During last week’s scichat (#scichat) on Twitter, I mentioned, “play with a purpose.” Play with a purpose is a saying that I often use with students. It means checking out something new in a systematic way; having fun in an organized fashion; discovery with a goal.
Play with a purpose activities are opportunities for students to discover and explore something that you hope will inspire inquiry. It is a way to guide inquiry while still doing open-ended inquiry. It is also a good way to assess inquiry skills.
The idea of play with a purpose is that you give students something – an object, a set of chemicals, an organism, a system – and ask them to see what they can find out about it. I usually ask them to record their findings in a t-chart of observations vs. questions. Of course, you must clearly identify any safety hazards prior to this activity.
After play with a purpose, students should have a lot of questions and thoughts generated that they can use to create a scientific question that they want to answer.
Some examples of play with a purpose activities I’ve done with students:
- combine cornstarch with water and see what happens [fluid dynamics, macromolecules, polymers, non-Newtonian fluids]
- observe stoneflies (they do pushups when the dissolved oxygen level in their water gets low) [homeostasis, gas exchange, physiology, respiration, etc.]
- mix Alka-Seltzer with water in a closed film canister and observe the resulting explosion [reaction kinetics, acid/ base chemistry]
- make whirligigs [gravity, aerodynamics]
- vinegar and baking soda [acid/ base chemistry, gas production, reaction kinetics, etc.]
- dilute HCl and various materials [metals, wood, plastics, etc.]
- bromothymol blue, calcium chloride, and baking soda [endothermic/ exothermic reactions, reaction kinetics, etc.]
Let’s pick one and see where it goes, shall we?
Prior to an inquiry investigation into the effects of different parameters on reaction rates, I have students play with alka seltzer and film canisters. I demonstrate one and require all to wear safety goggles. I then give them the materials and step back and observe. I answer no questions, except those related to safety. They play with the stuff, manipulating variables haphazardly to see what happens. They jot down observations and questions. After a period of this, they are ready to generate a scientific question and design experiments.
The learning target that is posted on the board during these activities: “I can play with a purpose”