Academic journal article Science and Children

Make Your Own Snow Day! Six Principles of Practice for Using Models to Develop Scientific Concepts

Academic journal article Science and Children

Make Your Own Snow Day! Six Principles of Practice for Using Models to Develop Scientific Concepts

Article excerpt

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Children love snow days, even when they come during the warmest weather. In this lesson the snow isn't falling outside, it's in the classroom--thanks to Snowflake Bentley (Briggs Martin 1998) and several models of snowflakes. A lesson on snow demonstrates several principles of practice for using models in elementary science. Focusing on snow was a way to develop the concept of properties of substances, but the lesson also provides a way to consider the role that models can have in developing scientific ideas.

I'll highlight the ways models can be used to help students construct meaning as they compare the properties of models with a target idea that the models represent. I'll also describe the steps of this lesson as I implemented it with fifth-grade students (although I have also used it with children in grades 3 and 4 and preservice teachers, with some variations). Presented in a 5E format, each step of the lesson is followed by a principle of practice for using models with elementary school children.

Engage

Children enjoy hearing about extremes (fastest, farthest, biggest, most), so in the spring of this year it was even easier than usual to engage a group of fifth graders in a lesson focusing on snow. Forty-nine of the U.S. states had some amount of snow cover on January 11, 2011, (Figure 1, page 54), including Mauna Kea in Hawaii--only Florida was snow-free. I showed a national snow cover map for that date, which we visually analyzed together, identifying where in each state there was snow. We talked about which states would have found this an unusual winter, and which states were often covered with some amount of snow in January. An opening discussion such as this offers an opportunity to informally assess students' thinking. How students describe snow, for example, and the reasons they give for why it may or may not be unusual in a location, can provide insight into their ability to describe its properties. The students' comments can be considered for whether they say that snow is made of water, whether they relate it to other forms of precipitation, or whether they seem to consider snow as a separate substance altogether.

It was just after getting the children thinking about snow that I made an excuse to step momentarily into a back room, out of sight. To the amazement (or at least amusement) of all, in the moment in which they were not able to see me I put on a jacket covered with giant snowflakes. On returning, I complained ardently about having been caught in a freak snowstorm. I carried back into the classroom the large snowflakes and a book to share, entitled Snowflake Bentley (Briggs Martin 1998). I read the first several pages of the book, up to the point when Wilson Bentley learned how to take photos of snowflakes, and then I projected some of Bentley's images of snowflakes for all to consider (Figure 2). Turning back to the snowflakes that covered the jacket, it didn't take long for students to realize that the giant snowflakes were not real, because unlike those that Bentley photographed, there is no problem with them melting at room temperature. They are made of paper, which led us to identify them as models of snowflakes. At this point we began to ponder a question that, although not difficult, would provide us with opportunities to investigate some worthwhile things: "What is real snow like?"

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Principle of Practice #1: There are many types of models, some of which use numbers to express features

Point out to students the type(s) of model being used, emphasizing the role of numerical information. The National Science Education Standards (NSES) states that "models take many forms, including physical objects, plans, mental constructs, mathematical equations, and computer simulations" (NRC 1996, p. 117). In this case, the paper snowflakes are physical models. …

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