When my students leave school on the Friday afternoon of the very first week, I want each child to want to return to school on Monday. I want my students to feel energized and excited about the upcoming year of learning that will happen in our classroom. My goal is for my students to feel safe and comfortable with taking risks, sharing ideas, and not knowing all the answers.
For this very reason I introduce scientific inquiry within the first week of school. How do I make that happen? With an experiment that seems like magic and has your students asking questions, hypothesizing, and wanting to explore more in just 20 minutes of time!
Begin with gathering a few simple supplies:
-Opaque Paper/Plastic Cups
-Sodium Polyacrylate (a safe material that is used in baby diapers for absorption)
Prior to students entering the room place a teaspoon of sodium polyacrylate in the bottom of two or three opaque cups. The objective is for students to not know there is something in the cup when the experiment begins. As a teacher, this is the only setup you need to have ready! I love when setup is this simple!
The fun begins when introducing the experiment to the class. I usually begin this lesson by talking about trust. I tell my students that in our classroom this year I want each of them to trust each other, trust me, and most of all trust themselves as learners. I explain how there are going to be a lot of really great opportunities to learn and grow as readers, mathematicians, scientists, etc. but in order for everyone to feel like they can learn we need to work together as a team and build one another up with kindness.
I then tell the students that one of my favorite parts of the school year is conducting experiments and learning about inquiry. So today we are going to combine trust and our first science experiment! I then choose a student to be my assistant with measuring ¼ cup of cold water. This is also a great opportunity to drop a point about scientists using precise measurements when researching. I pour the water into one of my opaque cups to make sure my assistant does not see my secret! The water will be absorbed by the sodium polyacrylate within seconds. It is really cool and fascinating how quickly it works!
I then have my assistant pick a student volunteer to come sit in my teacher stool. I make a big deal asking the student if they would be okay if I poured the water that was in the cup over their head? Usually, this is where the giggling and shock sets-in with the students! You can see it on all of their faces, “Am I really going to pour water on them?” I make it a point to ask the student sitting in my stool if they trust me and I start to slowly tip the cup over their head. Most students are a little uncertain at first and want to look up. I tell them to trust me and keep their head forward so that water doesn’t get in their eyes. I then tip the cup even more and ask if they still trust me. At that point, I flip the cup upside down over their head and when no water comes out of the cup the entire class erupts!
At this point in the lesson, I calm everyone down and say that since it might be a fluke, let’s try this again. I go through the same process usually with two or three more students and the result is always the same. Everyone in the class is wondering what happened to the water and instantly the door opens to discussing the scientific method.
Students are immediately posing questions just as a scientist: Where did the water go? How did the water disappear?
Then students start having conversations about possible solutions to that question. I heard students in my class say things like: there might be holes in the bottom of the cup, I didn’t actually pour the water in the cup, I had a sponge in the bottom of the cup that absorbed the water, I only used cold water so maybe that was the trick, and then of course my favorite comment, that Mrs. Ortiz is a wizard and can do magic!
This usually is where I end day one of the experiment. I keep the students waiting for answers until day two of the experiment. When we can really dig into the scientific method and the process scientists use to conduct research and investigations. Let me tell you, I always have students begging on Tuesday for science to be first thing in the morning because they want to know more about our experiment! A simple lesson that kicks off the year with excitement and learning!