May/June 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 7

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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Participate in Chemistry Education Research Study, Earn $500-800 Dollars!

Posted: Tuesday, May 9th, 2017

WestEd, a non-profit educational research agency, has been funded by the US Department of Education to test a new molecular modeling kit, Happy Atoms. Happy Atoms is an interactive chemistry learning experience that consists of a set of physical atoms that connect magnetically to form molecules, and an app that uses image recognition to identify the molecules that you create with the set. WestEd is conducting a study around the effectiveness of using Happy Atoms in the classroom, and we are looking for high school chemistry teachers in California to participate.

As part of the study, teachers will be randomly assigned to either the treatment group (who uses Happy Atoms) or the control group (who uses Happy Atoms at a later date). Teachers in the treatment group will be asked to use the Happy Atoms set in their classrooms for 5 lessons over the course of the fall 2017 semester. Students will complete pre- and post-assessments and surveys around their chemistry content knowledge and beliefs about learning chemistry. WestEd will provide access to all teacher materials, teacher training, and student materials needed to participate.

Participating teachers will receive a stipend of $500-800. You can read more information about the study here:

Please contact Rosanne Luu at or 650.381.6432 if you are interested in participating in this opportunity, or if you have any questions!

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.

2018 Science Instructional Materials Adoption Reviewer Application

Posted: Monday, May 8th, 2017

The California Department of Education and State Board of Education are now accepting applications for reviewers for the 2018 Science Instructional Materials Adoption. The application deadline is 3:00 pm, July 21, 2017. The application is comprehensive, so don’t wait until the last minute to apply.

On Tuesday, May 9, 2017, State Superintendent Tom Torlakson forwarded this recruitment letter to county and district superintendents and charter school administrators.

Review panel members will evaluate instructional materials for use in kindergarten through grade eight, inclusive, that are aligned with the California Next Generation Science Content Standards for California Public Schools (CA NGSS). 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.

Lessons Learned from the NGSS Early Implementer Districts

Posted: Monday, May 8th, 2017

On March 31, 2017, Achieve released two documents examining some lessons learned from the California K-8 Early Implementation Initiative. The initiative began in August 2014 and was developed by the K-12 Alliance at WestEd, with close collaborative input on its design and objectives from the State Board of Education, the California Department of Education, and Achieve.

Eight (8) traditional school districts and two (2) charter management organizations were selected to participate in the initiative, becoming the first districts in California to implement the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). Those districts included Galt Joint Union Elementary, Kings Canyon Joint Unified, Lakeside Union, Oakland Unified, Palm Springs Unified, San Diego Unified, Tracy Joint Unified, Vista Unified, Aspire, and High Tech High.

To more closely examine some of the early successes and challenges experienced by the Early Implementer LEAs, Achieve interviewed nine of the ten participating districts and compiled that information into two resources, focusing primarily on professional learning and instructional materials. 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.

Using Online Simulations to Support the NGSS in Middle School Classrooms

Posted: Monday, May 8th, 2017

by Lesley Gates, Loren Nikkel, and Kambria Eastham

Middle school teachers in Kings Canyon Unified School District (KCUSD), a CA NGSS K-8 Early Implementation Initiative district, have been diligently working on transitioning to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) integrated model for middle school. This year, the teachers focused on building their own knowledge of the Science and Engineering Practices (SEPs). They have been gathering and sharing ideas at monthly collaborative meetings as to how to make sure their students are not just learning about science but that they are actually doing science in their classrooms. Students should be planning and carrying out investigations to gather data for analysis in order to construct explanations. This is best done through hands-on lab experiments. Experimental work is such an important part of the learning of science and education research shows that students learn better and retain more when they are active through inquiry, investigation, and application. A Framework for K-12 Science Education (2011) notes, “…learning about science and engineering involves integration of the knowledge of scientific explanations (i.e., content knowledge) and the practices needed to engage in scientific inquiry and engineering design. Thus the framework seeks to illustrate how knowledge and practice must be intertwined in designing learning experiences in K-12 Science Education” (pg. 11).

Many middle school teachers in KCUSD are facing challenges as they begin implementing these student-driven, inquiry-based NGSS science experiences in their classrooms. First, many of the middle school classrooms at our K-8 school sites are not designed as science labs. Learn More…

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Written by NGSS Early Implementer

NGSS Early Implementer

In 2015 CSTA began to publish a series of articles written by teachers participating in the NGSS Early Implementation Initiative. This article was written by an educator(s) participating in the initiative. CSTA thanks them for their contributions and for sharing their experience with the science teaching community.

Celestial Highlights: May – July 2017

Posted: Monday, May 8th, 2017

May Through July 2017 with Web Resources for the Solar Eclipse of August 21, 2017

by Robert C. Victor. Twilight sky maps by Robert D. Miller. Graphs of planet rising and setting times by Jeffrey L. Hunt.

In spring and summer 2017, Jupiter is the most prominent “star” in the evening sky, and Venus, even brighter, rules the morning. By mid-June, Saturn rises at a convenient evening hour, allowing both giant planets to be viewed well in early evening until Jupiter sinks low in late September. The Moon is always a crescent in its monthly encounters with Venus, but is full whenever it appears near Jupiter or Saturn in the eastern evening sky opposite the Sun. (In 2017, Full Moon is near Jupiter in April, Saturn in June.) At intervals of 27-28 days thereafter, the Moon appears at a progressively earlier phase at each pairing with the outer planet until its final conjunction, with Moon a thin crescent, low in the west at dusk. You’ll see many beautiful events by just following the Moon’s wanderings at dusk and dawn in the three months leading up to the solar eclipse. Learn More…

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Written by Robert Victor

Robert Victor

Robert C. Victor was Staff Astronomer at Abrams Planetarium, Michigan State University. He is now retired and enjoys providing skywatching opportunities for school children in and around Palm Springs, CA. Robert is a member of CSTA.