Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Testing the Absorbency of Paper Towels and the Sham-wowTM!

Part One – Laying the Ground Work (ENGAGE)

(Posting 16)

During the new semester one of my teaching assignments is a split class of grade 9 and 10 Essentials Science (SNC1L and SNC2L), also known as Locally Developed Science. Teaching this class is always a wonderful experience because the students have not only the highest needs of all our learners but also have the greatest desire to learn about science through inquiries. Many of them can only read and write at a primary grade level and compensate for this lack of literacy skill be being exceptional listeners, and highly visual and tactile learners.

The Ministry of Education does have a formal curriculum for these courses as well as course profiles but the emphasis is more on the big ideas and less on the details which leaves the teacher free to follow the needs and interests of the learners, to take into account the equipment available and also to integrate any special skills that the teacher may have into the course.

The inquiry that I am going to describe in this blog fits nicely into both the grade nine unit on Science in Daily Life and the grade ten unit on Science In the Media.

In order to get the students engaged I spent an entire 75 minute period setting up the scenario for them. Prior their entry into the class room I cleared off my desk except for three items: a roll of brown from home and a bright orange Sham-Wow TM. (For those of you unfamiliar with the Sham-Wow TM it is a type of thick cleaning cloth that is marketed extensively in Canada through a series of hokey television ads, one of the many claims of the Sham-Wow TM is its super-absorbency.)

Instead of standing at my door to greet the students as they entered, which is my normal practice, I stood by my desk and greeted them as they entered. This immediately drew their attention to the three items on my desk; they were especially attracted to the bright orange colour of the Sham-Wow TM.

“What’s this, Miss?”

“Is this for a lab, Miss?”

“Did you spill something, Miss?” were some of the questions posed by the more verbally inclined of the group. Some of them touched the various towels while others just looked on.

After everyone had gotten organized and sat down I picked up my tea cup from its usual position on my desk and accidently spilled all the water out of it onto the front counter. The students thought this was the funniest thing they had ever seen! They laughed and laughed!

Keeping up the pretext that I was a goof who had just spilled water I posed the question, “What should I use to clean this up?” Everyone had a suggestion and some of the students even got up from their seats to clean the mess up for me. I reassured them that I could handle it, thank you, but I left the puddle of water right where it was. Instead I seized the opportunity that had now opened itself up when everyone started shouting out their suggestions about how I could clean up the spill. Getting the students talking about the situation means that they were now thinking, the ever elusive metacognitive skills had become engaged!

I announced that we were going to take a vote on which one of the three types of towels I should use to wipe up the puddle but before we voted each student needed to jot down on a sticky note which type of towel they were going to vote for. As usual, the students liked using sticky notes because they knew they would be tossed into the recycling box at the end of class and therefore they were not threatened if their spelling was incorrect, their writing was messy and they could even doodle (in fact it is encouraged). After everyone had something down on their sticky note they were instructed to find a partner who wrote something different then they did. This allowed some built in, controlled movement of the students who need to get up and move around during class anyway. Once the partners were found the next step was to give each partner 30 seconds to try to get other one to change their mind about which cloth should be used. (This strategy is called Think – pair – share.) Everyone was then given a second sticky note, of a different colour than the first, and told to write down their final choice, for the vote.

The second sticky note became the ballot for voting। I drew a chart on the board and each student came to the front and placed their sticky note into the appropriate column on the chart. This allowed for some more controlled movement within the class and also provided us with a nice visual we could use to tally up the votes.

Brown paper towels

White paper towels

Sham-Wow TM

At this point of the class, the spill still wasn’t cleaned up, I asked if anyone would like to explain to the class how they had voted and why. Responses included:

“Those brown paper towels are no good. They never get my hands properly dry when I use them in the washrooms.” (Good example of using prior knowledge.)

“The white one is best, I saw it advertised on TV, and it is the quicker picker upper.” (Good example of making inference.)

“My dad uses the Sham-Wow TM when he washes the car and it works really well.” (Also prior knowledge.)

“I saw an ad for the Sham-Wow TM on the internet and it can absorb more than its own weight in water so it is best.” (Inference? Recall? Prior knowledge?)

“I voted based on the colour.” (visual preference)

“I voted that way because my partner told me to.” (Peer pressure.)

“I don’t know.” (Honest!)

As you can see, a wide variety of responses, but they led me exactly where I wanted to go next, which was into advertising claims. The class agreed that no one had ever seen any advertisements for the rolls of brown paper towels and even hypothesized that they were probably used in all the schools because they are cheap and no good! Most had seen ads on TV for a variety of white paper towels although there was dissention regarding which brand name went with which paper towel. Many could recall seeing ads where entire rolls of paper towels were unrolled to compare how long the actual roll was when measured against other brands. This in turn, led to a discussion about whether the length of the roll had anything to do with the absorbency of the paper towels.

I showed the students some ads for paper towels that I had downloaded from youtube and we discussed them. Here is an example.

Watching and discussing these ads was a perfect segue into discussing the Sham-Wow TM. After watching this ad once we watched it again while pausing it to discuss several things that were of note. Here is a link to the commercial:

Things that we discussed from the video clip included:
  • The claim that it can absorb 20x its weight of water.
  • Not all rubbing was done the same way when spills were being mopped up.
  • It looks like fabric and can be cut like fabric.
  • It can be washed and reused (unlike disposable paper towels).
  • It was invented by Germans.

By now it was only a few minutes until the bell and I had spent the whole period modeling in order for the students to have a good understanding of the inquiry that would now have to wait. I told the students that tomorrow we were going to design and conduct an experiment to determine which of the three paper towels was better at cleaning up spills. The spilled water was still on the counter!

“YAY! Another class with no work! We love this course.”

Next blog posting: Testing the Absorbency of Paper Towels and the Sham-wowTM!

Part Two – The Inquiry (Posting 17)

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