Do I Matter? Introduction to Matter

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SWBAT define and measure matter.

Big Idea

"Do I matter?" is an age-old question. Students explore this question philosophically and scientifically.


25 minutes

Middle school students have lots of questions about whether they fit in. Ahh, the awkward years of middle school! Why not bring this human desire to understand our place in the universe into the science classroom? In this lesson, students explore the question, "Do I Matter?" both philosophically and by making physical measurements.

Many of the Next Generation Science Standards for Physical Science rely on a basic understanding of matter. In order to define matter, students must be able to conceptually understand and measure the mass and volume of objects. These fundamental concepts are necessary for understanding the more complex disciplinary core ideas (DCI) within the standards, especially the Matter and Its Interactions DCI (MS-PS1). Understanding matter is also fundamental when exploring crosscutting concepts such as Structure and Function; Energy and Matter: Flows, Cycles and Conservation; and Scale, Proportion and Quantity. These crosscutting concepts suggest that matter is made of stuff and we have to be able to identify, describe and quantify that "stuff" in order to make sense of the world around us.

Additionally, making accurate and precise measurements is a student need when planning and carrying out successful investigations (SP3) during this lesson. Students will also apply scientific reasoning to show why the data or evidence is adequate for the explanation or conclusion (SP6) and critically read scientific texts adapted for classroom use to obtain information to describe evidence about the natural world (SP8).

In order to ENGAGE students in this lesson, students receive a copy of the Do I Matter Project Booklet. To kick start student interest, we consider the question, "Do I Matter?" by reading these three texts together:

1) “We are just an advanced breed of monkeys on a minor planet of a very average star. But we can understand the Universe. That makes us something very special.” ― Stephen Hawking, Der Spiegel (17 October 1988)

2) "98% of the universe is invisible: Only four per cent of the mass of the Universe is in the atoms that make up you and me, the stars and planets. And we’ve only ever seen half of that with our telescopes. 23 per cent of the mass of the Universe is invisible, “dark”, matter. We know of its existence only because its gravity tugs on the visible stars and galaxies. No one knows what it is. And 73 per cent of the mass of the Universe is dark energy. Discovered only in 1998, this invisible stuff fills all of space and it has repulsive gravity." -  Marcus Chown,

3) "You could fit the entire human race in the volume of a sugar cube: This is because matter is incredibly, mind-bogglingly empty. An atom is like a miniature Solar System, with a tight nucleus playing the role of a Sun orbited by electrons like planets. But the nucleus is incredibly tiny compared with the orbits of the electrons. Tom Stoppard, the playwright, had the best image. He said, if the nucleus is like the altar of St Paul's cathedral, an electron is like a moth in the cathedral, one moment by the altar, the next by the dome. Imagine squeezing all the space out of an atom. Well, if you did that to all the atoms in all the people in the world, you could indeed fit the entire human race in the volume of a sugar cube." -  Marcus Chown,

Students are encouraged to choose one of the texts in order to reflect on this prompt:

When considering the entire universe, do I matter? Why or why not?

Students write for 5 - 10 minutes before a spirited share-a-thon ensues. This sharing session can go in a million directions, which is exactly what is intended. Students are able to share their personal philosophies, which is highly engaging.

As students share, the important teaching move is to listen for a student response that connects with the idea that we matter because we are made of something and something is more than nothing. This idea is the seed that leads to the exploration of being made of matter and what that means in the physical world.


25 minutes

The EXPLORE stage of the lesson involves students in the topic so that they start to build their own understanding. To help students explore matter, they complete two research and prior knowledge investigations using resource texts such as a textbook, student notes or an online resource (e.g., Chem4Kids). These investigations are best completed individually or in pairs. When activating prior knowledge or introducing a concept, it is important to promote individual thinking rather than group think. For more on this topic, read this section's reflection: Individual Accountability Versus Group Think.

Research Question 1) What is matter? Students complete a Frayer Model using matter as the central concept. For more about Frayer models, visit: Classroom Strategy: Frayer Model. Frayer models are an excellent tool for organizing conceptual information. This investigation is completed on page 3 of students' Do I Matter Project Booklet.

Research Question 2) How do we measure matter? Students review the concepts of mass and volume in order to activate prior knowledge. If students have not learned about mass and volume, here are two lessons to use: Measurement: Mass and Measurement: Volume. This investigation is completed on page 4 of students' Do I Matter Project Booklet.


25 minutes

The EXPLAIN stage provide students with an opportunity to communicate what they have learned so far and figure out what it means. This stage of the lesson presents a great place for a quick formative assessment and allows students to use what they have learned in a mini-investigation to answer the question:

How Can We Prove Objects Are Made of Matter?

In this part of the lesson, students use a "Predict-Observe-Explain" protocol to investigate whether solids, liquids and gases are made of matter. For more on using this protocol, read the reflection Predict - Observe - Explain: A Protocol for Demonstrations.

Students use a rock (solid), beaker of water (liquid) and a balloon (gas) to investigate and practice measuring mass and volume. Upon completion of the investigation, students explain in a written argument (Writing Arguments from Evidence):

Did your observations support your predictions?

As students write their arguments, it is important to check in with students about their current understanding of matter. This is a critical juncture to check for accurate conceptions. Some common conceptual difficulties include:

1) Volume is the same as area.

2) Mass and volume are physical objects rather than physical properties used to describe matter.

3) Everything is matter.

4) Mass and volume are easily confused.

5) Mass and weight are the same property of matter.

By probing students thinking with pointed questioning, it is possible to uncover and reteach any conceptual concerns before students get too far into the extension part of this lesson. The resources Matter Notes and Matter Road Map are helpful to use with students.


25 minutes

The EXTEND stage allows students to apply new knowledge to a novel situation. The novel situation in this case is for students to design their own investigation to answer the question:

Am I Made of Matter?

In order to answer this question, students write a procedure to prove that they are actually made of matter. The beauty of this investigation is that students are now coming back to the original question about whether they matter in the universe. Even if their answer was, "No", they can at the very least, prove that they are made out of the same stuff as the universe. Good procedures include a test of mass and a test of volume such as these:

Procedure Part 1:

Procedure Part 2:


Students conduct their tests and write their data on page 6 of the Do I Matter Project Booklet.

Teacher Note: If students could use additional extension, the Do I Matter Extension piggy-backs on the previous investigations to challenge students to determine if light is made of matter.


10 minutes

The EVALUATION stage is for both students and teachers to determine how much learning and understanding has taken place. Two ways to evaluate learning are:

1) Evaluate Do I Matter Student Work to assess whether students understand the concepts. If they can successfully and accurately prove they are made of matter, students are ready to move into more complex concepts like density (Measurement: Density and Dunking for Density).

2) Assess students using an assessment tool such as: Basic Matter Quiz. While a multiple choice quiz doesn't necessarily probe deep understanding, it it possible to garner a quick "do they get it" snapshot of student understanding.