Mystery Matter

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SWBAT observe & measure the properties of matter.

Big Idea

In this lesson, students learn about physical and chemical properties. Then, they observe and measure the physical properties of a mystery item. At the end, students describe the properties of their mystery matter while the class tries to guess what it is!

Lesson Overview

Inquiry Based Instructional Model

To intertwine scientific knowledge and practices and to empower students to learn through exploration, it is essential for scientific inquiry to be embedded in science education. While there are many types of inquiry-based models, one model that I've grown to appreciate and use is called the FERA Learning Cycle, developed by the National Science Resources Center (NSRC):

1. Focus

2. Explore

3. Reflect

4. Apply

A framework for implementation can be found here

I absolutely love how the Center for Inquiry Science at the Institute for Systems Biology explains that this is "not a locked-step method" but "rather a cyclical process," meaning that some lessons may start off at the focus phase while others may begin at the explore phase. 

Finally, an amazing article found at, How Inquiry-Based Learning Works with STEM, very clearly outlines how inquiry based learning "paves the way for effective learning in science" and supports College and Career Readiness, particularly in the area of STEM career choices. 

Unit Explanation

In this unit, students will begin by exploring the properties of matter. Then, the class will investigate the mass of matter before and after physical and chemical changes by conducting investigations and constructing graphs. 

Summary of Lesson

Today, I open the lesson by asking students to define the meaning of matter. Students then explore the properties of matter by watching a video, by taking notes, and by observing and measuring the properties of their assigned mystery item. At the end of the lesson, the class will try guessing each group's mystery item as they list their observed and measured properties.

Next Generation Science Standards  

This lesson will support the following NGSS Standard(s):

5-PS1-3. Make observations and measurements to identify materials based on their properties. 

Scientific & Engineering Practices

For this lesson, students are engaged in Science & Engineering Practice:

Science & Engineering Practice 5: Students describe and measure quantities, such as length, width, mass, and volume.

Crosscutting Concepts

To relate ideas across disciplinary content, during this lesson I focus on the following Crosscutting Concept

Crosscutting Concept 3: Students use standard units to measure physical quantities such as mass, length, and volume. 

Disciplinary Core Ideas

In addition, this lesson also aligns with the following Disciplinary Core Ideas

PS1.A:  Structure and Properties of Matter

Measurements of a variety of properties can be used to identify materials. (Boundary: At this grade level, mass and weight are not distinguished, and no attempt is made to define the unseen particles or explain the atomic-scale mechanism of evaporation and condensation.) (5-PS1-3)

ELA Integration

To add depth to student understanding, when I can, I'll often integrate ELA standards with science lessons. Today, students will work on meeting CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.5.7: Draw on information from multiple print or digital sources, demonstrating the ability to locate an answer to a question quickly or to solve a problem efficiently. In this lesson, students will a  video as a resource to locate key information involving the properties of matter. Throughout this unit, students will use other resources, such as online texts and teacher presentations to broaden their understanding of matter.

Choosing Science Teams

With science, it is often difficult to find a balance between providing students with as many hands-on experiences as possible, having plenty of science materials, and offering students a collaborative setting to solve problems. Any time groups have four or more students, the opportunities for individual students to speak and take part in the exploration process decreases. With groups of two, I often struggle to find enough science materials to go around. So this year, I chose to place students in teams of two or three! Picking science teams is always easy as I already have students placed in desk groups based upon behavior, abilities, and communication skills. Each desk group has about six kids, so I simply divide this larger group in half or thirds. 

Gathering Supplies & Assigning Roles

To encourage a smooth running classroom, I ask students to decide who is a 1, 2, or 3 in their groups of three students (without talking). In no time, each student has a number in the air. I'll then ask the "threes" to get certain supplies, "ones" to grab their computers, and "twos" to hand out papers (or whatever is needed for the lesson). This management strategy has proven to be effective when cleaning up and returning supplies as well!  


20 minutes

Matter Unit Lapbooks

To provide students with a method to keep track of their research and thinking during our unit on matter, I followed these steps to create lapbooks for each student. 

1. I folded each side of a file folder inward to create a booklet that opens from the center: File Folder.

2. Next, I made copies of Lapbook Templates on colored paper (purple, yellow, green, and orange). I made sure to have enough copies so that each student would have 4 graphs, 6 research notes, 8 investigations, 18 vocabulary words (9 sets of 2 words), and the 4 pictures.  I also copied the Other Research Pocket onto blue card stock paper so that students would have a place to put loose papers. 

3. Then, I stapled the templates into each lapbook: Inside the Lapbook.

4. Before starting our unit on matter, I asked students to help personalize their lapbooks. Students used a glue stick and tape to secure the blue research pockets on the back (Student Research Pocket Example). Then, they decorated the cover: 


Creating these lapbooks helps build excitement and student ownership!


I invite students up to the front carpet with their white boards. I want to inspire interest in today's lesson and capitalize on student curiosity, so I pose the following question: What is matter and what is not matter? 

We then create a list on the board together: What Is and Is Not Matter Lists. To get students started, I write a "rock," "cup," and "lamp" under What is Matter? and I write "light," "love," and a "reflection" under What is NOT Matter? Soon students raise their hands, "Oh! I know an example of matter!" 

During this discussion, I purposefully do not provide a definition for matter. 

After creating lists of what is and is not matter, I ask students to work together with an elbow partner to write the definition of matter on their whiteboards. I am surprised by how accurate (or close to accurate) many of their definitions are: Matter Definition 1Matter Definition 2Matter Definition 3, and Matter Definition 4.

We discuss their definitions as a class: Student Definitions of Matter. One student then asks, "Is air matter?" I love the conversation that follows: Does Air Take up Space?


Upon returning to their desks and putting away white boards, I ask students to open their lap books to the vocabulary section. Students can hardly wait to begin using their lap books!

As a side note, if I want students to use scientific language within class discussions and student explanations, I have found that incorporating key words and kid-friendly definitions is essential.

When introducing new vocabulary, I sometimes ask the class to use their computers and dictionaries look up and share definitions aloud. Other times (for the sake of time) I provide students with the definition. 

For today, I introduce the word, matter, and provide the following definition: anything that has mass and takes up space. All matter can be categorized as one of three basic forms: solid, gas, or liquid. 

Students record the definition in the vocabulary section of their lapbooks: Matter Vocabulary Word.jpg



40 minutes

Building Background Knowledge

In today's lesson, I want students to make observations and measurements to identify materials based on their properties (5-PS1-3), but first, I want students to learn more about the physical and chemical properties of matter by watching the following video:


Physical & Chemical Properties Poster

While watching the above video, we pause frequently to take research notes on physical and chemical properties.I also add on by providing additional information on these concepts.  

I take notes on two posters (Physical Properties Poster & Chemical Properties Poster) while students take notes in their lapbooks (Student Notes Example 1Student Notes Example 2, & Student Notes Example 3).

When discussing volume as a physical property of matter, I take this time to demonstrate how to use a graduated cylinder to determine the volume of an object: Volume Demonstration. When the cylinder just has water in it, the waterline is at 500 mL. I then ask: If we drop this apple into the graduated cylinder, will the water level go up or down? What do you think it will go up to? (student guesses include 450 mL, 500 mL, and 600 mL) I drop the apple into the cylinder and the water level rises to 600 mL. Turn and talk! What is the volume of the apple? How much space does it take up? (The volume of the apple is equal to the volume of 100 mL of water.)

To help students visualize chemical properties, I print two pictures, one of a rusting car and another of burning paper (Chemical Properties Pictures) and place them on the Chemical Properties Poster. 

Before I can even suggest the addition of two more vocabulary words to the vocabulary section of student lapbooks, a student eagerly asks, "Can we add physical and chemical properties to our vocabulary?" I love when students become so motivated to learn! Taking the definitions right out of our notes and off of the class posters, students completed two more vocabulary words on their own: Physical Properties Vocabulary Word and Chemical Properties Vocabulary Word


Now students are ready to explore the properties of matter further! To make the exploration process more purposeful and fun today, I place 10 Mystery Items inside Brown Paper Bags

  • Computer mouse
  • Ice scoop
  • Scissors
  • Bracelet
  • Toilet paper
  • Nail polish
  • Hair clip
  • CD case
  • Corn starch in a bag
  • Vinegar in a bag 

Teacher Note: I purposefully place cornstarch in a bag, knowing that students would think that it is flour and I place vinegar in a bag, knowing that students would think it is water. I am hoping this will lead to powerful conversations about the importance of identifying multiple properties in order to properly identify the material.  

Each group will station themselves in a top secret place in the classroom (along the perimeter of the room works great). Then, they will be given a brown bag containing "mystery matter" and Desk Dividers to keep their mystery matter hidden from other groups. Using a variety of tools, students will observe and measure the physical properties of their mystery matter. 

At this time, I pass out a copy of Mystery Bag Observations sheets to each student. 


I provide students with a variety of tools (listed below). We discuss how to appropriately choose tools, depending on the type of matter in our mystery bags. For example, some objects are too large to use the provided graduated cylinders to find the volume. 

Monitoring Student Understanding

Once students begin working, I conference with every group. My goal is to support students by asking guiding questions (listed below). I also want to encourage students to engage in Science & Engineering Practice 7: Engaging in Argument from Evidence. What have you found so far? 

  1. What have you found so far? 
  2. What are you measuring?
  3. Why do you suppose ____? 
  4. How do you know that is a physical property?
  5. What physical property would be most useful to identify your mystery matter? 
  6. How did you decide _____?
  7. Has your thinking changed? 
  8. What conclusion can you draw about ____?

Student Conferences

During this conference, Conferencing with Group 1, the students explain the physical properties (clear liquid) that helped them identify their mystery matter as water. Later on, this group will discover that this liquid is really vinegar! 

Here, Conferencing with Group 2, students decide that their mystery matter is flour because it is white and powdery. I love watching them feel the texture and realize that it doesn't quite feel like flour. Later, they'll realize that their mystery matter is really corn starch. 

This group, Conferencing with Group 3, is working at determining the conductivity of their matter. Instead of explaining how to use the battery, wire, and light bulb to create a circuit, I leave it up to the students to discover how to use this tool. 

Student Work

Here are a few examples of student observations: 

Reflect & Apply

30 minutes

Sharing Findings

Now that students have built meaning and understanding by observing, questioning, and exploring, it is important to provide students with the opportunity to share their findings. For this reason, I invite students to gather in a circle on the front carpet with their mystery items in the brown paper bags. 

One at a time, groups share the physical properties of their mystery matter while the rest of the class tries to guess each group's item: Group Explaining Their Mystery Matter.

Teacher Note: If I had to do this activity over again, I would have randomly listed all the mystery items on the board. This way, the other students would be more likely to correctly guess each group's mystery matter! 

Tricky Matter

Here, Flour vs Corn Starch Group, one group discovers that their mystery matter is really cornstarch, and another group, Vinegar vs Water Group, finds out that their mystery matter is really vinegar. Both situations provide great opportunities to discuss the importance of using a wide range of properties in order to properly identify matter. 

At the end of today's lesson, students place their Mystery Bag Observation paper in the Other Research Pocket.