Making Content Count: how2 Develop Context-Based Content
A Thesaurus search for the word context offers the following: background, framework, situation, environment, and perspective. Context sets the background and provides a framework for exploring science topics with your students.
You can apply context by:
Defining content subjects in terms of big picture relationships and connections;
Developing content using familiar, child-world references; and,
Using experiments to illuminate, clarify or demonstrate a concept.
The how2clouds example described in Developing A Science Story links clouds to the big picture topic of the water cycle, and the coincident processes of evaporation, condensation and precipitation. An understanding of the water cycle gives meaning to the question, “why are clouds important?” The topic of clouds is familiar and accessible to a child every time they look up into the sky and see clouds. The choice of topic itself also provides embedded opportunities for further learning. Clouds are part of the child’s world and frame of reference. They have a contextual reference point.
The third type of context relates to the use and purpose of science experiments, demonstrations and child-directed discovery activities. Using the cloud example, there are numerous experiments to demonstrate the processes of condensation, evaporation, and precipitation, as well as an easy-to-do “cloud in a bottle” experiment. In a nutshell, the cloud in a bottle experiment relies on seeding the “cloud” with carbon particles from a lit match and applying pressure to the bottle. The small amount of water placed in the bottle is affected by the change in pressure causing condensation to form inside the bottle. Is it a real cloud? Not really. Does it add value to a child’s understanding of clouds? Possibly, if presented after a discussion of cloud formation, condensation and the like.
The role and purpose of using experiments to teach science to students should be evaluated based on the value it adds to a child’s understanding of the world around them. For example, in demonstrating the process of evaporation it is important to explore this process at room temperature, and to possibly include a hot/boiling water variation of this (see: how2WATERCYCLE). The first evaporation experiment demonstrates a natural process of how evaporation normally occurs. The room temperature experiment is sufficient by itself; while the boiling water experiment is not. And neither is useful without some form of explanation.
Wow Me! Experiments
Stand-alone science experiments while visually engaging can appear magical to a young child. A popular magic trick used in children’s magic shows is to place a card on top of a cup filled with water and quickly invert it. The card “magically” stays in place, and the oohs and ahs of amazed children fill the room. It appears to be magic, when in fact it is function of air pressure pressing up against the card and holding it in place. The demonstration is packaged as magic, but it is not magic. It is science, amazing and wonderful without the hype. While educators may, at times, work magic, we are not magicians. Think about the type of science experiments you may have done recently in class. Were they stand-alone experiments? Were they linked to your weekly theme? Did you provide any additional explanation about the how or why of an experiment?
Whenever possible, provide context to your experiments and use your experiments to provide context to your content.
Looking At Microbes. The study of microbes and the microbial world while offering tremendous visuals and experiments is part of the unseen world, appreciated mostly through the magnified lens of a microscope. Microbes include both prokaryotic (e.g., bacteria) and eukaryotic organisms (e.g. yeast). The distinction that we (humans) share features in common with yeast is difficult for most adults to appreciate, let alone children. Is this distinction relevant or important for a child to understand? No. While many would question the utility of studying microbes one can also argue that an exploration of a subtopic, specifically, bacteria and viruses, is relevant or can be made relevant to a child.
How Child-World Context Works. Why do you wash your hands after going to the bathroom? Why wash your hands before eating? Why shouldn’t you cough on a friend?
How can an appreciation for microbes and their role in disease be embedded as an opportunity for further learning? It already is. The context with which microbes is presented, i.e. cold season, flu season, or general hygiene considerations, is reinforced every time a child washes their hands, has a runny nose or coughs on a friend. The further learning component may occur subconsciously or, at some point, with a sudden awareness that coughing on a friend might make them sick.
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