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Fifth Graders Become Consumer Scientists April 8, 2014

Posted by MrMusselman in Science Center, Student Work.
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With teen years fast approaching, fifth graders everywhere are on the precipice of becoming the next generation of consumers. With ads inundating students on television, radio, and even inside apps and their favorite games how will they make informed decisions about the purchases they make?


How will we determine which paper towel absorbs the most water?

The paper towel experiment is a good first step. Students are briefed on what “Consumer Reports” is and introduced to the challenge by being told that they are about to try their hands at being consumer scientists, testing how absorbent different brands of paper towels are, including the well known “quicker-picker-upper,” Bounty and the thoroughly detested school paper towels!


Carefully measuring the weight of the dampened paper towels. Look at the concentration on that balance needle!

Fifth graders are broken into small groups, and asked what they already know about the brands as a way to collect information in order to form a thoughtful hypothesis. Groups are then challenged to plan and design a repeatable experiment that can be performed on three different paper towel brands. Few instructions on how to design such an experiment are provided, though students are limited by the tools provided and 50mL of water per paper towel test.


Materials: pan balances, graduated cylinders, funnels, cups, weights, and beakers.

Across Burlington the experiments are rarely identical. As students record their data and determine if their hypotheses are correct, they also share their information on a class wide data table to see how their results compare to those of their classmates, just like collaborating scientists do like those at Consumer Reports.


Student collaborative data table. What does the data tell us about the paper towels’ absorbency?

The goal of this experiment is not to turn students on to a career at Consumer Reports, but to give them an opportunity to practice using a variety of scientific tools including, graduated cylinders, pan balances, and metric weights. Developing their understanding about what makes an experiment “fair” is also an important result of this activity as students begin more and more to explore “variables” in both science and mathematics while the demand for more student-driven experimentation and thinking increases.

While a handout is distributed to all students, some teachers use the handout as a script that students complete and later use to direct their own Explain Everything presentations they can share on their digital portfolios.


Student work on the experiment worksheet

The Gutterboat Challenge December 14, 2012

Posted by bsciencecenter in Science Center.
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Every year, Burlington fifth graders put their engineering skills to the test in “The Gutterboat Challenge,” a friendly competition between students (and classes!) to see who can build the fastest styrofoam-hull boat. While the type of fan varies from school to school, all students must design and construct a boat that can travel the distance of a plastic gutter, much like the one you might find on a home!


The Design Process

All students are provided with a block of styrofoam and the instructions that they may use any materials available to them at home or school. They are also instructed on the design or engineering process through an introductory lesson by Mr. Musselman before being left to their own research on boat design and collaborative brainstorming.

Gutterboat Challenge introduction by Mr. M.

The entire challenge takes between one to two weeks with an opportunity to do a “test run” in between the introduction and final testing phase. It is here many students find flaws with their boats (too light, unable to catch wind, unbalanced, etc.) that they are then expected to redesign and adjust.


On the final day anticipation builds as each student gets the chance to race against the clock on the main stage. Not all boats are successful but all present a learning opportunity. The winning time of Pine Glen’s Gutterboat Challenge this year 07.05 seconds. Can’t wait to see if that time will be topped at another school!

Ready for Liftoff! November 19, 2012

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While many fifth graders at the Fox Hill school were off on their overnight field trip to Camp Bournedale, a group of young scientific minds stayed behind and participated in “Camp Foxy.” After the first day, in which students watched a live webinar with astronauts from the International Space Station, we dove deeper into rocket science with a project aimed at bringing all the STEM disciplines together answering one simple question: “What angle should we launch a rocket to make it travel the furthest distance?”

At what launch angle will the rocket travel the farthest?

Students were asked to predict which angle they believed would launch their rockets the farthest after sharing what they already knew about the topic by considering how they throw sports equipment such as baseballs or footballs long distances. They were then put to work assembling their own rockets to experiment with! When all rockets were ready the students democratically selected a launch site. The weather was good so we went out to the school’s front walkway to experiment.

Constructing straw rockets!

Students were very excited to try their rockets out and experimentation did get a bit messy! It was great to hear students deliberate over whether launches were “fair.” One unexpected problem we faced as teachers were some unexpected results! Despite the students’ short statures there was enough height provided to the initial launch point that students frequently fired their 20 degree launches further than the 45 degree angle, leading to puzzled reactions from some students when their results didn’t match up with their ‘sure-thing’ predictions.

Measuring launch to landing using metric measuring tapes.

After lunch we added a third goal by asking students to communicate what they had learned and how they had learned it via a short “Show Me” presentation using some iPads available in the school. The Show Me app leaves some to be desired in the way of editing work and their was a limited amount of time remaining in the day for kids to brainstorm, outline their presentation, and then make the final work. That being said students gave their best efforts.

Sydney’s Rocket Presentation

Eric’s Rocket Presentation

Sonny’s Rocket Presentation Part 1 and Part 2

Teachers were learning during the activity as well when it became apparent that an elevated launch point (as a results of students standing during their launch!) eschewed data and led to some puzzling conclusions for students who started the day with “sure-thing” predictions. Fortunately, some discussion was had between students and teachers about how “fair” or valid the results were. These were conversations that helped the students better understand their results while giving teachers valuable experience to reshape the lesson for future classrooms!

Using the “Show Me” app to communicate our results.

Invertebrate Observations November 15, 2012

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The fifth grades at Fox Hill School are learning about the classification of living things.  As part of their unit on invertebrates, the students have the opportunity to observe three live invertebrates-a crayfish, a tarantula, and cockroaches!  Students observe the live animals, record information on their data sheet and then make comparisons about the three animals.

Madagascar Hissing Cockroach sitting on student’s sweatshirt

Rose-hair Tarantula


The Science Center offers this animal activity to all fifth grades in Burlington and even assists with the lesson from time to time.