Engaging Students in Physical Science

Physical science is one of the three content items in science. (The other two are life science and earth & space science). Physical science deals with the properties of materials and objects. This includes things we can observe, such as height, weight, color, and transparency, but it also includes how objects respond in different situations. A big part of this is exploring the position and motion of objects. This is perhaps one of the easiest and most fun ways to incorporate science into your classroom. As you attempt to put physical science materials into your space, consider these four criteria of a good physical knowledge activity from Constance Kamii:

  • The child produces the movement.
    This means that the child is in charge of the activity, not the teacher. This isn’t just an observation activity…the child is really involved and is in charge of producing the movement.
  • The child must be able to vary his/her actions.
    There must be something the child can do differently in order to learn more about the object(s). For instance, can the child place the car in different places along the ramp, or make the car start or stop, or make the car go faster or slower. These all provide the child with an opportunity to figure out how these materials work, and how his/her actions influence the position and movement of the objects.
  • The reaction must be observable.
    The child must be able to observe the result of varying his/her actions. Without this observation, the child will be unable to draw any conclusion. Remember that observable doesn’t just mean seeing the result…you can observe with any of your senses.
  • The reaction of the objects must be immediate.
    When the child varies his/her actions, he/she must be able to see the results of that action right away in order to construct knowledge. If the reaction is delayed, the child may not be able to form proper conclusions.

Let’s look at some activities that meet these four criteria:

Catapult by Joyce Brewer

In this simple catapult activity, children are exploring simple machines and determining how the placement of the marker cap (fulcrum) influences how far the pompom travels.

Created by Melinda O’Connor

This simple balance is created out of popsicle stick. Placed on a V-shaped cardboard to enable the popsicle stick to balance, this is then glued to the cardboard base with a bent paper clip wrapped around the V-shaped cardboard holding in place the popsicle stick to form the balance.

This pendulum activity is always fun for children. Make modifications by using an adjustable length (such as using baby links or paper clips), adjustable weight of the pendulum bob, or adjustable weight of the materials being knocked over. Remember to only change one variable at a time though so that children can make accurate observations about the materials.

Inclined Planes by Rebecca Scholtz

Make your ramp area interesting by changing the texture of the ramps so that children can make comparisons about how the texture influences the speed and distance.

This adjustable ramp was made out of cardboard boxes and allows children to determine how the incline affects speed and distance. Remember to use the same materials for all three ramps until after children have had an opportunity to create some conclusions. Then you can experiment with different materials, such as the ones in this picture.

These are just a sampling of physical science materials. Each one has so many options for extending the activity…..what ideas do you have? How could you use these in your classroom?