September 2016 – Vol. 29 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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California Science Assessment Update

Posted: Wednesday, October 12th, 2016

by Jessica Sawko

In June 2016 California submitted a waiver application to discontinue using the old CST (based on 1998 standards) and conduct two years of pilot and field tests (in spring 2017 and 2018, respectively) of the new science assessment designed to support our state’s current science standards (California Next Generation Science Standards (CA-NGSS) adopted in 2013). The waiver was requested because no student scores will be provided as a part of the pilot and field tests. The CDE received a response from the U.S. Department of Education (ED) on September 30, 2016, which provides the CDE the opportunity to resubmit a revised waiver request within 60 days. The CDE will be revising the waiver request and resubmitting as ED suggested.

At its October 2016 North/South Assessment meetings CDE confirmed that there will be no administration of the old CST in the spring of 2017. (An archive of the meeting is available at 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.

Some ways to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service in your classroom

Posted: Thursday, September 22nd, 2016

by Carol Peterson

1) To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, Google has put together a collection of virtual tours combining 360-degree video, panoramic photos and expert narration. It’s called “The Hidden Worlds of the National Parks” and is accessible right from the browser. You can choose from one of five different locales, including the Kenai Fjords in Alaska and Bryce Canyon in Utah, and get a guided “tour” from a local park ranger. Each one has a few virtual vistas to explore, with documentary-style voiceovers and extra media hidden behind clickable thumbnails. Ideas are included for use in classrooms. 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.

2016 Award Recipients – Join CSTA in Honoring Their Accomplishments

Posted: Thursday, September 22nd, 2016

CSTA is pleased to announce the winners of the 2016 CSTA Awards for Distinguished Contributions, Margaret Nicholson Distinguished Service Award, 2014 and 2015 PAEMST-Science recipients from California, and the 2016 California PAEMST Finalists. The following individuals and organizations will be honored during the 2016 California Science Education Conference  on October 21- 23 in Palm Springs. This year’s group of awardees are truly outstanding. Please join us in congratulating them!

Margaret Nicholson Distinguished Service Award

John Keller

John Keller

The Margaret Nicholson Distinguished Service Award honors an individual who has made a significant contribution to science education in the state and who, through years of leadership and service, has truly made a positive impact on the quality of science teaching. This year’s recipient is John Keller, Ph.D. Dr. Keller is Associate Professor, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and Co-Director, Center for Engineering, Science, and Mathematics Education, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. In her letter of recommendation, SDSU science education faculty and former CSTA board member Donna Ross wrote: “He brings people together who share the desire to make a difference in the development and implementation of programs for science teaching. Examples of these projects include the Math and Science Teaching Initiative (MSTI), Noyce Scholars Program, Western Regional Noyce Initiative, and the Science Teacher and Researcher (STAR) program.” Through his work, he has had a dramatic impact on science teacher education, both preservice and in-service, in California, the region, and the country. He developed and implemented the STEM Teacher and Researcher Program which aims to produce excellent K-12 STEM teachers by providing aspiring teachers with opportunities to do authentic research while helping them translate their research experience into classroom practice. SFSU faculty member Larry Horvath said it best in his letter:“John Keller exemplifies the best aspects of a scientist, science educator, and mentor. His contributions to science education in the state of California are varied, significant, and I am sure will continue well into the future.” 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.

NGSS: Making Your Life Easier

Posted: Tuesday, September 20th, 2016

by Peter A’hearn

Wait… What?

NGSS is a big shift. Teachers need to learn new content, figure out how this whole engineering thing relates to science, and develop new unit and lesson plans. How could NGSS possibly make life easier?

The idea that NGSS could make our lives easier came to me during the California State NGSS Rollout #1 Classroom Example lesson on chromatography. I have since done this lesson with high school chemistry students and it made me think back to having my own students do chromatography. I spent lots of time preparing to make sure the experiment went well and achieved the “correct” result. I pre-prepared the solutions and organized and prepped the materials. I re-wrote and re-wrote again the procedure so there was no way a kid could get it wrong. I spent 20 minutes before the lab modeling all of the steps in class, so there was no way to do it wrong. Except that it turns out there were many. Learn More…

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Written by Peter AHearn

Peter AHearn

Peter A’Hearn is the K-12 science specialist in the Palm Springs Unified School District and is Region 4 Director for CSTA.

Celestial Highlights, September 2016

Posted: Tuesday, September 20th, 2016

by Robert C. Victor. Twilight sky maps by Robert D. Miller. Graph of evening planet setting times by Dr. Jeffrey L. Hunt 

Our evening twilight chart for September, depicting the sky about 40 minutes after sunset from SoCal, shows brilliant Venus remaining low, creeping from W to WSW and gaining a little altitude as the month progresses. Its close encounter within 2.5° N of Spica on Sept. 18 is best seen with binoculars to catch the star low in bright twilight. The brightest stars in the evening sky are golden Arcturus descending in the west, and blue-white Vega passing just north of overhead. Look for Altair and Deneb completing the Summer Triangle with Vega. The triangle of Mars-Saturn-Antares expands as Mars seems to hold nearly stationary in SSW as the month progresses, while Saturn and Antares slink off to the SW. 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.