Home TeachingScience TeachingPhenomena that BLOW THEM AWAY! One post of a series: ATOMS
Phenomena that BLOW THEM AWAY!  One post of a series: ATOMS

Phenomena that BLOW THEM AWAY! One post of a series: ATOMS

Is it just me, or do most phenomena suggested by NGSS experts SUCK???  Don’t get me wrong.  I LOVE the idea of using phenomena as overarching themes to pique the students’ interests, tie together as many topics as possible, prompt kids to ask questions, and drive them to seek answers (thus discovering the science themselves).  I’m sold on phenomena.  I’ve looked all over the place for good ones, especially the #ProjectPhenomena website, but almost all of the ones I’ve come across have been boring as f***!  In my NGSS trainings, I’ve been told we should be using phenomena from the natural world – things kids see everyday like leaves losing their green color during the winter or the effects of acid rain on statues, etc, etc.  SNOOZE!  Now, there are plenty of questions that are begging to be asked about these natural events, but the kids will only ask them if they’re fascinated!  YOU know what I’m talking about.  If they’re not interested, then when you or I ask them if they have any questions, they shrug their shoulders or say, “Iono” (translation: I don’t know).  For this reason, I’ve been trying to come up with phenomena that will BLOW. THEM. AWAY.  Things that are so cool and have so much “wow factor” that the kids automatically, reflexively ask questions about them because they just have to know!!!  Each post in this series will be devoted to a phenomenon I have used in my class.  They may not all be about things from nature, but they definitely get the kids’ attentions and asking questions.  So, are your bags packed?  Let’s hit it!


Fall of 2017.  I had spent the first several weeks of school teaching my 8th graders about how to work together in teams (Hmm… I’m going to have to write a post about teaching teamwork, aren’t I?  Oh, wait.  I already did!).  It was time to get into some real science.  First up was atomic structure.  I had been searching for possible phenomena regarding the topic for days and couldn’t find anything.  I wanted my kids to figure out the structure of an atom themselves without me telling them.  You know, NGSS-style.  Not sure how, but I came up with Ant-Man as my phenomenon.  The Marvel Comics character has a suit that can shrink him down unimaginably small, or expand him incredibly big.

Day 1: I showed the kids YouTube video clips of Ant-Man in action.  I made sure to point out things to the kids that I said were “weird”, such as when Ant-Man chips the bathroom tile when he falls on it, or breaks through the window when the mousetrap flung him at it, or dents the car when he lands on it.  After the video clips were over, I asked the kids what questions they had, supposing Ant-Man was real.  They then worked together in their table groups (I’ve got my kids at work stations, each with room for 4 students) for 5 minutes to come up with queries.  When time was up, I called on one person from each group to present 1 question they came up with.  Below is a list of some of their questions:

  • How did Ant-Man dent the car when he was tiny?
  • How is Ant-Man able to shrink that small?
  • If Ant-Man”s so small, how does he chip the bathroom floor?
  • How did he break through the window so easily?
  • Does he still have the same strength when he is tiny as when he is normal sized?
  • Why is he so heavy?
  • Why is his body so tough?
  • How did he rip through the vacuum bag?

I told the kids they would find out the answers to their questions over the next several days through the study of atoms.  By this point though, I had the kids hooked.  THEY WANTED TO KNOW THE ANSWERS TO THEIR QUESTIONS! And why wouldn’t they?  Ant-man’s awesome!

Day 2: The kids discovered the structure of atoms using the PHET: Build an Atom online simulation.  I gave them one of the worksheets that came with the simulation (choose whichever one you like by clicking here and selecting “For Teachers”).  The sim allowed the kids to figure out the names of all the subatomic particles and their properties (charge, mass, location).  I didn’t have to tell them because the simulation allowed them to figure it out themselves.  At the end of class, I told the kids they should now have all the information they need to answer their questions from the other day, but it was okay if they still didn’t know yet.  I knew it would take a while for the seeds to grow, but at least they had been planted at this point.

Day 3: I put on an episode of “The Known Universe” entitled, “The Biggest and the Smallest”.  I only showed “the smallest” part, which talks about atoms.  I have the episode on DVD, but I found a British version of the same program online here.  I also gave the kids a brief article regarding atomic structure to read and annotate (The Language Arts teachers already taught all the kids at my school how to do this, but I’ll probably have to write another post on annotations.  More unintended work.  Wonderful.)  I love using articles from ck12.org.  They’ve got tons of short, succinct, editable articles on pretty much every school subject.  You”ll need to sign up to access their articles, but the account is free.  Anyhoo, the video and article reinforce what the kids discovered the day before and they helps out those kids who didn’t understand the simulation.  At the end of the day, I remind the kids to start piecing together the answers to their questions from Day 1 using what they’ve learned about atoms so far.

Day 4: Each table group gots 1 white board easel, 1 marker, and 1 eraser.  Taped to the top of each easel was one of the questions the kids came up with on Day 1.  They were given 15 minutes to use their knowledge about atoms to find the answer to that one question at the top of their whiteboard.  By the way, this kind of group work is called Collaborative Study Groups, and I just realized I’m going to have to write yet another how-to post on this.  Great.  Moving on.  The questions served as their “Essential Questions” for the day.  If you’re not familiar with this AVID term, watch this quick YouTube video to catch up.  This is where teaching the kids teamwork at the beginning of the school year really helped out.  As the kids collaborated, I walked around and listened to each group.  I didn’t say much other than, “Are you sure about that?”, whenever the kids were headed in the wrong direction.  I figured most groups would be lost, and they were, so I had a gif of an expandable sphere prepared and ready to go before hand.  After 10 minutes of most groups being completely lost (but on task), I projected the gif on screen and that’s when the kids started to get it.  At least one person in each group caught on that Ant-Man is able to shrink by pushing the electrons (which zip around the outskirts of an atom) closer to the nucleus (which stays in the center of an atom), thus reducing his size just like the expandable sphere.  Hey, I know you’re thinking that electrons can’t just be pushed closer to the nucleus, but we’re talking about comic book characters here, so just go with it.  Once they understood how Ant-Man is able to shrink, they were able to figure out the rest of their questions.  They used the whiteboard to draw diagrams and write their answers.  After the 15 minutes were up, each group shared out the answer to their particular question so everyone else would know.

Okay, so I simplified things a bit, but I hope you get the gist of what I’m trying to get at.  No, Ant-Man is not “natural”.  Hell, he’s complete fiction.  BUT, does it really matter as long as the kids are engaged with a character they’re familiar with, AND they were driven to seek out the answers to questions THEY THEMSELVES asked?  I think not!  A nice perk:  I hardly had to do any talking for several days.  A friend of mine, Jeremiah Lack, a curriculum program specialist for Language Support Services at the Colton Joint Unified School district, once told me, “Teaching is LISTENING, learning is TALKING”.  Isn’t this exactly what NGSS is going for?  Kids collaborating to discover science for themselves, while the teacher guides.  That sounds familiar, yeah?

So, that’s one phenomenon that BLOWS. KIDS. AWAY.  It worked for me, and I hope it’ll work for you.  If you make it even better or you’ve got another phenomenon for me, please comment away!

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