Academic journal article Science and Children

Describing Matter: Developing Young Scientists' Understanding of Matter Begins with an Exploration of Properties

Academic journal article Science and Children

Describing Matter: Developing Young Scientists' Understanding of Matter Begins with an Exploration of Properties

Article excerpt


When exploring physical science, we need to be aware of how young children describe the physical properties of matter. Research on student understandings has found that children have naive understandings of matter. Depending on the description, the child may discuss the properties of materials, objects, or matter. Children ages 5-11 often describe the properties of materials--what makes an object useful--using five main criteria (Russell, Longden, and McGuigan 1998):

* Compositional: What objects are made of;

* Function: What objects could be used for;

* Location: Where objects might be found;

* Perceptual: How objects are perceived to have observable properties; and

* Manufactured: Human-made.

In addition, young children (ages 3-9) often focus on a substance's extensive property or properties of objects over its intensive properties or properties of matter (Krnel, Glazar, and Watson 2003). Extensive properties are dependent on the individual object and can be changed by dividing, crushing, or changing the number of the object (e.g., size). In contrast, intensive properties allow for matter to be identified as the property holds true for any sample size and does not change by the sample size (e.g., color). See Table 1 for the differences between intensive physical properties, extensive physical properties, and properties of materials and examples for each. (Note this table is intended as teacher background.) As they get older, children begin to identify objects by their intensive properties.

In contrast, the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) disciplinary code idea (DCI) for grades K-2 focuses primarily on the intensive properties in order to identify matter. For example, PS1-A, Structure and Properties of Matter states "Matter can be described and classified by its observable properties" (NGSS Lead States 2013). The NGSS clarification statement for observable properties includes color, texture, hardness, and flexibility--all of which are intensive properties. Shifting instruction to focus on the intensive properties of matter is important in the progression of learning that continues into grades 9-12 as students connect these observable properties to what is occurring at the atomic level. Helping students expand their descriptions of matter to those used by scientists develops their understanding of the world around them.

Properties of Matter

This three-day lesson was the first lesson of a matter unit in which first-grade students studied the properties for classification (described in this article), states of matter, and what is matter. We used a 5E (Bybee et al. 2006) learning cycle to engage the children in a guided process of classifying matter and applying their new understandings about properties of matter. Students were to demonstrate their understanding of disciplinary core idea 2-PS1-1, Matter and Its Interactions, by describing and classifying different kinds of materials by their observable properties (NGSS Lead States 2013). In doing so, they explore the crosscutting concept of Patterns, in which manmade and natural objects can be observed to have patterns that allow for the identification of an object by the intensive properties. Students engage in the science and engineering practice of carrying out an investigation to describe the objects both familiar and unfamiliar to the children's world. Through careful observations, children begin to identify objects by the observed intensive and extensive physical properties.

Before the unit began, we installed the Properties of Matter app onto the students' iPads (see Internet Resources). The app has four activities in which the children explore the properties of matter, weight, changes in states of matter, and sinking and floating, and apply these concepts to a new situation within the final activity. There are features within the app that allow for the child to further explore an object in terms of the length, weight, and material the object is made of. …

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