September/October 2017 – Vol. 30 No. 1

The Meltdown: Using the “Surprise” Factor to Challenge Misconceptions

Posted: Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014

by Barbara Woods 

“No way!” “That can’t be!” “But I thought…” When students experience an outcome that goes against what their own mental construct tells them should happen in the real world, the “surprise” response creates a flurry of brain activity. This makes it easier for students to take on and absorb challenging material.  Although misconceptions about scientific principles often make it difficult for students to fully understand new concepts, using discrepant events in which the “unexpected” occurs encourages students to challenge their own perceptions as they seek to know the “why” behind the experience.

When teachers set up these kinds of experiences, they create many opportunities. Not only are the conditions ripe for applying the crosscutting concepts found in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), they also create a climate primed for rich discussions that exemplify the Language Arts Common Core Speaking and Listening standards. In addition, they develop a classroom culture that nurtures the exploration of ideas using reasoning and evidence, which is at the heart of the Common Core standards.

The trick to using this strategy effectively is to anticipate the misconceptions students have and then design an investigation that challenges those misconceptions. To identify misunderstandings, teachers can think back to their own struggles with understanding a new concept. Teachers can also analyze student written responses in a “quick write” where students explain what they think they know about a key idea.

For example, from a young age sometimes the way our own senses lead our brains to perceive heat energy transfer goes against the scientific explanation for heat exchange events. Students also have many misconceptions around the idea of “melting.”  An activity I call “The Meltdown” challenges those ideas and can be used to introduce a unit on heat energy transfer or states of matter.  In this investigation, student groups receive two flat black 3-inch square blocks that initially appear the same, but are actually made of different materials.  Their first task is to use their senses to describe the similarities and differences between these blocks.  Then, they record the room temperature. They are not told that this is a clue to an explanation, but this data helps with the probing questions that guide the follow-up discussion.

At this point, students are asked to imagine an ice cube-melting contest between the two black blocks. Using what they know about the blocks and what causes things to melt, they predict which block will melt an ice cube faster and explain their reasoning. Students attempt to identify where the energy comes from to melt the ice cube.  They discuss their explanations and share predictions within their groups.

Students set the blocks side by side and place a rubber ring on each block to keep the ice cubes from sliding off and to contain the melt water. The rings can be the vinyl bracelets students commonly wear, or they can be purchased with a kit from a supply catalog. Once they are ready with their recording sheets and a timer, the excitement begins. The assigned students quickly grab two ice cubes. With great fanfare, the “Meltdown!” announcement signals them to place one ice cube on each block. That’s when the “wows” and the “no ways” occur. Even those who predicted correctly are amazed at the rapid results.

At this point, students are guided to ask themselves, as well as each other, questions about what just happened, such as “What could have made one ice cube melt so fast?” “What kept the other ice cube from melting?” “How…?” “Why…?” and “Where did the energy come from to melt the ice?” Drawing upon the idea of variables leads to discussing what is similar and different.  Often students propose that the air temperature affected how the ice cubes melted. That’s where the students can be reminded of the air temperature data.  Encourage them to further probe their thinking.

To keep the activity inquiry-based and Common Core-rich, students are not told what materials make up each block (one is a lightweight metal, such as aluminum, while the other is an insulator such as a plastic or foam product).  Students are left hanging with their proposed explanations, with the understanding that they will continue to reflect on this experience as they learn more.  As new concepts are introduced, regularly direct students to return to their original explanations and, using new evidence and understandings, annotate the accuracy or inaccuracy of their own explanations in a different colored pen or pencil.   This reinforces the idea of using reasoning and evidence to verify or nullify preconceptions. Encourage academic discussion by having them complete a sentence frame such as, “At first I thought ________, but further investigation indicates ________ because ________.”

The subsequent activity is two-fold. First, students repeat the investigation but this time while the melting occurs, group members converse using discipline-specific vocabulary to explain the scientific principles that cause the difference in melt rates. After this informed discussion, they write their individual explanations.  Then, they face the NGSS engineering challenge. They use everyday materials to design a container that prevents ice from melting while on a hike; or, conversely, their design goal can be to accelerate melting without outside heat energy input. Teachers may choose to present this engineering task at the beginning of the instructional unit.  With this problem in mind, students will have a purpose for seeking the knowledge that will guide their solutions.

Whatever your unit of study, identifying an activity that challenges students’ misconceptions at the onset increases their motivation to reconstruct their own thinking, which is when real learning occurs.

Barbara Woods is Curriculum Coach in the Galt Elementary School District and is a member of CSTA.

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From time to time CSTA receives contributions from guest contributors. The opinions and views expressed by these contributors are not necessarily those of CSTA. By publishing these articles CSTA does not make any endorsements or statements of support of the author or their contribution, either explicit or implicit. All links to outside sources are subject to CSTA’s Disclaimer Policy:

2 Responses

  1. This sounds fantastic, but what are the two different black blocks made of? Where do you purchase them?

  2. Elizabeth and other readers…to find the blocks, do a web search for “ice melting blocks.”
    Here are a few sources I was able to find:*Version*=1&*entries*=0

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CSTA Is Now Accepting Nominations for Board Members

Posted: Friday, November 17th, 2017

Current, incoming, and outgoing CSTA Board of Directors at June 3, 2017 meeting.

Updated 7:25 pm, Nov. 17, 2017

It’s that time of year when CSTA is looking for dedicated and qualified persons to fill the upcoming vacancies on its Board of Directors. This opportunity allows you to help shape the policy and determine the path that the Board will take in the new year. There are time and energy commitments, but that is far outweighed by the personal satisfaction of knowing that you are an integral part of an outstanding professional educational organization, dedicated to the support and guidance of California’s science teachers. You will also have the opportunity to help CSTA review and support legislation that benefits good science teaching and teachers.

Right now is an exciting time to be involved at the state level in the California Science Teachers Association. The CSTA Board of Directors is currently involved in implementing the Next Generations Science Standards and its strategic plan. If you are interested in serving on the CSTA Board of Directors, now is the time to submit your name for consideration. Learn More…

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

State Schools Chief Tom Torlakson Announces 2017 Finalists for Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching

Posted: Wednesday, September 20th, 2017

SACRAMENTO—State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson today nominated eight exceptional secondary mathematics and science teachers as California finalists for the 2017 Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching (PAEMST).

“These teachers are dedicated and accomplished individuals whose innovative teaching styles prepare our students for 21st century careers and college and develop them into the designers and inventors of the future,” Torlakson said. “They rank among the finest in their profession and also serve as wonderful mentors and role models.”

The California Department of Education (CDE) partners annually with the California Science Teachers Association and the California Mathematics Council to recruit and select nominees for the PAEMST program—the highest recognition in the nation for a mathematics or science teacher. The Science Finalists will be recognized at the CSTA Awards Luncheon on Saturday, October 14, 2017. Learn More…

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

Thriving in a Time of Change

Posted: Wednesday, September 13th, 2017

by Jill Grace

By the time this message is posted online, most schools across California will have been in session for at least a month (if not longer, and hat tip to that bunch!). Long enough to get a good sense of who the kids in your classroom are and to get into that groove and momentum of the daily flow of teaching. It’s also very likely that for many of you who weren’t a part of a large grant initiative or in a district that set wheels in motion sooner, this is the first year you will really try to shift instruction to align to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). I’m not going to lie to you, it’s a challenging year – change is hard. Change is even harder when there’s not a playbook to go by.  But as someone who has had the very great privilege of walking alongside teachers going through that change for the past two years and being able to glimpse at what this looks like for different demographics across that state, there are three things I hope you will hold on to. These are things I have come to learn will overshadow the challenge: a growth mindset will get you far, one is a very powerful number, and it’s about the kids. Learn More…

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Written by Jill Grace

Jill Grace

Jill Grace is a Regional Director for the K-12 Alliance and is President of CSTA.

If You Are Not Teaching Science Then You Are Not Teaching Common Core

Posted: Thursday, August 31st, 2017

by Peter A’Hearn 

“Science and Social Studies can be taught for the last half hour of the day on Fridays”

– Elementary school principal

Anyone concerned with the teaching of science in elementary school is keenly aware of the problem of time. Kids need to learn to read, and learning to read takes time, nobody disputes that. So Common Core ELA can seem like the enemy of science. This was a big concern to me as I started looking at the curriculum that my district had adopted for Common Core ELA. I’ve been through those years where teachers are learning a new curriculum, and know first-hand how a new curriculum can become the focus of attention- sucking all the air out of the room. Learn More…

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Written by Peter AHearn

Peter AHearn

Peter A’Hearn is the Region 4 Director for CSTA.

Tools for Creating NGSS Standards Based Lessons

Posted: Tuesday, August 29th, 2017

by Elizabeth Cooke

Think back on your own experiences with learning science in school. Were you required to memorize disjointed facts without understanding the concepts?

Science Education Background

In the past, science education focused on rote memorization and learning disjointed ideas. Elementary and secondary students in today’s science classes are fortunate now that science instruction has shifted from students demonstrating what they know to students demonstrating how they are able to apply their knowledge. Science education that reflects the Next Generation Science Standards challenges students to conduct investigations. As students explore phenomena and discrepant events they engage in academic discourse guided by focus questions from their teachers or student generated questions of that arise from analyzing data and creating and revising models that explain natural phenomena. Learn More…

Written by Elizabeth Cooke

Elizabeth Cooke

Elizabeth Cooke teaches TK-5 science at Markham Elementary in the Oakland Unified School District, is an NGSS Early Implementer, and is CSTA’s Secretary.