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Mystery Planet

Some time ago, probably 18 months or more, a NASA education outreach person visited our school and demonstrated an activity to the staff during a faculty meeting which he called "Mystery Planet." It's a simple activity designed to help students develop observation and inference skills, consisting of, basically, a bag of dirt, a pair of tweezers, and a magnifying glass (known in school science texts as a "hand lens"). Perhaps I over-simplify: the bag of dirt is more like a bag of aquarium gravel-sized bits of... dirt. The objective is to examine the "soil sample," categorize the contents (sort by size, color, texture, or whatever criteria the student decides to use), and make an inference as to the environment of the Mystery Planet.

Of course the teachers were enthralled with the activity. Some of them, anyway. Because, after all, it was from NASA. And after all, they're elementary school teachers, so they get excited about fussing around with little bits of stuff. At the close of the meeting, the NASA dude passed out a two-sided photostat describing the activity and suggesting how to create packets of soil samples as well as sources for purchasing little bags of gravel.

And that's as far as it went. Oh, our school has money for "science" stuff; so much money that, as I may have mentioned before, at the end of the year the tech coordinator and the curriculum coordinators talk gleefully about how they have to "just start ordering stuff" or they'll lose the money. So they buy "science kits" and all kinds of toys and gadgets and gizmos that "look interesting," but which end up squirreled away in cabinets in one of the two (there used to be one, now there are two) so-called "science rooms" which are nothing more than cluttered dumping grounds for mounds of stuff.

Kinda reminds me of my Room of Doom, although at least I have a pretty good idea of what is in my Room of Doom.

At one point last year I asked about magnifying glasses, thinking I might work up a "Mystery Planet" exercise. One of our curriculum coordinators said she thought there were a few "in the science kits," and together we managed to find three of the cheapest, crummiest plastic magnifiers one might imagine, the kind not even fit for giveaway party favors. That's the thing about the "stuff" the school buys: they buy a lot of stuff, but never enough of any one item to conduct an activity with all 25 to 30 kids in a class.

"The kids can work in teams," the coordinator suggested when I asked about more maginifying glasses.

I have found, in my long (it'll be two years as a certified teacher this month) career, that working in teams... just doesn't work. At least, not for everything. In fact, for hardly anything. Putting students in teams simply because you don't have enough equipment is NOT an effective, or fair, teaching practice, and it's a big waste of time, since most of the kids end up doing nothing for most of the class period. So, I started assembling a "Mystery Planet" kit on my own, paying for it out of my own pocket, with 32 sets of magnifying glasses (hand lenses), tweezers, and bags of gravel.

I finally completed the kits a couple of weekends ago. One of the standards this quarter is "differentiate between an observation and an inference." Having accrued the hand lenses and the tweezers over the past year, I finally felt ambitious enough to head down to the beach with a plastic pail and a couple of plastic sifters from a children's beach toy set. I went to this beach, because it features an interesting assortment of small stones, coral and shell fragments, and "beach glass" and broken pottery shards from an early-1900s plantation camp. I sifted out the sand particles and picked out the overly-large stones, and assembled 32 Zip-Lok bags of "Mystery Planet soil samples" for students to examine.

I ran a test session with some of my 4th-grade SPED kids last week, and the exercise kept them enthralled for 45 minutes as they examined the strange bits of detritus. Everything is more interesting when viewed through a magnifying lens, and the kids were truly amazed by the strange textures and shapes they discovered.

Today I conducted the lesson with a general ed 4th-grade class (which included some of "my" SPED kids as well), and the general ed students were equally as fascinated by the tiny fragments in the plastic bags. Many of them quickly identified the material as coming from "the beach." The objective, however, is for them to explain "why" they think the material comes from the beach, and to support their inference with evidence from their observations.

I expected this to be a one day lesson, but to my surprise and delight, the students are far more fascinated by the little bits of coral and shell and stone and glass than I thought they would be. For a change, the home room teacher with whom I "co-teach" science was not harping at the kids to hurry up and write down their responses; either he was tired, or else he, too, was rather taken by the excitement the kids demonstrated as they poked through their little collections.

It was definitely worthwhile to put together enough kits so that every student had their own sample and own supplies to work with. Everyone got to explore and discover treasures unique to their bag -- an oddly shaped coral fragment, a "crab hand," a pottery shard with blue designs, smoothly worn green & white & purple glass fragments, and little round rusted metal nodules which respond to a magnet. (I shall have to add magnets to the kits, I think.)

So there's my teaching strategy: I gave a group of 9-year olds a magnifying glass and a little bag of gravel, and let 'em look at the stuff. Their eyes lit up, and their brains kicked in.

I guess that's why I get up in the mornings.


( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 6th, 2008 08:52 pm (UTC)
Great story! You have 32 kids in your class? That's huge! (By WA standards, anyway.)
Dec. 7th, 2008 12:43 am (UTC)
No, thank goodness, I don't have 32 kids in a class! The regular ed classrooms have about 25 or so students; my "resource room" class is only six or seven students at a time. But I put together 32 science kits "just in case" the class grows, or for some reason we have extra students, or in case some of the materials get broken or lost.

The school district is now proposing, in order to save money, to increase the size of every class in the state by one student. They say this will save nine-million dollars per year. The savings will come, quite obviously, from eliminating classroom teaching positions. This comes, of course, after the DOE publicly promised that any necessary cuts would not come from the classrooms.

On the local newspaper website, an article about DOE budget cuts generated quite a few responses from the general public. All of the responses... all of them... suggested cutting DOE administrative positions and salaries. Not one response suggested eliminating teaching positions or cutting teacher pay. Of course, all of those suggestions were disregarded.

Bureaucracy exists to serve itself.

So, yeah, 32 students per class might be coming. If so, I have enough bags of dirt for all of 'em!
Dec. 7th, 2008 06:56 am (UTC)
Average size of a class here is 28 students, although you can give or take one or two. There's a lot of 'one between two' type activities.

In secondary education, I think that classes of this size is most vile. Typically a student needs teacher attention a lot, and since the teacher is shared one between thirty-odd kids are quite often sat with most of the lesson with their hand in the air. Which achieves very little.
Dec. 8th, 2008 05:59 pm (UTC)
Puting students in teams does works, but only if the tasks you give them lend theselves for teamwork. And few classroom activities are fit for team work.
Your Mystery Island Planet kits might be fit for two-headed teams. As in a first stage with the stuf you used doing it individually. And as a follow up case you can pick some more dificult samples where they work together.

"science rooms" which are nothing more than cluttered dumping grounds for mounds of stuff.
So you infected the school with your RoD-virus :XD:
Jan. 4th, 2009 11:08 am (UTC)
That's awesome that you went through so much personal work and cost to give your students something that really peaked their interest. Probably best not to put them in large teams. One kid gets stuck doing all the work... that was always me.
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )

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