In need of a bacon-wrapped unit: Matter & Energy

“Stuff is stuff, and energy is energy, and in Newton’s world, ‘never the twain shall meet.'”

I like these words. Michael Doyle wrote them in his post Food is not energy and they stick with me. Stuff makes sense to my students. They bang their desks, rip up paper, sit in chairs. Stuff – when they see it – makes sense. Energy challenges me and for my students the word “energy” means all sorts of different things.

From the Next Generation Science Standards, the following expectations are given to middle school teachers regarding the flow of matter and energy through ecosystems and the role of photosynthesis in these processes.

Students who demonstrate understanding can:

MS-LS1-6. Construct a scientific explanation based on evidence for the role of photosynthesis in the cycling of matter and flow of energy into and out of organisms. [Clarification Statement: Emphasis is on tracing movement of matter and flow of energy.] [Assessment Boundary: Assessment does not include the biochemical mechanisms of photosynthesis.]
MS-LS1-7. Develop a model to describe how food is rearranged through chemical reactions forming new molecules that support growth and/or release energy as this matter moves through an organism. [Clarification Statement: Emphasis is on describing that molecules are broken apart and put back together and that in this process, energy is released.] [Assessment Boundary: Assessment does not include details of the chemical reactions for photosynthesis or respiration.]
MS-LS2-3. Develop a model to describe the cycling of matter and flow of energy among living and nonliving parts of an ecosystem. [Clarification Statement: Emphasis is on describing the conservation of matter and flow of energy into and out of various ecosystems, and on defining the boundaries of the system.] [Assessment Boundary: Assessment does not include the use of chemical reactions to describe the processes.]

Whew! That’s a load on these middle schoolers. Take a step back for a moment to think about your understanding of these topics. Then, watch this video by Derek Muller at Veritasium. Where would you position your thoughts? The thoughts of your students?

The video is featured on a post from the Big Science Communication Summit under the heading of No Matter How Many Times You Explain Something and is also linked on an NPR post  titled Trees Come ‘From Out Of The Air,’ Said Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman. Really? The author is shocked. You gotta be crazy – air? Yes, and my students need to “demonstrate understanding”.

It’s the end of the year and I would like to say that my students have developed a strong foundation surrounding energy and mass. I would like to say that when posed with the question Where do trees get their mass from? my students would not only provide an answer but also an explanation involving processes. But, it’s a stretch and most are not there.

What have we done? We’ve planted seeds in the garden. We’ve planted seeds in the class. We’ve watched plants grow; noting the lack of depressions around both our new seedlings and older, established plants. Whoa, the plants are not eating the soil. We’ve put plastic bags around plants to capture water from transpiration. We’ve done skits, drawn diagrams, had big group talks, enjoyed small group talks. We’ve watched videos. We looked at cells and talked about digestion and respiration. It’s a topic we’ve returned to time and time again. But, they are shaky.

Soil they see. Water they see. Sunlight they see. Air? Nope. Carbon dioxide in air? Hmmm…

So, I’m back to the theme of No Matter How Many Times You Explain Something and I know that me standing in front of the classroom yapping about energy and matter is not what will push my students to a deeper understanding. What’s next? I guess I’m seeking ideas on moving forward and -can this be done – I want a Bacon-Wrapped Unit to help out. (Bacon-Wrapped Lessons are Shawn Cornally’s brain child to bring teachers, students and parents together to “smoke out the best lessons possible” on those difficult standards.) What does it take to make a powerful shift in the ideas of our students? Here’s a topic that has shown its difficulty in being understood yet is “expected” of young teenagers. Suggestions? Comments? 

Postscript: 

Towards the end of the day, I had a conversation with one of my classes. I showed them my blog and explained that I try to reflect on my work through writing and sharing as they often do in class. I shared with them this issue of shifting mind sets and asked what they thought about and what they believed that they needed in order to shift. Interestingly, the students how do seem capable of adjusting previous conceptions responded along the lines of needing a shared experience or needing to work out proof for themselves. The students who struggle wrote that they need to read from a book or ask a parent.

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