January/February 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 4

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.

Written by Guest Contributor

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: http://www.classroomscience.org/disclaimer.

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:
    http://www.arborsci.com/ice-melting-blocks-thermal-conductivity
    http://www.teachersource.com/product/amazing-ice-melting-blocks/energy
    http://www.flinnsci.com/store/Scripts/prodView.asp?idProduct=16337
    http://smile.amazon.com/Arbor-Scientific-Ice-Melting-Blocks/dp/B000701B7O/ref=smi_www_rcolv2_go_smi?_encoding=UTF8&*Version*=1&*entries*=0
    http://www.pasco.com/prodCatalog/SE/SE-7317_ice-melting-blocks/
    https://www.wardsci.com/store/catalog/product.jsp?catalog_number=160503

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