed. As things were winding down, the students were moving on to other writing, helping with the clean-up, or going on to their own self-selected tasks. Many of the students had gotten science experiment books at library on the previous day, and a few sat down to try to create new experiments or read about other things they could try.
    If you are going to try this with your students, here are some quick suggestions:

-Limit materials. It is so much easier (and cheaper) when you don't have too many items going around.
-Use small, 2 oz. cups. These help students to conserve materials.
-Try to buy some inexpensive disposable droppers. They are available in science supply catalogs and they make the whole process so easy.
Observation corner
  The observation corner is a part of the science table. Since the start of school, I have set out random things for students to observe and experience. (Week 1: cartesian divers; Week 2: color paddles and prisms; Week 3: animal skins and butterfly wings; Week 4: sandbox) Fourth graders still need experiences with rich materials and interesting items! This week's observation corner is a small sandbox filled with blue sand. I have a set representing the different parts of a turtle's life cycle to go along with One Tiny Turtle. It's been interesting to watch how the students interact with the different materials. Only three students may be at the observation corner at one time, and students have been doing nicely at asking for permission and using the materials wisely.

These kinds of activities lead to so much purposeful talking and sharing with the students. It has been a great start to the year!


  1. Love your idea of an "observation corner"! I have lots of things that I bring out when we are studying that topic, but it might be better to feature a random exploration every week to spark their interest in other topics. I think I'll try that. Thanks, as always, for the good idea.

    1. Thanks so much for the comment! It has been fun to think of new things each week. Even teachers who come in through the day stop to explore the different materials. :)