Prior to Covid-19, science teachers had many opportunities to immerse students in hands-on learning, utilizing facilities and materials provided by their schools. While virtual learning was challenging for science labs, instruction is now hybridized or back in the classroom with restrictions. It is important to find ways for students to be hands-on and visualize their learning. New safety regulations limit the ways in which students can interact with materials, each other, and even the educator in the classroom. This leaves educators questioning how they can still provide opportunities for students to model their learning, or experience a concept, with few or no materials.
Students Learn Science Concepts Through Movement
After teaching middle school students from home for exactly one year, I realized that the only material I could count on all my students to have consistently was their physical body. To make the lesson stick, I had to find ways that students could use their own bodies to model movements, test phenomena, and engage with the curriculum. Requiring my students to move throughout the lesson also encouraged them to have their webcams on, boosted their engagement in the virtual world, and gave me another way to keep track of which students were keeping up with the learning outcomes.
While some students may shy away at first, seeing their peers take risks will promote their engagement. Alternatively, students who feel uncomfortable with physical participation can check off other students’ demonstrations to ensure that they also know what the exemplar looks like. After participating in these human labs, my students continued to utilize the movements and reference the activities, which showed how they connected the concepts to them permanently. Their formative assessment scores also increased once I began to implement these hands-on opportunities.
I have identified topics across the middle grades science curriculum that allow students and teachers to demonstrate learning with their bodies. The following lab strategies can be continually utilized virtually or in the classroom to help students gain even deeper understanding of the concepts once materials are available.
1. Matter. Everything in the world is made from matter. This overarching topic spans through all the middle grades, and students are expected to know how particles of matter move around. Students can model and practice the concept of particle movement with their bodies. Give them directions to act like solids, liquids, or gases. Switch it up as in Simon Says until all students have sped up, slowed down, or vibrated in order to represent how matter moves.
Another way to get students involved with matter is by asking them to choose a body part and then describe all of its characteristics. This list could then be used as an outline to show how scientists assign properties to matter.
2. Force and motion. Force and motion are also widely covered in the middle grades. I found that I could have my students demonstrate Newton’s laws of gravity, acceleration, friction, and more. Engaging my students in live experimentation allowed them to demonstrate their knowledge of friction, resistance, and mass by running an obstacle course around the house (this could also be done in the classroom) with and without socks on, keeping time to identify the change in speed. To identify Newton’s third law of motion, students can bounce against the walls to show the equal and opposite reaction.
3. Energy. Students can demonstrate the transfer of energy through waves by making them with their arms. The more energy they apply, the higher the amplitude. This is a great activity to show frequency, wavelength, and parts of a wave.
Bring back a classic childhood experiment for students who are learning about thermal energy. Have students rub their hands together as fast as possible for an allotted amount of time. They will instantly understand the relationship between friction and heat.
For minimal additional material use, you can also show water as a good conductor of heat by filling a balloon with water and then holding it over a flame. Your students will be amazed at how the balloon will not pop.
4. Biological evolution. It can be difficult to get students to connect with Darwin’s theory of evolution and how natural selection plays a role in it. Your students can mirror the wild adaptations of some organisms by altering what they already have as humans. Have them bend their limbs to shorten them, close their eyes to simulate a lack of day vision, or clench their hands as hooves. Then, ask them to connect adaptations and their benefits for a particular species.
On a related note, your students can also easily model the food chain. Place images of different organisms around the room and have them go on a hunt for the organisms that they consume—keeping the food chain in motion. For an added challenge, you can assign several students to be the same organism and then ask them to predict what could or will now go wrong in the ecosystem.
5. Earth systems. Gravity keeps the universe expanding, and it’s also responsible for the Earth’s formations slowly moving farther apart. Students can model this by closing their fist and slowly opening it, as gravity pulls matter away from the source of energy.
Convection currents drive movement in the mantle. To show this, have students lock their fingers, forming an arm circle. Then, ask them to apply force to pull their arms apart, causing the boundaries to crack.
Plate tectonics are also easy to model. Students can hold both of their arms horizontally as their “plates” and then model convergent, divergent, and transform boundary movements. As they visualize mountains, faults, and trenches using their plates, the Earth’s crust and boundaries will make more sense to them.