CSTA Classroom Science

Activity Mania, This Is Not!

By Terry Shanahan

In preparation for the summer 2015 Southern California K-8 NGSS Early Implementation Institute in Vista, our grade 2 cadre of science educators from elementary, secondary, and the university, planned a week of science investigations around matter and its interactions. Of course, we began our planning with the question, “What would you expect a second grader to know about matter?” After our quick write, we began our conceptual flow, using post-its for each of our statements. We then checked our conceptual flow against “A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Cross-Cutting Concepts, and Core Ideas”. Had we left out any important concepts? Our biggest idea became: Matter is observable and it is not created or destroyed even as it changes form. Our conceptual flow moved from left to right: concrete to abstract. Our smaller ideas and the concepts we found in the Framework document later became the guiding statement for each day of our institute:
•    Monday: Matter has observable properties;
•    Tuesday: Different properties are suited to different purposes;
•    Wednesday: Properties of matter can be used to identify/classify materials;
•    Thursday: Heating and cooling of substances cause changes that can be observed; and
•    Friday: Objects can be built from smaller parts.

So each day’s lessons would connect to the concept of the day.

Once we had our concepts and our guiding statements for each day, the team met to brainstorm investigations that would lead participants to understand the big ideas of matter and its interactions. As we have been teaching physical science topics for quite a few years now, coming up with investigations was not a problem. We each contributed to the list for each day of the institute. I make it sound simple but we actually had 4 different iterations of the weekly plan before we were happy with the flow of the concepts. Because this institute was for second grade, we wanted to use familiar materials for our matter lessons and decided that metals best fit our need. Metals gave us the phenomena we needed to engage our participants in a discussion of matter and its interactions. Consequently, most of our investigations centered on the properties of metals. Every day of our plan was filled with fun, engaging activities that we were certain our participants would enjoy.

But how could we provide the participants with rich opportunities to learn about matter—to move beyond “activity mania”—doing activities just for the fun of them? What we needed was the Science and Engineering Practices from the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). As we looked at the NGSS Performance Expectations for Structure and Properties of Matter (PS1) in grade 2, we found:
•    Plan and Conduct an Investigation
•    Analyze Data
•    Construct an Evidence Based Account (Construct Explanations)
•    Construct an Argument from Evidence

Our investigation of observing properties of metals started with sorting some samples, looking for patterns followed by using the different properties of metals (color, texture, luster, malleability, and hardness) to classify and sort unknown metal objects. The grade 2 participants analyzed data from investigations of the properties of metals to determine which of the properties made them appropriate for household uses.


One of the metals the participants observed was copper. In observing properties of copper pennies, participants planned and conducted an investigation to observe which common household materials caused a change in the pennies. The cadre team had planned to investigate putting pennies in a salt and vinegar solution to observe a change in the pennies. The participants spontaneously started asking questions about which liquids on the table might cause a change in the pennies. The excitement in the room was contagious as the participants asked questions and shared their ideas with their groups while more and more baggies with pennies and liquids were assembled and observed.

The participants observed a metal ball that fit through a ring but, after being heated, it could no longer fit into the space. When the metal ball cooled and could again fit into the ring, the participants wrote their observations in their science notebooks. They constructed an argument from evidence that the change caused by heating of metals can be reversed.


The participants’ science notebooks became filled with observations and data that they used to construct explanations. After observing the physical and chemical properties of metals, participants observed properties of sugar and salt and explained why heating these produced different results. The participants were engaged in scientific reasoning and communicating their ideas with their group members.

One investigation that spanned several days was related to the property of density. After the participants investigated the density of metals, they were given an engineering challenge to create a cork sinker that would neither float nor sink but “flink” with neutral buoyancy. In their groups, the participants discussed the constraints and criteria posed in the problem to create a solution, using prior knowledge and properties of materials. They brought materials from home or from a nearby store to create their cork flink. When the day arrived for testing their cork design, the participants were excited and nervous. Those groups whose cork sank had to quickly diagnose which property of matter caused the sinking and they redesigned their flink. All groups were eventually successful. During their engineering challenge, they had planned and conducted an investigation, analyzed data, constructed explanations and argued from evidence.


Embedding the Science and Engineering Practices into the institute lessons required some thoughtful planning and purposeful teacher questioning to engage the participants in sense-making. Participants struggled with the concepts while they discussed their ideas with their group members. They took ownership of their learning through the Science and Engineering Practices.

Activity mania, this was not!

Terry Shanahan, EdD, works through UC-Irvine, and can be reached at tshanaha@uci.edu.



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