Hands-On and Minds-On Science

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Planning activities for home and school

by John Mascazine

Many recent studies affirm the Benefits of involving families and parents in learning experiences, especially in math and science education (Buxton & Provenzo, 2007; Anafarah, 2008). Catholic schools, according to some studies, are highly successful learning communities because they function as supportive family/school/parish learning communities (Miller, 2006). It therefore makes sense for teachers in Catholic schools to include and foster parental involvement in learning activities. This article outlines some ways to use activities as hands-on and minds-on experiences for students and their families.

It’s commonly known that parents who are involved and interested in their children’s learning and school activities positively impacts and motivates children to learn (Anfara, 2008; Hassard, 2005). One commonly overlooked method of involving parents is take-home learning activities or experiments, especially at the middle grade levels. This article shall explain some ways this may be accomplished to provide some sample activities and experiments that can be used.

Hands-on and Minds-on Experiences

We hear quite a bit about hands-on activities and experiments, but what children really need (and desire) are hands-on and minds-on activities. The difference is that although the former is fun, interactive, and valuable for developing some physical skills, the hands-on and minds-on tasks require students to think, plan, and evaluate more (Hassard, 2005). The minds-on activity requires processes we refer to as higher-level thinking processes. Almost any hands-on activity can be expanded to become a mindson activity with minor additions or extensions.

The goal for teachers who send math/science activities home for families to work on together is to incorporate some of the higher level thinking skills into the tasks. This may require teachers to adapt and “fit” the activity to the develop mental ability and the needs of the student(s). And finally it requires that the children report what they did at home and share their experiences with peers back at school.

Sample Science Activity

Here’s an example of a fun hands-on and minds-on activity called the Dancing Raisins. It simply requires young students to use common household materials to make observations, and is readily reported as a great hands-on activity for children. However, it is not automatically a minds-on activity; that’s the challenge and task for the teacher. Technology devices such as e-readers, smart phones, and tablets can be used to help children record and track their discoveries, as well as for information searches to help them answer at least some of their own questions.

Take a clear plastic drinking cup, (the taller the better) and fill it at least 3/4 full of clear soda (diet clear soda works extremely well and avoids sugar stickiness in case of spills). Observe the bubbles in the soda and look for patterns among them.

Next, drop some raisins into the cup of soda; 5 to 7 raisins work well. Wait and observe. According to most postings and instructions for this activity, that is all. That is the end of the activity with no further elaboration. The minds-on tasks that may foster children’s curiosity and interest are missing. Here are some possible minds-on extensions:

  • Count the number of times you noticed raisins dive or float to the top.
  • Record your ideas to explain what is happening and why you think it is happening
  • Come up with an idea you’d like to test using:
    • A different dried fruit (cranberries, pineapple, mango, etc., often available in a mixed dried fruit packet).
    • A fresh fruit (chunk of apple, pear, banana, etc.; or grapes).
    • A different type of soda (or non-soda liquid).

Record your ideas and Then make a prediction and give a reason for your particular prediction. (A good prediction is more than a guess; it’s not only states what you think will happen but also gives a reason why you think that will happen.)

Make measurements whenever possible and ask, “What difference does it make if I change this?”

Report and summarize what you discover. Share and talk about this with adults and other children.

Parents and teachers can also decide which science process skills they want children to work on: measuring, predicting, estimating, describing, comparing, etc. Decide which math/interdisciplinary skills to emphasize:

  • graphing, connections to other experiences, writing skills, vocabulary development;
  • measuring in specific units (centimeters, inches, etc.) or with time (in seconds, tenths of seconds, minutes, etc.); or
  • creating a table of observations for different types of dried fruits.

By adapting, changing, and extending simple activities, children begin to do what scientists and researchers do. They begin to see whether changes in design and materials make a difference. And, most importantly, they begin to thnk about what is happening. They discover and experience “doing” science and hopefully realize the excitement that follows such discoveries.

The activity soon evolves into an experiment. An experiment what is observed and known and creates situations to discover and observe new information. This should be the goal of all science education activities. This is the adventure and exploration phase that is missing in many recipe approaches to science learning.

The major benefit of this hands-on and minds-on approach is that it fosters thinking skills. It should promote one’s ability to analyze (break down what is occurring) and synthesize (put ideas and observations together) experiences that lead to greater understanding of how nature and the world around us works (National Research Council, 1996).

Another benefit is that it follows children’s ideas as they work and try their ideas. They begin to talk about why and what they observe and how it acts in predictable ways. They try out ideas that may turn out to behave in predictable or unpredictable ways. Therein lies another joy of discovery: the unexpected and surprising.

In choosing a hands-on activity to make into a mind-on one as well, consider the following:

  • Is the activity developmentally appropriate for the intended children/students?
  • Is it safe, not only in which materials are used but also in procedures that the children can do?
  • Does it motivate students with an activity that fosters curiosity and furthers exploration?
  • Is it likely to have a greater impact than a book or visual-only demonstration?

Ideas for locating meaningful experiences and activities:

  • web resources sponsored by reputable institutions, museums, or science publications
  • local metro parks and museums (smaller museums and natural history societies)
  • local colleges and special interest groups (rock, gem, fossil hunters; amateur astronomy society; etc.)
  • extending the activities you find (often with the help/advice of teachers)
  • great books that are still a reliable source of science activities/experiments
  • model curricula (for some states and districts, developed labs and experiments)
  • national science and nature societies/associations

Here are some resources where you may locate activities and experiments suitable for young children:

John Mascazine, Associate Professor of Education at Ohio Dominican University, has been a classroom teacher for twelve years at the elementary, middle, and high school levels.