January/February 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 4

Science in the Season

Posted: Monday, December 3rd, 2012

by Rick Pomeroy

I want to start this, my last article of 2012, with holiday wishes for everyone. It has been an interesting year in science education in California and 2013 promises to be filled with a whole new set of surprises and challenges.

As a science teacher for 20 years, I was always challenged to keep my students interested in science with holiday “spirit” and pending vacation plans. As I was thinking about it again today, the day after Thanksgiving, I once again realized that there are some great science lessons all around us at this time of year. Not only are they fun for our students, they also provide us with an opportunity to continue to practice good science teaching.

As I drive around town in the evenings the first things I notice are the holiday lights. Nothing seems to indicate the festivities of the winter season to me more than all of those lights hung on gutters, trees, bushes, windows, and yes, even cars. Did you know that you can help your students learn about circuits by cutting the mini lights out of the long strings with a little bit of both wires still attached to the socket? (Ph Grade 4 #1a, Physics #5a). You can add to that all of the colored lights which can be used in light boxes (Grade 3 #2c, Grade 7 #6), or the evolution of holiday lights from the traditional C-7 incandescent bulbs of my childhood to the LED lights that we are now being encouraged to buy to reduce our carbon footprint.

Next, you can’t help but notice that the weather and climate of the next three to four weeks will be vastly different than it was at the start of the school year, or that it will be by spring break. Depending on where you live, these changes can be significant or subtle but the connection to latitude, elevation, proximity to the ocean and wind patterns is a natural lesson for this time of year. Communications with students in other parts of the world would provide a great lesson in how our weather-based traditions like building snowmen and going ice skating would be meaningless in Australia or Cairo. For younger students, this is a great time to track the daily weather, temperature, rainfall, clouds and wind (Grade K,#3, Grade 1 #3, Grade 7 #4, Biology #6 Earth Science #6). At the middle school or high school levels, you can discuss the effects of climate patterns on issues such as solar energy or wind power, and even the availability of snow run off for irrigation and hydro-electric power (Grade 5 #4, Grade 6 #4). These have significant application to our lives as the year progresses so they can help make the lessons interesting and relevant to the students.

Chemistry has several applications at this time of year, as well. Two come to mind: candy cooking, and snow globes. A little know fact about the chemistry of candy is how cooking temperature affects the final product. Several sites online contain well-written lesson plans and explanations about the chemistry of candy but my short explanation is that the temperature at which the sugar and water solution is cooked determines if the candy will be soft or hard (Grade 5 #1a, Grade 8 #5d, Chemistry #2c, #7, #8). The second is the chemistry behind the snowflakes in snow globes. Snow globes are a childhood favorite and there appear to be snow globes available for just about any holiday you want to celebrate. There are several renditions of snow globe activities from water and glitter, to polar and non-polar solvents (Chemistry 2,6) but the one my students enjoy involves creating a hot saturated solution of benzoic acid in a baby food jar (Chemistry 6).

Not to be forgotten, there are great opportunities for biology lessons at this time of year, too. As the leaves on the trees turned from green to orange and yellow, many teachers guided their students in studies of the pigments in leaves (K 2c, Grade 1, 2e) with paper chromatography (Chemistry 6), but how many looked into the process necessary to produce those bright red poinsettias? Apparently, to achieve the vivid red color, the plants must spend a period of time in total darkness. For a plant that was originally found in Central America, this quirk of its biology makes for an interesting discussion about the adaptation of plants to their environments. One last activity that I always enjoyed was collecting the stump cuts from Christmas tree lots and comparing the ring patterns of the different sized trees. If you collect all of the cuts from one type of tree, it is fairly safe to assume that the trees came from the same tree plantation and if so, the ring patterns should be fairly similar. If you collect stump cuts from a variety of tree species, you can ask the students to use the ring patterns to determine if the growing conditions for the different trees were the same in terms of available moisture. I know that trees grown on plantations are not “natural” but few plantations are irrigated and thus the tree ring patterns do reflect local climate patterns over the 8-15 year life span of the tree. Another advantage of using stump cuts is that they are small and easy to transport and store, and there are not so many rings that counting is difficult.

Additional information about each of the topics listed in this article are available online. CSTA does not recommend or support any external websites where additional information on these activities can be found. Please share your favorite winter science lessons or ideas in the comments section below.

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Written by Rick Pomeroy

Rick Pomeroy

Rick Pomeroy is science education lecturer/supervisor in the School of Education, University of California Davis.

3 Responses

  1. Wow, what an awesome article and great ideas too. Where are the links to the cool sites?
    Oh yea, I wrote this article.

  2. And where are the links?

  3. Links are now posted.

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