First Day of School Activities for Middle School Science

What are you going to do on the first day of school? Whatever you decide, make sure it’s memorable! Let the other teachers do the rules and the syllabi and what supplies students need. In your class on the first day of school this year, your new students will be engaged, trying new things, getting to know each other (and you), and learning some science. Here are some great first day of school activities for middle school science to get them out of their seats and into the learning zone!

Getting to Know You

Start the day with a getting to know you activity. Can’t be boring and can’t take all period – 5-10 minutes, max. I try to do a different activity each day for the first week or two. Try these:

  • Getting to know you bingo – set a timer and see who can get the most signatures in 5 minutes.
  • Group or team ice breakers – build a house of cards on your lab table or balance a bean on your straw while walking across the room.
  • Would you rather – I played this with a PearDeck last year, but this year I’m going to do it as stations. One question at a station, students travel in groups of 3 and discuss for 1 minute.
  • Two truths and a lie – in small groups for 3-4 minutes, this can be fun. In larger groups, it’s all a boring blur.
  • Jenga questions – write would-you-rather or general getting-to-know-you questions on jenga blocks and have students pull a block from the stack and answer the questions.
  • Line up – give students a criteria like birth date or height and have them line up without talking to each other.

Four Cornersfirst day of school activities for middle school science

One of the few permanent things in my classroom are the numbers 1, 2, 3, and 4 in the corners. Give a getting-to-know-you kind of question like: “Go to Corner 1 if you have no pets, corner 2 if you have a dog or cat, corner 3 if you have multiple pets, and corner 4 if you have an unusual pet.” Then, let them talk about it for a minute or two. All year long, I use the corners as my Do Now or as a way to poll the class. Later in the year: “Go to corner 1 if you think GMOs are perfectly safe, Corner 2 if you think they are sometimes safe, corner 3 if you think that we should only use them if we have to, and corner 4 if you think they should be banned.”

Classroom Scavenger Hunt

I usually give students a map and ask them to label the locations of the safety equipment and other places they need to know about – where to hand in homework, where to borrow a pencil, etc.

This year, I’m thinking about hanging QR codes around the room pointing students to info like how to join the class Google Classroom, class rules, or bookmarking my email address.

Escape Room

If you’ve ever read this blog before, you know I’m deeply into gamifying my classroom and I’ll play a game for just about any activity.  On the first day of school, however, no one really knows what to do and it’s hard to get them to work together. My favorite way to engage kids in a game is with an escape room. Try a simple digital escape room that encourages students to work in groups and can be completed in under 20 minutes. Three of my favorites are:

An alternative might be to design your own escape room (digital or with a locked box for each group of students) using clues around your classroom like the location of the safety equipment.

The Scientific Method

first day of school activities for middle school science

This requires a bit of preparation but kids talk about it for years. I always prepare my seating charts in advance and post them on the projector and let students find their own seats. Then, I tell them that they’re not seating alphabetically by last name and challenge them to guess-and-check how I’ve chosen to arrange their seats. Some years, I use birth date. Other years, I’ve used their house numbers or arranged them alphabetically by their mother’s first name or street name. There have been classes that have taken three or four days to solve the puzzle and then they beg me to rearrange them a different way so they can figure it out again. Just a word of caution – if you’re doing this with multiple classes, make sure you use a different secret arrangement with each class because they will talk about this one.

Tower building

Challenge your students with 20 pieces of uncooked spaghetti, 12 inches of masking tape, and a marshmallow at each table. Tell them that they have to build the highest tower they can, with the marshmallow on top, in 8 minutes. I usually reward the winning table with ice cold water bottles or a lollipop.

Introduce my friend

Have students pair up, chat for 3 minutes, then introduce their new friend to the class by stating their name and something interesting about them. Alternately, have each pair of students create a crazy handshake and them demo it for the class.

R, P, S

Pair up students. Each pair plays 3 quick rounds of rock, paper, scissors. The winner moves on to play against another pair’s winner. Keep going until you have one champion and put that person’s name on your white board for 24 hours under a giant “RPS CHAMPION” title.

Click here to let me know what first day of school activities you have planned for your middle school science class!

 

 

 

 

Lab Safety Resources for Middle School

Teaching lab safety is an essential job skill for middle school science teachers. Students have to be told what to do, and, more importantly, what not to do. I usually teach lab safety in one large lesson at the beginning of the year and require students to pass a quiz in order to  participate in the first lab. Here are the lab safety resources that I use in my middle school science classroom.

SlideShow

When I teach safety in middle school science, I want a slide show that specifies the rules while I talk about them. I usually tell stories about each rule. They like the story about the time a student broke a graduated cylinder and didn’t tell me about it and the custodian needed stitches when he accidentally “found” their hidden broken glassware. Another favorite story is about the time a student spilled acid on the lab table and didn’t report it. Within a few minutes, it had dripped off the table onto the leg of their lab partner where the acid ate through their pants (I know, I didn’t think that would really happen either) and left a burn mark on their leg for a few weeks. A third favorite is the time students were fooling around in the hall before school and one boy got perfume sprayed in his eyes, resulting in the one and only time I’ve had to use the eye wash. lab safety rules for middle school

Practice

Just hearing my stories and watching my slide show isn’t enough for students to master the lab safety rules. Every year, I try to do something different for a practice session. Last year, when pixel art was all the rage, I did a pixel art worksheet. This year, I’m going to do a digital escape room that uses a Google form as its base. Directions to create your own digital escape room using Google Sites can be found here.

 

Assess

Before my students can participate in a lab, they must demonstrate mastery. Since every student is highly motivated to participate in the lab (it helps when the first lab is a fun one like the Ice Cream Lab), I usually get pretty high compliance. To make it easier on myself, I give the students a self-grading quiz on Google forms and allow them to retake it as many times as necessary to get 100. Steps to creating your own self-grading quiz can be found here.

 

How about you? How are you going to teach safety this year?

Teaching Measurement in Middle School Science

Teaching measurement in middle school science includes learning the metric system, basic and advanced conversions, and scientific notation. Here are some pro tips to teach, practice, and use those skills all year long.

 

The Metric System

Forty years ago, we told students that everyone was going to be switching to the metric system soon so they’d better learn it. With a few exceptions (2 liter soda bottles), the United States never really adopted the metric system, marking us as one of only 3 countries in the world (the others being Myanmar and Liberia). Scientists have to use the metric system because science depends on communication between scientists around the world. How does that impact middle school science teachers?  Every year, we teach the standard units of meters, liters and grams and every year we insist students use those units in science, and every year they forget and need to be re-taught the year after. Here are some tips to make the metric system more accessible for your students:

  • Use it yourself. Give metric units for everything rather than standard units.  Display metric units widely – not just their names, but label your bulletin board with its length and width in meters, display a one liter flask or a 400 mL coffee cup with labels. Bring in a 3 kilogram bag of potatoes. The problem with student retention of the metric system is that students never learn to think in metric and can’t picture what a  gram is (a nickel has a mass of 5g) or how long it would take them to walk a kilometer (10 minutes).
  • Practice. Certainly, do the typical metric system labs of using meters, liter, and grams, but do much, much more than that. Practice with task cards in those odd 5 minutes at the end of the period or while waiting for everyone to catch up. Review, review, review. If you want them to remember it next year, practice it every single day this year – or at least once a week!

Conversions

teaching measurement in middle school scienceConversions between units is one of the most “mathy” things we do, but it’s an essential skill in science. Students need to be able to convert in single step and multi-step problems. Very often students approach conversions as something to memorize rather than something to understand. My conversions slide show helps students to understand how and why unit conversion factors work and how to decide which conversion factors to use to get to their goal. I added some practice worksheets of varying levels of difficulty to help students, and teachers, determine how much practice they needed.

 

Teaching measurement in middle school science is one of those skills that a huge investment early in the year pays off dividends over many years. Unfortunately, not making that investment brings a big price in having to reteach the same thing year after year to the same students. This is definitely one of those skills that is best taught five times in five different ways rather than once.

Back to school Bulletin Board for middle school science

My school, at least as of now, will be wearing masks at the beginning of the new school year. I’m going to take advantage of my students’ familiarity with masks and incorporate them in my back to school bulletin board for middle school science.

I’ve chosen a few famous scientific figures – Albert Einstein, Rosalind Franklin, Gregor Mendel, Neil Armstrong, Rachel Carson, Dmitri Mendeleyev, and 26 more – enough that I can rotate them through over the course of the year. I printed large pictures of each of them and then covered their faces with a disposable mask. Underneath their pictures, I printed their names and covered their name with a flap that students can lift when they are ready to guess. Under that, I stapled clues such as “Identified the 3 laws of motion and the law of universal gravitation” (Isaac Newton) and “Founding Father, inventor, publisher, scientist, diplomat. Organized the first public library” (Ben Franklin).

Check out my bulletin board here!

What are you doing for your back to school bulletin boards?

Science and Language Arts – Cross Curricular Opportunities

LAL and Science❤️Perfect Together

I love my Language arts coworkers, but it’s not often that there are crossovers between our curriculums.  I’m always on the look out for some cross curricular opportunities for science and language arts teachers and have come up with a short list of books that are middle school appropriate and actually convey some science.

Harry Potter

While certainly not a story about science, there are a surprising amount of science connections in the Harry Potter series. Truth serum, Hermione’s time traveling adventures, levitation and the three headed dog are just some of the scientific curiosities the book is filled with. Many of the names of people are based on astronomical objects. Sirius Black, Harry’s uncle who can change into a black dog, is named for Sirius, the dog star. Bellatrix LeStrange is named for a star in the constellation Orion. Draco Malfoy is named for the constellation Draco.  Muggles, purebloods, squibs, and Muggle borns are an interesting take on genetics. Remus Lupin turns into a wolf (Canis lupis).

Maximum Ride

The Maximum Ride series by James Patterson is about a young woman named Maximum Ride and her family who are all human-bird hybrids, born with wings after being used as experimental subjects in a lab. The first book in the series, The Angel Experiment, introduces the characters as children and explains how they were created. Lots of interesting science fiction into animal hybrids and I’ve students enjoy it with my DNA unit. There are 9 books in the series.

The House of Scorpion

Another book that leans in to the genetic hybrid issue is The House of the Scorpion. Main character Matteo was created in a petri dish and developed in the womb of a cow. As a clone of the person whose DNA was used to create him, Matteo faces interesting challenges your students will be fascinated by.

Rats of NIMH

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH is a clever novel about a population of rats and mice. After being captured by scientists and studied for research, the rats developed increased intelligence and have learned how to read, write, and operate complicated machines. They also became smart enough to escape from their captors. This novel was based on research into mice and rat populations at the National Institute of Mental Health in the mid 1900s.

Uglies

Uglies is the first dystopian novel of a series of 4. In Uglies, everyone is born ugly but then has extreme cosmetic surgery to become pretty when they turn 16. In the novel, a teenager rebels against the expected surgery. As a backstory, the city had collapsed when petroleum was no longer available.

Life as We Knew It

Life as We Knew It is a fascinating book based on a premise that a meteor hit the moon and moved it closer to earth. The subsequent alteration of the earth’s rotation causes catastrophes everywhere. The story is told from the point of view of a teenager who helps keep her family alive during the tumult.

First Light

First Light is a novel by Rebecca Stead. A teenage boy named Peter is in Greenland with his parents who are researching global warming. A teenage girl named Thea lives in an underground colony below Greenland which is being destroyed by global warming. Peter and Thea must save the residents of Thea’s colony.

Wing Nut

Wing Nut by Mj Auch is about a twelve year old boy named Grady and his mother’s boss who teaches Grady all about birds.

West with Giraffes

West with Giraffes by Lynda Rutledge is based on a true story of two giraffes who were brought to the San Diego Zoo to protect the species from extinction.

Hoot

Carl Hiaasen’s Hoot is a novel that explores the efforts to preserve a colony of burrowing owls. The book does a great job explaining endangered species, their role in ecosystems and the importance of nature sanctuaries.

Flush

Flush is another novel by Carl Hiaasen. It is told from the point of view of a teenage boy whose father is an environmentalist. They learn of a casino boat which has been illegally dumping sewage into the ocean so the father and son set about trying to stop the dumping.

Frankenstein

Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein is a classic exploration into what makes something alive. Kids will love it.

The Same Stuff as Stars

The Same Stuff as Stars by Katherine Paterson is about Angel whose life is a series of challenges. She meets a man she calls the Star Man who tells her about stars and planets.

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas

The classic novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas is a fantastic story which was inspired in 1867 when author Jules Verne saw a model of an early submarine. The story begins when a sea monster is spotted and all sorts of expeditions go in search of it.

The 5th Wave

The 5th Wave trilogy is written by Rick Yancey. The story is about a teenage girl named Cassie who tries to survive in a world that has been devastated by waves of alien invasions.  Among other waves that the aliens produce are electromagnetic pulses, giant rods which cause massive tsunamis, and a deadly virus.

Journey to the Center of the Earth

Jules Verne classic Journey to the Center of the Earth  and then later a 2008 movie might make for an interesting “science vs science fiction” debate.

Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures was written by Margot Lee Shetterly about African American (female) mathematicians who worked at NASA. As a biographical movie in 2016, it was critically acclaimed for its representation of these women who calculated the flight trajectories for Project Mercury.

The Radium Girls

Written by Kate Moore, The Radium Girls tells the story of young women who worked in radium dial factories and suffer from radiation sickness long before such a thing was even understood. The Radium Girls was made a movie in 2018.

Fever

Fever, by Laurie Halse, tells the story of the 1793 yellow fever outbreak in Philadelphia.

 

There probably are hundreds (thousands) or more books that should make this list of cross curricular opportunities for science and language arts. What would you add? Click here to let me know!

FREE Plate Tectonics Boom Cards

The plate tectonics unit of my middle school science curriculum is fun – lots of hands on activities and really engaging projects. But students still find memorizing the different boundaries and faults.

Have you tried Boom cards? They’re digital flash cards that self correct so students can repeat until mastery. My students love them and I bet yours will too. They’re not difficult to make and I have a set for just about every chapter I teach. If you subscribe to the BoomLearning.com platform ($35/year), you can use all kinds of data to track your students’ progress, but you can use the Boom cards even without a subscription.

Here’s a link to download your first set of Boom cards to help your students review the vocabulary of tectonic plates. This Boom deck has 28 cards and reviews vocabulary such as convergent, divergent and transform.

 

free plate tectonics boom cards

Cardboard Tube Science

Cardboard tube science – Save your toilet paper and paper towel tubes! Here are 9 science activities you can do in your middle school classroom with your cardboard tubes!

cardboard tube science

  • Tunnels and support structures for your marble roller coasters or marble run walls.
  • Build bridges or or hold tallest tower contests.
  • Build a model rocket, dinosaur, or robot.
  • Use the paper towel tubes as a base for your rubber band, ping pong ball, pom pom, or cotton ball launcher.
  • Cardboard tubes make great balloon cars.
  • Use paper towel tubes as the structural support for a pulley engineering game.
  • Small cardboard tubes make great containers for soil to start seeds.
  • Smear the cardboard tubes with peanut butter and roll them in bird seed for an easy bird feeder activity.
  • Create mystery tubes from small toilet paper tubes and use them to introduce scientific inquiry.

 

Photo by Jessica Lewis from Pexels

Teaching the States of Matter

Students learn the states of matter in primary school science, so middle schoolers already know the basics. When middle school teachers are teaching the states of matter, our students have a good foundation from primary school but we need to expand on previous knowledge. Middle school science standards include phase changes and exploration of the states of matter including endothermic and exothermic reactions and the law of conservation of matter.

Resources for teaching the states of matter:

The slide show that I use for teaching the states of matter in middle school is an interactive Google Slide Show. I use interactive notes because students find it easier to drag and drop correct answers rather than copying down long explanations. It allows them to pay closer attention without missing information and has been a great benefit for my students during remote teaching days during the pandemic.

Hands on activities for teaching the states of matter:

A good Claim, Evidence, Reasoning (CER) activity is to provide students an opportunity to determine if air is matter. Using what they know about the states of matter, students can conduct controlled experiments to determine if air has mass and volume. My CER for the states of matter has 5 hands on stations for students to travel through.

The Ice Cream Lab

Everyone’s favorite hands on activity for the states of matter is the phase change lab in which students can make ice cream. Students spend a few minutes mixing their simple ingredients in a ziploc baggie, probably listening to me talk about freezing point depression. This one always makes it on to the end-of-year survey as my students’ favorite activity.

Resources for reviewing the states of matter in middle school:

Review phase changes with digital flash cards. Boom cards are commonly used in elementary school but less so in middle school. I still love them because they are self-directed and self-checking, and because kids still love them. My states of matter Boom card deck contains 26 cards and includes basic phases and phase changes.

My students still pixel art worksheets.  They are engaging and fun, and I love them because they are self-checking. For the states of matter, I have a mittens pixel art worksheet.

Digital escape rooms became my favorite review activity during the COVID pandemic, just like physical escape rooms were my favorite pre-COVID. Digital escape rooms allow students to find clues and solve puzzles but in a completely digital way. The escape room I use when I’m teaching states of matter is a scenario in which students must find clues and solve puzzles about what appears to be a crime scene in their science lab.

Assessing the states of matter:

I use a self-grading Google form to assess the states of matter. While it’s important to allow students to write about what they understand, I include enough of that in my hands on activities that I can use a simpler multiple choice format for the final assessment.

 

Teaching the Scientific Method

First up at the beginning of every school year are 2 important topics: safety and the scientific method. Teaching the scientific method can be an opportunity for you to observe your new students and identify strengths and weaknesses in group work, communication skills, analysis skills, and the ability to think outside the box.

How do you solve problems?

When I teach the scientific method, I usually have students try to think metacognitively about how they solve problems. Present your students with a question. “How do you know what clothes to put on in the morning?” There are no “right” answers, but there are definitely wrong answers like bathing suits in winter or heavy  jackets in the summer. Students will realize that they base their clothing decisions on information they already have – what kind of weather it is and what events they have planned for the day. This is not unlike how scientists form hypotheses by taking information that they have and using it to make a possible solution to a problem.

Then, make the problem more interesting and something that needs to be tested. Your phone is dead but it was plugged in. What’s wrong. All sorts of hypotheses are possible – electricity went out, charger isn’t plugged in correctly, etc. Each of these is a testable hypothesis that can be solved by guess and check. Another problem students can use guess and check for is a puzzle activity in which each group of students is given a baggie containing pieces to a 16 piece puzzle. As they remove each piece, students need to guess (“form a hypothesis”) of what the whole puzzle is a picture of. Using this activity, students will see that more information gives scientists a more accurate idea of the situation.

What is the scientific method?

By now, students are ready to identify the steps they use to solve problems and probably will be able to guess the steps of the scientific method. Of course, I always have a slide show on hand to help students develop common vocabulary that we can use to communicate with each other. When I’m teaching the scientific method, I also like to have a worksheet or two for students to practice scientific method vocabulary.

Practice and apply

Give students a problem to solve using the scientific method. One easy problem is to find out what factors affect how well they memorize something such as a short list of random words. They can test different variables such as loud music or time of day and collect data to form a conclusion. The write up for this activity includes a 6 page student handout and a corresponding teacher’s guide. I’m offering it for free to any readers of this blog so please feel free to get your copy here!

Other problems students can solve using the scientific method:

 

What other teaching tools do you use when you’re teaching the scientific method?

 

Scientific Method Freebie

Every middle school science teacher I know starts every school year with the scientific method. We learn the steps, we analyze how they apply in various situations, and we move on. What if we could find a way for students to apply the scientific method to a problem that actually might help them? And what if this scientific method activity were a freebie?

In this resource, students are asked to try to figure out the best way to study. Is it on a full stomach, in a quiet room, or while chewing peppermint gum? Do you remember things better when you study them before you fall asleep at night or when you first wake up in the morning? What’s the best way to learn?

Using the scientific method, students analyze the problem, form a hypothesis, and design a controlled experiment to determine the effect of one variable on how well they, or their friends, memorize a list of random words. This resource includes a 6 page student hand out and a teacher’s guide with suggested answers.

Please click this link to download your free copy of the scientific method freebie!