Casey Middle School instructor teaches science through learning expeditions

Sixth-graders at Casey Middle School used handheld digital microscopes connected to their laptops to look for the differences between colder and hotter fusion blocks, as well as to check their own skin, hair and clothing.

They also experimented with melting ice cubes of different sizes on different materials, including a plastic compact disc, a piece of corkboard and an aluminum plate. They recorded the temperature of different materials, made observations and then shared what they learned with a partner.

Students came up with ideas for experiments by investigating why ice melted faster on a colder melting block of ice than on a warmer one, a phenomenon introduced at the beginning of a unit on thermal energy transfer.

“You learn best if you do it yourself,” said sixth-grade student Aliah Hamel. “I like experimenting. I love how we get to explore and do things on our own.

Jasmine Lujan, left, and Camila Ordaz take the temperature on a piece of cloth. Sixth-grade students at Boulder’s Casey Middle School study thermal energy. (Cliff Grassmick/staff photographer)

Erin Mayer, who teaches sixth and seventh grade science at Casey, uses student-led learning expeditions to give her students a better understanding of science concepts.

“I love this method of teaching,” she said. “The students are engaged. They both own and direct their learning process. They learn to think and act like scientists to advance their thinking.

She uses the same basic method for all her units.

She begins by introducing something confusing that can be understood with science, asking students to make observations and ask questions. Then they model on paper what they think is happening, using words or drawings, before coming to a class consensus on what they know.

Next, the class creates a table of “motor questions”. Students generate and categorize all their questions, which are posted on the board, and come up with survey ideas to find the answers. Mayer uses their ideas to plan learning activities. At the end, students revise their original models based on what they have learned.

“One of my favorite parts of every learning expedition is having them compare their initial models to their final models so they can see a visual representation of their growth,” Mayer said.

She said she relies on OpenSciEd, an open source for college course materials, as well as using next-generation science standards. To plan, she uses a 3D learning framework that includes basic disciplinary ideas or standards; scientific and engineering practices; and cross-cutting concepts, or patterns that link and relate different scientific ideas to each other.

She said her classes are self-paced and skill-based. She gives feedback instead of letter grades and asks students to demonstrate their understanding before moving forward. Learning activities are categorized as ‘to do’, ‘to do’ and ‘to do’, allowing students to drill down if they wish.

“This format allows me to spend all of my class time working with children, providing immediate feedback and working with small groups for those who need extra support,” she said.

At Casey last week, sixth-grader Leo Garcia said he was surprised when the cold black melted the ice faster.

“I think maybe because it’s cold, it absorbs temperature,” he said, using the microscope to get a closer look at the molten blocks. “Let’s watch it.

His classmate Alex Mahan used two sizes of ice and two materials, fabric and metal, for his investigation.

“He compares the small and the small and the big and the big,” he said. “I think metal will melt ice faster than fabric. It’s science, so we have to understand it.

About Tracy G. Larimore

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