Workshop Wednesday: It’s So HOT, You Could Fry an Egg Outside!

So we did! Not during the most recent heat wave, but back when my kids were little, and the thermometer was stuck above 100 degrees for way too many days in a row, we proved that we could fry an egg outside. Here’s how we did it:

I placed my cast iron griddle in a spot that would remain sunny all day and left it there for at least an hour to get good and hot before starting the egg. The black iron really absorbs a lot of heat — science discussion #1. Then I smeared a little butter on the hot surface (to keep the egg from sticking and creating a bigger mess) and broke the egg onto the melted butter — this step was very undramatic, with no sizzling or crackling like you would expect to hear when frying an egg on the stove — science discussion #2. I placed a glass lid over the egg to help trap the solar heat (and keep any bugs away from our egg) — science discussions #3 & #4. Then we got busy and did other things for several hours, trying to keep cool while our little egg enjoyed its sauna — science discussion #5 was about the moisture inside the glass lid. We checked on the egg about once each hour, and if I remember correctly, I think it took about 4 hours for the white of the egg to appear cooked and, well, white. Then we posed for pictures. Notice that 1) there is proof of the temperature on the thermometer in the shady background, 2) my little guy snatched the eggshell off the plate just before I snapped the photo, and 3) a Pound Puppy is maintaining a safe distance from that hot griddle atop my daughter’s head.

Based on my son’s age here, this photo was taken in the summer of 1987! My now-adult daughter reminded me of this photo and suggested I post it now so that you can try frying an egg outside as a hot summer day activity and have a few brief scientific discussions of your own. Please don’t try to eat the egg after it’s spent so much time in the sun — no one wants food poisoning as their next summer day activity — science discussion #6!

Workshop Wednesday: Natural Science

Summer is a great time for science exploration. The backyard is the perfect location for mixing Diet Coke and Mentos (search You Tube if you don’t know what I’m talking about), and the weather is relatively cooperative for spending time outdoors. There are abundant species of plants, birds, bugs, and other critters just waiting to be studied, so by adding a few basic supplies, we can turn a boring afternoon into a great learning experience.

The required supplies may surprise you: a pocket-sized magnifying glass is good enough for this project, and some simple drawing supplies complete the list. A small sketchbook and pencil are good for making simple drawings, tracing paper and dark crayons work well for texture rubbings, and a notebook and pencil can serve as your journal for noting what species are found or recording any experiments you try. Toss these into a bag or backpack, along with some bottled water, snacks, bug spray, and sunscreen, and then head out on an exciting trek through the wilderness or a walk around the block, which can yield just as many thrills in the variety of species to be found!

We went on picnics and nature hikes in our favorite parks, but we also found that walking the same route through our neighborhood would reveal new discoveries each time. The trees bloomed and leafed out at different rates in the Spring, flower beds bloomed throughout the seasons, and weeds could be as much fun to identify as anything else. Birds were another category we learned to identify, both by sight and by their songs or calls. Fishing with Dad always gave us opportunities for seeing more natural wonders.

We made rubbings of leaves, we drew sketches of birds and bugs (not very artistic, but good enough to help us look them up later in wildlife reference books), and we studied all sorts of things through a magnifying glass. Sometimes we just sat in amazement and watched the miniature world of an anthill or a pond full of tadpoles. We watched bees and wasps diligently visiting every blossom on an apple tree. We giggled at the antics of squirrels burying acorns, then digging them up again only to bury them in another spot. We listened to the birds and learned to mimic them well enough to have them answer when we called. We sorted a handful of random pebbles into several types of rocks. We carefully pulled flowers apart, petal by petal, to study the intricate designs. The various categories of nature study could fill an entire summer by selecting a different interest each day!

When I was in high school, my science teacher required each student to compile an extensive collection of plants as a year-end project, and each year he increased the number of species! I think the final tally was 40 wildflowers, 40 trees, 10 grasses, and 5 mosses – all different, no duplicates, and we had to label each one with its correct name. My kids loved the idea of being able to identify that many individual species, so we hiked through some of the same areas that I had frequented during high school, just to see if we could find those same plants again. I wish that when I was making my high school collection that I’d had the book we used then. We had a wildlife reference book that covered everything from trees to mushrooms to wildflowers and more creepy-crawlies than you want to know about. There are now many websites for reference, and you can find apps for your smart-phones, too! If you don’t already own or have access to the supplies listed above, visit our Etsy shop to purchase the GFHS Natural Science Mobile Learning Lab, which includes a Usage Guide with many activity ideas.

Here are a few references to get you started:
“Natural Science Mobile Learning Lab” from Guilt-Free Homeschooling
What Bird Is That?
What Tree Is That?
North American Wildlife

Workshop Wednesday: Freebie Magnets

Magnets are a wonderful learning tool for tactile learners. There is something about that magical, magnetic connection that appeals to fingers of all ages. Fortunately, most of us have a ready supply of free advertising magnets from the pizza place, the hairdresser, the auto mechanic, the new phone directory, and every politician who marches in a summer parade. Peel your collection off the refrigerator, and let’s turn them into some great learning aids. I’ll list several possible uses and some basic how-to’s for the magnets. You’ll want to analyze what topic your students are struggling with or where they need the most help, and then focus your efforts there. Students can also help make magnetic learning aids, and helping to make them means the learning begins right away.

Stickers are probably the easiest things to turn into magnets, since you just have to stick them onto a magnet and cut around the stickers with scissors or a razor knife (such as an X-Acto). I have used scrapbooking stickers that looked like Scrabble letter tiles, foam letter stickers that were shaped like small jigsaw puzzle pieces, and 3-dimensional plastic stickers with raised animal shapes. The puzzle piece stickers were slightly tricky because of their irregular shapes, but I cut the magnets into squares small enough to fit in the center of each sticker, and then (after attaching the magnets) dusted the surrounding sticky edges with baby powder, using a dry artist’s paintbrush. It took two rounds of dusting powder to get the foam pieces to stop sticking to each other, but I’ve had no problems with them since then. With regularly shaped stickers, it is fairly simple to line them up next to each other (as many as will fit on the magnet), press them down securely, and then cut them apart. If your stickers have rounded corners, cut them apart as squares first, then round off each corner with scissors. There may be a strip of magnet left at the side that is too narrow to hold more stickers, but hang onto that piece—you’ll cut it up and use it later.

Once upon a time, my kids had some puffy stickers that they wanted to be able to save and reuse. Magnets to the rescue! I covered the backs of the stickers with adhesive plastic, then attached a magnet to each one. Those cartoon character magnets became a great quiet toy for imaginative play.

Craft foam sheets allow you to make your choice of subject matter by writing on the foam with a permanent marker, such as a Sharpie. (Some foam sheets can even be purchased with a magnetic backing already attached!) I had some magnetic strips that were adhesive on one side (leftovers from a weather-stripping project), so I cut squares of craft foam the same width as the magnetic strip, stuck them on, and cut the magnetic strip between the squares. Adding numbers to each square produced magnetic manipulatives for math! I drew arithmetic operation symbols on a few more squares to complete the set.

Laminated placemats have been featured in a previous Workshop Wednesday article, but I will mention them again here for good measure. That example showed a periodic table of elements placemat that I turned into magnets, but any subject matter will do. If a placemat doesn’t lend itself to a building block format (such as the periodic table) or a map (USA, etc.), perhaps you can cut it into a simple jigsaw-style puzzle to entice your kids to play with the magnetic pieces and learn the information.

I have also used the plain (back) side of a thick foam-like vinyl placemat by cutting it into the desired shapes and attaching a small piece of leftover magnet to the back of each piece (formerly the front of the placemat). Adhesive squares made for scrapbooking, card making, and other popular paper crafts work great for attaching magnets (without the mess and hazards of hot glue guns). These vinyl-foam placemats are a bit heavier than craft foam and are made of a material that is not subject to the static electricity that can leave you covered in bits of craft foam for the rest of the day. Yes, that is a magnetic map of Iowa’s 99 counties, made from the backside of an orange jack-o-lantern placemat, but please don’t feel you have to try something quite so ambitious as your first project (that thing was tricky!).

A USA jigsaw puzzle (cut on state borders) received new life as a magnetic puzzle with the addition of a magnet square to the back of each puzzle piece.

Letter game tiles were repurposed with the addition of a magnet on the back of each tile.

Sandpaper cut into small squares can be glued to cardstock for added strength and then attached to a magnet. Grab your Sharpie marker again and write or draw letters, numbers, symbols, etc. for magnetic manipulatives with a bonus tactile texture. I made some in 1” squares, but don’t let that limit your imagination!

Funny facial features (eyes, eyebrows, noses, mouths, mustaches, ears, etc.) drawn on cardstock and attached to magnets become a fun game for preschoolers (I saw that idea on Pinterest, but I don’t know who originated it; someone deserves the credit!). Now what if you used the same principle for body parts and made interchangeable heads, bodies, legs, feet, arms, and tails for a magnetic build-a-monster activity? Build-a-bug, build-a-robot, build-a-car, build-an-animal, build-an-alien—the possibilities are endless! Your older students may have fun creating these magnets for their younger siblings, and they’ll learn some great problem-solving skills in the process. I wonder if we can make these small enough to fit in this empty Altoids tin? Hmmm… then Mom could keep it in her purse for Timmy to play with in church or while waiting in a restaurant!

So let’s review: we’ve discussed making magnets for letters to use for phonics and spelling practice, numbers and operation symbols for math, chemical elements for science, and states for geography. Need more ideas? How about geometric shapes, colors, incrementally-scaled pieces for number value (make them match the size of other math blocks you may own), fraction pieces, or pattern blocks. Have a struggling reader? Use the “magnetic poetry” type of word magnets (purchased or home-made) to focus on reading one word at a time, then adding them together to build a sentence. Have a struggling writer? Those same magnetic words can help him write sentences, stories, or poetry, since it can be much easier to rearrange someone else’s words than it is to think up new words from your own head. Pick up a small, inexpensive, cardboard skeleton party decoration, cut it apart into individual bones or groups of bones (such as the rib cage, hands, feet, etc.), attach some magnets, and you have an anatomy learning aid. Plastic or cardboard coins can become magnetic money manipulatives (say that three times really quickly).

When you have accumulated a large supply of educational magnets, the traffic in front of your refrigerator may get overly congested. Solution: steel cookie sheets or steel pizza pans are lap-sized and much more portable than the refrigerator door. If you need to shop for steel pans, you may want to take along a small magnet in your pocket for testing purposes. (That nosy store clerk will leave you alone when you explain that you’re obviously shopping in the kitchen section for educational materials.)

Now before I forget, there is one other accessory that makes magnetic learning aids even more beneficial: paper. I drew a Sudoku grid large enough to hold our number magnets and placed it on the cookie sheet, using the magnets to hold it in place. Ta-da, magnetic Sudoku can take the visual puzzles from a book or newspaper and turn them into a tactile masterpiece. A worksheet with fill-in-the-blank problems could hold magnets on those blanks instead of written answers. Your kids might choose to color an underwater background picture to place behind their letter magnets, just because they are learning to spell the names of ocean creatures.

Learning isn’t limited to books, life doesn’t happen between the pages of a workbook, and we learn what we enjoy. Magnets get fingers involved, and fingers love to learn! So what are you waiting for???

See also:
What Is the Missing Element?
Placemats + Magnets = Educational FUN!

How to Adapt Lessons to Fit Your Student’s Interests and Make Learning Come Alive

A GFHS reader wrote to me, concerned about her student’s lack of interest in doing homeschool lessons, although he showed a wide capacity for learning and retaining facts about sports. The mom was frustrated as to how to get any actual lessons accomplished, since their days were an endless series of disagreements and strife. This is when out-of-the-box thinking can really pay off. Taking the lessons out of the box and away from the textbooks can make a huge difference and ignite the spark of learning in a “reluctant” learner such as this student. The examples given here will relate to football (this particular child’s passion), but you can easily adapt these ideas to wherever your students’ interests lie.

When a child is keenly interested in football or other sports, that can be used as an “in” for other subjects. For instance, put a map of the USA on a bulletin board and have him stick a pin in the approximate places where his favorite NFL players were born. Then have him place another pin in the city where each player went to college and connect the two pins for each player with a piece of yarn. Suddenly he’ll be up to his elbows in a fascinating research project and geography lesson that doesn’t feel like schoolwork to him at all!

Take this in a slightly different direction by challenging him to do some research on the NFL teams, making a chart showing when each team was founded, where it began, and if or where it has moved. Have some of the teams’ names or colors or mascots changed throughout the years? Now he’s found a history lesson that he can really enjoy! Give him more pins for the map (and a different color of yarn) to show the movements of the teams. A little more research can reveal what important world events coincided with significant team events or crucial games for more history, this time linking football to other events. Find inventions or products that were introduced during the years that match up to his favorite events regarding games, teams, or players, and that can bring in some science lessons. Look at how football uniforms, pads, helmets, and other equipment have changed over the years and why for some more science and history.

Challenge him to research the backgrounds of a few favorite players and write “color commentary” that could be used by a sportscaster, and you’ll have a writing assignment he’ll be eager to do! Challenge him to write his own sports “column” or read and critique the sports columns or blogs by professional sports writers, and he’ll have reading material, comprehension studies, and analytical writing assignments that hold his interest. To round out the language arts lessons, focus on his content first, then work on helping him correct spelling, punctuation, and grammar — always examining the rules for each change, not just criticizing his writing without reasons. He may even learn to spot spelling and grammar errors in the professionals’ columns for an important lesson in why accuracy matters!

Players’ statistics can be analyzed for some practical, real-life applications in math. Calculate the total yards of passing or rushing, the percentage of completed passes, or how a player’s averages have improved or declined over his career. Math practice is math practice, regardless of whether it uses random problems on a worksheet or real-life statistics. When the real-life applications mean something to the student, he will have motivation to complete the work. Learning one fact will spur curiosity to learn more facts, and before long, the student will be knee-deep in new information and hungry for more.

The homeschooling mom mentioned earlier took this advice and began adapting lessons to her son’s interest in football. When his curriculum focused on poetry, they searched the internet for poems about football—and were delighted with their results. One poem prompted a discussion, which led to further studies and more topics. This simple substitution transformed a struggle over a single, uninteresting lesson into a day filled with curiosity, researching, exploring, and learning.

Lessons that are based on real-life interests will combine several academic subjects all at once, rather than following the institutional school model of working on each individual subject for forty minutes before switching to the next unrelated subject for the next forty-minute period. Your student can research a given topic, study and analyze the reading material, pursue more research as to the geography, science, or history related to the topic, perform some math calculations to gain better understanding of the data, create a timeline of events, and express his conclusions and personal opinions in a variety of formats. The analysis of the information is conveyed, whether it takes on the form of a formal essay, a news story, editorial column, a poem, song, or rap, or even a personal journal entry. My own student who was reluctant to read assigned stories outside his field of interest became a voracious reader when the subject matter fed his curiosity. (How many adults would waste valuable time reading things in which they have no interest?) Adapting lessons to your students’ interests teaches those students how to learn from every facet of life and sets them firmly on the path to life-long learning.

See also:
The Value of Supplemental Activities
10 Ways to Improve a Lesson
How Can I Teach Out-of-the-Box Thinking?
Is Learning Limited to Books?
Every Day Is a Learning Day, and Life Is Our Classroom

The Activity Jar

**UPDATED** — See the photo link at the bottom of this article.

Homeschooling parents often lament that they lack the educational gadgets and fancy learning aids that students can benefit from in “real” school classrooms. The Activity Jar is a wonderful store of math manipulatives and assorted learning aids that you can assemble yourself from no-cost items readily available in your home. Gathering the items and filling the jar is as much fun as dumping the contents out again and playing with them.

How to Assemble an Activity Jar–
Begin with one rather large, wide-mouthed container, such as a gallon jar (unbreakable plastic, if possible). Use a small storage tub or cardboard box if you wish, but a secure lid is a must and see-through sides are a bonus. Now set out on a scavenger hunt through your home and garage, poking through the “junk” drawers and all of those little nooks and crannies that tend to collect odds and ends. Pick up those interesting bits of stuff and place them into your jar. Continue this process until you have unearthed all possible objects or until your container is approximately 75% full. Do not give in to the impulse to fill your container brim-full, or you will seriously impede the clean-up phase of using the Activity Jar. Close the lid and set the container aside for a rainy day or any other time when your children want something to do or need practice in sorting, categorizing, or math in general. Bear in mind that the jar will be shaken and rattled around often, so you may need to remove any objects from the jar that become broken with use and replace them with more objects as you find them to keep the Activity Jar’s contents new and interesting.

Be creative with what you select, thinking “outside the box” and including items from all areas of your home, not exclusively small toys. Do include tiny toys, coins, buttons, paper clips, nuts and bolts, and any other fascinating flotsam and jetsam. This is a great opportunity to recycle the remnants from incomplete, broken, or discarded board games. Be careful to select only larger pieces if toddlers may be at risk for swallowing the objects.

How to Use the Activity Jar–
Pour the contents into a large cake pan, unless your children can easily reach into the container to remove the items. Caution: unless your children are already skilled in sharing and showing patience, you will want to limit the Activity Jar to one student at a time. The discovery process can foster territorial feelings and selfishness, especially if two students are attempting to divide the contents without supervision or guidance. Encouraging your students to work together as a team toward a common goal can help them to overcome competition and rivalry.

Allow a student to begin with periods of free play with the objects, and watch him begin sorting without being prompted. When the student has exhausted his own ideas, challenge him to begin sorting the contents into 3 basic categories: Category A (such as round), Category B (such as not round), and Category C (for Other, or I’m not sure what to call this one, because one side of it is A and the other side is B). Other possible basic categories (for A & B) are flat objects and fat objects, single-colored objects and multi-colored objects, buttons and not buttons. Category C is always useful for speeding up the process, since there will usually be something that does not fall easily into the two main categories. Use more cake pans, cookie sheets, shoe boxes, freezer containers, bowls, muffin pans, egg cartons, paper cups, or any containers that will make the sorting process simple and easy.

Once Categories A and B have been sorted out, choose one of them and set the other objects aside for now. Further divide this selection of objects into more specific categories. Sort single-colored objects into individual color families; sort round or flat objects into disk-shaped objects and non-disk shapes; or sort the objects into general size categories of small, medium, and large before measuring them for more accurate classifications. Again, it may help your child to have an “Other” category for things that are difficult to categorize into his chosen groupings.

Preschoolers can enjoy digging through the contents of an Activity Jar (filled with toddler-safe objects) while Mom is helping their older siblings with lessons. Provide them with several empty plastic bowls or freezer containers, and they will have fun sorting and moving objects from here to there and back again.

How to Learn from the Activity Jar–

Sorting and categorizing are the most basic skills that can be learned. Since the jar contains a variety of objects, the student must make decisions for which category applies to each object. Begin with very basic categories (as described above) and proceed to more complicated descriptions later, as the student’s abilities advance. The more the student sorts and categorizes, the finer the details become that can be used for sorting as categories are divided and sub-divided into smaller and smaller groupings.

Even the youngest student can perform simple sorting tasks. Vocabulary and recognition skills are increased as preschoolers practice sorting to learn shapes: Let’s find all of the round things. Color names can be even easier to demonstrate with the jar’s goodies: Today, let’s find all of the blue things. Now let’s make another group of things that have some blue on them.

Students quickly learn that each object can be classified in numerous ways: a single button may be round, flat, pink, have a certain number of holes through its middle, and be an object that starts with the letter “B” or a color that starts with the letter “P.” It may have a design of squares on its top, and it may be made of wood. The student will expand his abstract thinking skills as he learns to look at each object in numerous ways and learns to see all of the various attributes of any given item. Sorting these same objects over and over (by colors, by shapes, by materials, etc.) will illustrate to your child how common objects can be anything but common.

As skill levels advance, so can the sorting criteria, as well as the mathematical applications. Students of all ages will benefit from practice in sorting and counting, resorting and recounting, but other skills can be improved as well: comparing, judging, and classifying; the basic arithmetic of adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing; illustrating fractions and percentages; taking measurements; and on and on.

Once your student has divided and sub-divided objects into satisfactory groupings, challenge him to count the total number of objects and count the number of objects in each sub-group. A student who can perform long division can calculate each smaller group as a percentage of the larger group. If the concept of percent is difficult for the student to grasp, try the exercise again, but this time limit the large group to exactly 100 objects, then repeat the sorting, counting, and arithmetic portions. After the student understands percentages of 100, he can try again with a different (larger or smaller) number of objects as the larger grouping. Fractions can also be illustrated with sub-groups: one student has sorted out 12 game tokens, 6 of which are red; therefore, one-half of the tokens are red. Notice that 2 of those red tokens have a pattern of ridges on them, representing one-third of the red tokens and one-sixth of the larger group of 12 tokens.

Algebra uses the concept of sorting with polynomials. An algebraic expression may contain many objects to sort and categorize, but instead of being red buttons and blue buttons, pennies and nickels, and yellow and white game tokens, they look like X and 2X, XY and 3XY, and 4Y and 2Y. A student who understands that buttons are buttons and that coins are not buttons can also understand that X and 2X are both X-objects, and that neither of them are XY-objects or Y-objects. That is the basis of algebra: sorting and grouping similar objects, while not grouping dissimilar objects.

The skills to be gained from an Activity Jar are nearly limitless. Classification is the basis of scientific research, sorting useful facts from insignificant facts. The plant and animal kingdoms are carefully sorted and classified into similar groups. Other applications of the Activity Jar cover many academic subjects. The visually-oriented student might make graphs and charts to show how many objects were sorted into each group or compile lists of attributes (color, size, shape, material, etc.) for some items. The tactile student might experiment with stacking objects to see which types of shapes can and cannot be stacked easily. You can spur your students’ creativity by them to invent a game using some of the objects. Sharpen your students’ tactile and memory skills by placing some objects inside a paper sack, then asking each student to reach into the sack and try to identify the objects by touch alone. To improve auditory skills, secretly place an object inside a box and challenge your students to listen closely as each one shakes and tips the box to see if he can determine what type of object is inside, just from the sounds it makes while sliding back and forth.

The more activities your students do with the Activity Jar, the more ideas you and your students will think of for new activities to try. Your applications for the Activity Jar will probably go far beyond the few simple projects that I have described here, making your jar one of the most valuable learning aids in your homeschool. And you thought this was just a jar full of useless junk.

Photos of my Activity Jar and some examples of sorting activities can be viewed HERE.

“Mystery Boxes” and the Scientific Method

My daughter had an interesting exercise in her college chemistry lab which we modified for use at home and again later for a group science class. It is a lesson in using experimentation to make a hypothesis (first guess) and then prove whether or not that theory is correct. These directions tell how we adapted it for a co-op class with two dozen 7-12th graders. If you want to do it at home for only 1 or 2 students, you will obviously only need one set of Mystery Boxes.

Matching Mystery Boxes were prepared in advance for each team of students: an item or group of matching items were placed into a cardboard box that was large enough to allow the items to roll around freely. (Sizes and shapes of boxes may differ, and the contents may vary in quantity to increase difficulty for advanced students.) The box edges were taped shut, and each box was marked with an identifying number. Teams of 4-6 students were each given a set of six boxes to test, and the students were instructed to use the Scientific Method to determine what was inside each box.

When a student picked up a box, he wrote down the number of the box and his hypothesis of what he thought might be inside, then proceeded to tip, shake, rattle, and listen to prove or disprove his theory and make a conclusion. Each box was passed around to teammates to see if they all came to the same conclusion. When each team had completed its series of several boxes, the boxes were opened to reveal their true contents. Teams were to be as certain as possible of their determinations and not show the contents to other teams. Sample items used in the Mystery Boxes were paper clips, a pencil, marbles, coins, or a large eraser (only one type of item per box). You may choose to use items that are more difficult for older students: several cotton swabs, large rubber bands, pencils in one box and pens in another, a spoon, etc.

The items should be common to everyone, but they are in uncommon circumstances, making them surprisingly tricky to identify. Do we really notice the differences in sounds made by coins and paper clips? How can I determine if the object in this box is a pencil or a pen? Why does the object in this box roll easily this way but seems to slide that way? A delicate touch is needed to tip the box slightly and make a pencil roll slowly enough to hear its six sides or discern its eraser end from the pointed lead end; extreme concentration is required for hearing a few large rubber bands slide softly across their box.

Tips for the Mystery Boxes lesson:
— All Mystery Boxes should be prepared in advance by the teacher so that students have no clue what is inside.
— Objects should be ordinary, common objects, familiar to students.
— Use only one type of item in each box (i.e. do not mix pencils and pens in the same box).
— Objects should roll, slide, or move easily if shaken. Do not use a single tissue, cotton ball, or similar (relatively weightless) object which cannot be sensed in the box.
— Boxes should be large enough to allow objects to roll or slide freely: front to back, side to side, up and down.
— Boxes should be securely sealed to prevent objects from falling out or students from peeking in.
— Multiple items should be used if a single item alone will not have enough identifiable characteristics (a single coin will not be as effective as multiple coins).
— When preparing boxes for a large group class, separate the group into teams and have duplicate sets of boxes so that each team works on the same items. Number the boxes and keep a (hidden) list of their contents to prevent confusion. (All boxes marked #1 contain pencils, all #2 boxes contain rubber bands, etc.)
— Various sizes and shapes of boxes will keep team members focused on their own boxes: “Our #1 box is large and flat, while their #1 box is smaller and taller; they probably don’t contain the same things.” The order of testing the boxes is up to each team: they do not have to proceed in numerical order.
— A set of six boxes (per team) kept each team of five to six students busy for an hour testing, comparing, and discussing. When a team declared that they knew what was in a specific box, I did not lie about the contents, but slyly asked, “Are you sure?” to keep them reasoning and retesting for a longer time.
— I did not tell students what types of items to expect; they were told only “common, everyday objects.” Students had to use their own knowledge to decide what was inside.
— Students must depend on hearing alone (cannot see or feel box contents). Tipping and shaking each box is acceptable, but squeezing or crushing the box to feel its contents is not permitted.
— Thinking skills become better developed as this exercise progresses. Students should test all boxes, and then go through them again, using the knowledge gained throughout the testing process in retesting each box.
— Students may compare the characteristics of boxes with each other (i.e. this box sounds more like coins than that box does).
— Provide paper and pencils for students to write down their hypotheses, reasoning, and conclusions. This is the essential portion of the lesson: learning how to write down their process of experimentation. Students may use their own notebooks, or you may choose to make form-style “lab sheets,” but writing down the process changes this from an entertaining party game into a profitable science lesson.

[For more information on cooperative classes and group activities, visit Topical Index: Co-op Groups.]