Teacher Sara Donnelly knows that the best way to help her eighth graders grasp scientific concepts is to connect their studies to authentic learning experiences. As a result, she’s always on the lookout for projects that transform science topics into “aha!” moments for students.
“I want them to see science as something that’s familiar, part of their lives, and useful—and not intimidating,” she said.
This year, she kicked off this approach by introducing students to the study of waves, or transfers of energy. An essential component of the study of physics, waves help scientists understand physical phenomena, and they can be found in many forms in our everyday lives, from the sounds we use to communicate to the lights we use to see.
“One of the reasons I start with waves is they offer a more qualitative experience and are more visual,” said Sara. This makes them especially useful for building scientific understanding and skills in middle schoolers: depending on students’ abilities, they can observe waves in a variety of ways, such as by listening to music or by observing colors made by light. These real-world practices, explained Sara, also help them learn to apply knowledge through unbiased observations, as well as practicing accurately recording data.
The eighth-grade waves study is divided into three subunits (wave properties, sound waves, and light waves), and examines what waves are, the types of waves, how waves travel, and how, with different materials, waves can be sped up, slowed down, or amplified. The kids quickly picked up on the concept: during a Middle School dance that took place during the unit, Sara said students were commenting on the need for more absorbent walls in the gym. Students also discovered that waves were the reason behind some of their day-to-day experiences—eighth grader Sophia H., for instance, noted that the unit helped explain odd noises she’d heard: “I found out that sound waves traveled through vibrating particles, which definitely explained some of the weird sound phenomena that I have experienced in the past,” she said.
I want [students] to see science as something that’s familiar, part of their lives, and useful—and not intimidating.—Sara Donnelly, eighth-grade science teacher
The students also enjoyed opportunities to set waves’ paths in order to better understand them. In November, they demonstrated light behavior and the law of reflection via mirror mazes. And in December, in culmination of all they learned in the first unit of the year, they designed models of their ideal concert experiences, a project centered around how both light and sound waves can affect how a person experiences an arts event.
“They were really excited about it,” said Sara. “Eighth grade is a great opportunity for students to use their creativity, apply their understanding of something, and take it to a more abstract way of showing their understanding.”
For the project, students were divided into teams and tasked with designing 3D models of concert venues, complete with speakers and lights marked with the directions of their waves. Students had to think through how the movement of sound and light would affect the audience’s experience: Where should speakers be placed for optimal sound quality? How will sound travel around the venue? How does the shape of the stage, or the seating, affect sound? How do light and color mix? What building materials will produce the best results? How do you manage accessibility for all attendees? In addition to a writing papers outlining each choice and its scientific justification, students presented their models to their peers, incorporating 30-second clips of songs that complemented their venue designs—choices varied and included Offenbach’s “Can-Can,” 21 Pilots’ “Stressed Out,” and AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck.” It was a unique, and fun, way to tie together what they had learned.
“It was an interesting unit and I expanded upon my knowledge of waves quite a bit,” commented student Kendra L.
The project was a great way to build students’ confidence as scientists while also preparing them for new challenges: since returning from winter break, the eighth graders have been immersed in a new unit around forces in motion—a more challenging topic that’s stretching their learning through studies around acceleration, friction, and inertia. And just like in the waves unit, Sara is incorporating activities—including one titled “How Slow Can You Roll?” in which students work to slow the movement of a ball—that bring learning to life while building skills like how to communicate effectively, how to work well with others, and how to use sound data to solve problems.
“I want them to be able to reason through different theories as to what a possible solution might be, and to avoid jumping to conclusions,” said Sara. “The unit is building up their skills to be good scientists and good observers who ask questions and design solutions.”
We can’t wait to see what they come up with.