Learning to Observe

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Students will be able to use indirect observations to draw conclusions about the shape and configuration of the inside of a black box.

Big Idea

Science starts (and ends) with observation. Careful observation.


2 minutes

Often, science is all about figuring out what's inside a box that you cannot open open. From atoms to galaxies, scientists need to use indirect observations to gather evidence they cannot see or witness first hand. This is at the core of the "mystery boxes" experience used in this lesson.

I use the black boxes known as Obscertainers developed by LabAids. However, there are several ways to make your own (Science Friday, ENSI). They could even be as simple as cardboard boxes with different items in them. They key is that the students not be able to see what's in the box. They should also not be able to open them.

To start the lesson, I remind students that one of the skills they identified in the scientific method lesson was observation. I then ask the class to define it, using a Think-Pair-Share. This technique gives everyone an opportunity to talk and supports my ELLs by giving an opportunity to clarify their ideas before sharing. 

Then I show different Images that fall under the realm of science, but that cannot be observed directly. The question is, "How do scientists study these things if they cannot observe them directly?"


35 minutes

I get the students' attention using the "Halla Back" technique.

I explain that today's lesson will be about practicing indirect observations. Indirect observations are particularly useful in science since, as we just saw, there are many things that are within the natural world (and so part of science) that cannot be studied by direct observations.

I review terms like hypothesis, retest and actual which are on the Obscertainer Student Sheet. I like to review vocabulary that the students might need during a lesson because this is an important part of developing academic language. 

I pass out the student sheets and we read them together as a class. As the directions are being read, I actually act out the steps. After the reading, I ask for a volunteer to tell me what they should do first. Another volunteer shares what they should do second, etc. Finally I randomly select a student (popsicle sticks) to have one student share all the directions. By the end of this, everyone has heard the directions three times. This cuts down on the, "What are we supposed to do now?"

Now comes the fun part. The students finally get the Obscertainers and get to work.

After about five minutes, I get the students' attention using the "Halla-Back" technique and have the students switch Obscertainers with another partnership. We do this four times.

I taped my Obscertainers shut so the students will never actually see what's inside. They have to trust the Key that I project in order to determine what the actual configuration was. 

Once they have copied the actual configuration of the four Obscertainers they explored, I collect the Obscertainers.

I gather the attention of the class and present the ACE strategy as "the" way to answer any question posed to them in my class. This strategy teaches the students to give complete answers, citing evidence (NGSS Practice 7: Engage in an Argument from Evidence) and can be used not only in science but in other classes as well.

Once students are done, I ask the students to review each other's work to ensure that their partner "ACE"d his/her answers, and to give back the paper for revision until the answer is complete. The reviewer must write his/her name in verification of ACE answers, and gets XP if the answers are indeed complete. I do this for several reasons:

  1. To have students get into the habit of responding completely and always citing their evidence.
  2. To foster peer-editing and collaboration.
  3. To motivate students to become better at editing their work.
  4. The added XP points holds the editors accountable for actually editing and not just an "Yeah, its OK", even when it's not.


10 minutes

The discussion for this lesson centers around the 3 questions the students have at the end of their sheets and that they have just ACEd. 

  • What difficulties did you have doing this investigation?
  • What were you able to determine through indirect observation?
  • How do you think this investigation relates to work done by scientists?

For the discussion I use a cold call (using Popsicle sticks or random calls) since students just went through a thorough review of the answers with their partners. The previous work allowed them to develop both the language and understanding of the ideas being discussed, so I do not feel the need for more scaffolds. However, you could use sentence frames or even hold the discussion as a fishbowl instead of whole group.


5 minutes

The exit ticket or deliverable for the day is a reflective response to the closing prompts, written on a sticky note and posted on my reflective chart. This chart is posted at the front of the room, and gives me a quick reference into student thinking and attitudes in the classroom. During the beginning weeks of the school year, I save the post-its and give them back to the students to use as a reference for writing their weekly blogs.