Saturday, September 8, 2012

How to Sink an Orange

On the second day of school I presented my students with a bucket of water, an orange, and a problem to solve: get the orange to sink.  

The secret to this experiment is the peel.  Like a little life preserver, it is full of air pockets that make the orange float.  To sink the orange, just remove the peel.  It's almost too simple.  To shake things up and get the creative juices flowing, paper clips, tape, clay, string, and math counters were made available for students to use.  

This was a great beginning of the year activity because it combined science, inquiry learning, and team building.  Not only did students have to ask questions, test out hypotheses, and make adjustments, but they also had to listen to each others' ideas, compromise, and cooperate.  I also like this activity because it shows students that we can reach the same conclusion through many different pathways.  

One team started with paperclips and clay.  The paperclips, they rationalized, would weigh down the orange and the clay would hold the paperclips in place.  When that didn't work, they figured the paper clips were too light and something heavier was needed.  Math counters were added for additional weight and they tried again.  As they plopped the weighted orange into the water and watched it bob back up to the surface, I could tell the group was getting frustrated.  Both the paper clips and the counters sunk on their own, so how come they couldn't sink the orange?  
"It's impossible!" I heard one student say. "No, it's not! Let's not give up just yet," her teammate encouraged.    

After several more failed attempts to sink the orange by each group, I saw the light go on in one girl's eyes.  She motioned her team into a huddle and whispered, "It's the peel!"  They carefully tested their new theory, noticing that their orange sunk a little further the more they peeled.  Excited by their discovery, they quickly worked together and sunk the orange.  Other groups began to observe and modify their own designs as a result.

This activity led to great discussions on the importance of failure, the value of thinking creatively, and what to do when the tools we're using aren't working for us or are getting in our way.  Most importantly, this activity allowed students to have fun and get excited about their year in our classroom.  Many students mentioned to me with a devious smile that they were eager to conduct this experiment again at home.  Ultimately, this activity set the tone in our classroom.  It showed my students that learning can be messy and loud, working together can be rewarding, and we can learn a lot through wondering about the world around us and not giving up in challenging situations. 

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