Middle School
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A MacGyver Approach to Middle School Science

By Timothy Weymouth, Middle School Science Curriculum Coordinator
This article appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of the Tower Hill Bulletin

In Middle School science class, we want our students to be Renaissance men and women with the resourcefulness of the 1980s television hero MacGyver—who was able to solve a range of challenging problems using a Swiss Army knife and duct tape backed by deep scientific knowledge, adaptability and innovation. This many-things-done-well philosophy sounds familiar…
Enthusiastic Entropy
Chances are, if you walk by a Middle School science class in session, you will see constructive chaos. Students will be in small groups, talking and moving with great excitement about their projects and experiments. We start with big, weighty questions: “What affects light?” “What determines the period of a pendulum?” “How are adaptations passed on?” “What do atoms really look like?” Teachers and students alike realize that if the question is not challenging, it probably is not worth studying. Thus, we have to embrace mistakes and even some colossal failures. There will be burning, explosion, confusion, melting, destruction… and most of it on purpose. We embrace 
our initial disorder of ideas because here we can always find meaning.
Sages and Guides
The process involves the teacher as both “sage on the stage and guide on the side.” We have a generation of students who are not only curious but want supposed truths proven. A class works collectively to refine questions to start a unit; then we dive in to empirically figure out how things work, using elbow grease and occasional electronic wizardry to observe and model changes in systems. This represents true hands-on science, often done without any textbooks. We gather data and measurements, look for patterns, make scientific tables/notes/illustrations, graph our results, conclude and share. The cooperative work needs each student to take part for synergistic success. 
At the end of the studies, we process the information with traditional worksheets and lab reports along with more modern means. Students may craft “infographic posters” to prepare with a peer group, create oral/digital presentations or master new demonstrations to perform for the class. Additionally, there could be new challenges laid out to apply what has been learned to engineering tasks or practical, real-life test questions. As a result, our students often become teachers themselves.
An Academic Swiss Army Knife
A few examples can help illustrate our Swiss Army knife approach to sparking innovation. “Stream Watch” has satisfied fifth-grade STEM and physical activity needs for years. Our students monitor the physical, chemical and biological health of the Brandywine River over the course of the school year. This “place-based” education program leads children to understand their environment and the importance of stewardship. Together with parent volunteers, we collect data on temperature, pH, dissolved oxygen and nitrate levels (from fertilizer run-off); survey terrestrial plants and animals; categorize and count aquatic macroinvertebrates; and collect trash. If we find evidence of pollution, we report to the Delaware Nature Society and the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Control (DNREC). We jump into learning without getting too wet along the way!
The sixth-grade students recently explored an ethereal concept of hot and cold gases after tackling the tenacious world of solid and liquid density. We were able to determine the weight of air, and students asked, “How does a hot air balloon work?” To see how hot air balloons take flight, we gathered materials, constructed scaled-down balloons in groups, got the mass of the balloons and measured dimensions. Then, under close adult supervision, lit attached candles to see if the balloons took flight independently. They did. Students’ performance showed in an illustrated poster depicting all of the physical principles demonstrated in their lighter-than-air craft.
A seventh-grade chemistry unit included a tried-and-true investigation of white powders to determine the properties of a mystery compound at the end.  We measured, observed, analyzed, reacted, evaporated and generally compared known substances to see their qualities. Like the lab coat-toting organic chemists on the other side of the Brandywine, we used our knowledge of “why and how” to determine that the mystery substance was a mixture of citric acid and baking soda. Knowing we could make this multisensory in all aspects, we mixed our reactants with orange flavoring, ate them and voilà, we made our own mouth-frothing “pop rocks.”
Eighth-graders love their phones. While we do not recommend that they roam the halls with them, falling into the sad state of other “screenagers,” teachers here know that phones are also incredible tools. Nobody believes that all objects accelerate at the same rate, regardless of mass. (“You mean to tell me that a bowling ball and a pea fall at the same rate?”) Using smart phones for video, an established 2-meter distance and any object of their choosing, students film a dropped object. We analyze the video, marking the falling acceleration of something like an emoticon pillow, and find that every student’s object falls at the same rate! Like a lot of things in Middle School science, you really would have to see it to believe it.
Ingenuity in the 21st Century
Who knows who these kids will become and what they will do with their skills? Our goal is to grow and enable collaboration, critical thinking, presentation, scientific modeling and comfort with technology to enhance creativity and communication. We see the students’ time here as an “apprenticeship” for all of the do-it-yourself work and analysis a young person will face beyond his or her K-12 school years. We are making an army of problem-solving MacGyvers, so look out world!