Friday, February 4, 2011

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

Part Three – Using the Smarter Science Framework to Perform, Record, Analyze and Interpret the Inquiry

(Posting 18)

Okay! So my grade nine / ten Essentials Grade Nine Science class has spent two days preparing to conduct an experiment to determine which type of towel is the most absorbent. The three types they have to choose from are brown paper towels like those found in school washrooms, white paper towels common in most North American kitchens and the Sham-wowTM a commercial product advertised for its absorbency. I spent the first day getting them engaged in the concept of the inquiry that we would be performing (see blog posting 16). Then we spent the next day using the Smarter Science elementary framework to plan our controlled test of the three paper towels (see blog posting 17).

You may be thinking that this is way too much time to invest in a science experiment, there is curriculum to cover, facts to memorize, textbooks to read and tests to write! I would like to counter any of these arguments with the reply that I have been using the Smarter Science framework in my classroom for some time now with the result that the students have an enduring understanding of the process of science and they have become able to think critically about a wide variety of concepts, not limited to science. As a veteran teacher I have often struggled with the question “But how do I get them to think?” I have read a plethora of books, taken too many courses, sat through endless hours of professional development and tried countless strategies to develop students’ metacognitive skills but it was not until I started using the Smarter Science framework in my classroom that I felt that the students were actually developing their metacognition.

The posters we used are available in pdf format on the Smarter Science website. Because my students have weak literacy skills I chose to complete one master set for this experiment which I had prominently displayed in my classroom. As the students entered my classroom today I met them at the classroom door and gave them a photocopy of the bottom half of page 4 as they entered with the instructions that the only other item they needed today was a pencil.

Together we reviewed the process we had gone through yesterday wherein we had ended by determining the question we wanted to explore. The question is: “If we change the type of towel what will happen to how long it takes to clean up (time)?”

The students were instructed to complete the handout I had given them of step five individually. This included changing the words “We” to “I”. Every single student completed the first half with: “I predict that the Sham-wowTM will be the best.”

They struggled a lot more with the second sentence starter, “I think this will happen because . . .” They wanted me to tell them what to write. Again I had to convince them that it was what they think, not what I think, as long as that is what they think then their answers will be right. There was a huge tendency to copy from the few risk takers who took the chance to fill in their thoughts so I had to ask them to turn their papers over when they were done. An additional problem I encountered was that due to the weak literacy level in the class some students asked me how to spell particular words, which is a practice I encourage with these learners. However, what happened today was when others heard what words were being requested they used those words in their answers. Thinking is a real challenge but one I now feel competent to deal with!

Eventually everyone had something written down. Some examples of their answers included, “I think this will happen because . . .

· the Sham-wowTM is made of fabric.”

· it is better.”

· material is good.”

· it is expensive.”

We referred back to poster3, step 3(b) on which we had written our three unchanged variables: blotting or rubbing, amount of water spilled, and amount of time spent cleaning up. Collaboratively we decided on the values to give each of these variables. They were:

· Blotting only, no rubbing

· Amount of water spilled = 25 mL

· Size of towel = 10 cm x 10 cm

I wrote these values right onto the poster for the students to refer to.

Almost ready to perform and record! We decided the instruments we would use would be the 25 mL graduated cylinder for the amount of water spilled. Consequently, we had some “just in time” teaching while I demonstrated how to use the graduated cylinders. We also decided to use pencils and rulers to measure out 10 cm x 10 cm squares of each towel and scissors to cut

Next we designed our observation table onto which we would record our data. We drew them right on the back of the small handout the students had used to make their predictions.

Type of towel

Volume of spill

Size of towel

Time to clean up

Brown paper

25 mL

10 cm x 10 cm

White paper

25 mL

10 cm x 10 cm


25 mL

10 cm x 10 cm

I did not worry about the fact that they were only going to do one trial with each type of towel. We can only cover so much ground at once! We can get into multiple trials and reproducibility another time.

Measuring out a 10 cm x 10 cm square onto the towels was very challenging for some of these students, as was cutting the squares out. After helping all of them cut one square out I showed them how to use it as a template for the next towel rather than measuring a new square out. In the future I may prepare some cardboard templates for the students who struggle with their fine motor skills. It would also be an opportunity to have a peer helper or buddy come into the classroom to help measure and cut the squares.

The students were happy to be measuring out their squares and using the graduated cylinders. I was pleased when one asked me if they should put their goggles on. I told them it was okay because we were only using water so they would be safe but they were disappointed so I got the goggles out and made them optional for this lab. About half of the students put them on, I have observed time and again that students like to be “real” scientists and do what a “real’ scientist would do.

The students were even more delighted that they were allowed to “spill” water onto the lab counter. As they performed the lab they required verbal cues to remind them to “blot not rub” and “don’t start blotting until you look at the clock”. In order to facilitate timing I had the students work in pairs, but each person performed the entire lab. This allowed them to focus on either timing or blotting at one time instead of both thereby ensuring that data got collected and recorded.

By the time everyone had performed the inquiry, recorded their data and cleaned up I had them all pass in their little handout for marking. There was much more learning than what was recorded on that paper but it allowed me, as a classroom teacher, to have some evidence of the students’ accomplishments so I could record something in my mark book.

There are so many extensions that could be done with this inquiry we could probably do nothing but this for the entire semester. Here are some questions that the students had while doing the inquiry:

· I wonder if the Sham-wowTM works as well after it has been washed.

· I wonder if the blue Sham-wowTM works as well as the orange sham-wows.

· I wonder how the no-name Sham-wowTM from the Dollar Store compares.

· I wonder why they don’t put Sham-wowTM in all the washrooms.

· I wonder why they don’t make diapers out of the Sham-wowTM?

· I wonder how the Sham-wowTM compares to an ordinary towel.

· I wonder if I could use the Sham-wowTM to dry my dog.

It is these questions that provide evidence to me that the students are engaging their metacognitive skills, and that is the power of Smarter Science!

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