Mysterious, Engaging, Hands-On….Greatest Science Class First Day Activity

Hello beautiful people! I thought it would be appropriate to start off my blog with a first post about my favorite way to start off the year in my middle school science class.

Typical first day….some type of cheesy icebreaker, read the syllabus, go over the rules, do a team builder….and then middle schoolers repeat that multiple times! Not so in science class. Read on for a great way to start the year with science.

The story….the students enter the class (I have a special first day activity for this, too, coming in a future post) and once they are settled and welcome them and say that we were going to do the traditional first day things BUT a crisis occurred! When I came to school this morning I found that

the golden armadillo had been stolen!!

Image of missing armadillo
The golden armadillo is a prize passed around the grade level at my school. You can insert your own personalized “important” item for the story.

All class must halt now while we find the armadillo! Fortunately, the armadillo thief has left a note:

Note about stolen armadillo.

and even more fortunately, we can use scientific practices derived from chromatography to determine which pen was used to write the note.

I then identify the four suspects (selected from teachers at the school the students might now) and explain how I went and “borrowed” a pen from each teacher:

Image of suspects and pens.
(I usually use a Vis-a-Vis wet erase marker, an Expo dry erase marker, a Sharpie, and a Crayola marker just because (1) they are easily available and (2) years of experience show that these particular pens produce good results.

Before class, I created sample strips for each pen and labeled the strips. I explain to the students that, though the strips look the same to the naked eye, with chromatography we can separate the dyes into specific patterns, like fingerprints for the inks. We can then compare the “known” samples from the suspects to the “unknown” sample from the note to determine the pen and, thus, the suspect.

Sample strips
Four “known” samples from the suspect pens and one “unknown” sample from the note. See below for a template you can use so you don’t have to write out the letters on each one.

I then hand out the chromatography instructions to the students, do a little reminder about science safety (and how we are going to not wear safety goggles today….sorry!) and then set them off following the instructions. To ease this instruction following process, I assigned specific roles to each student in the group as indicated by colored dots on the lab table that I set up prior to class as shown below.

Graphic showing desk labels with colors

The instructions explain the entire lab step by step. The students also make a name tent while waiting for the ink to migrate through the paper, which is useful for learning student names.

VERY IMPORTANT there is quite a bit of teacher setup required before this activity to make the instructions work. It’s worth it. Read below for teacher setup.

Teacher Setup for Lab

Materials Needed Place the following materials in a central, easily accessible location in your classroom.

  • Test tube rack (enough for 1 per group)
  • test tubes with 1-2 cm of water already inside (enough for each group to have 5. It is easiest to just put 5 test tubes with the water in each one in a rack so groups just pick up a single rack)
  • Timer (enough for 1 per group)
  • Paper towel (enough for 2 per group)
  • Water with a pipette for distribution (in case of any spills or need for water refresh)
  • Prepared “known” and “unknown” samples (I usually set these out in labeled beakers so the students can grab what they need)

Before class:

  • label student tables with colored dots (see above)
  • prepare “known” sample strips (I usually use this file to print out a bunch of letter labels and then just draw a thick, dark line along the bottom with the appropriate pen. Then I can just use the paper cutter to cut separate strips and not have to make each individually)
  • write the “Ransom note” using one of the markers. You will need one note per class period because you cut up the note to make the “unknown” strips. I almost always use the Crayola marker as my note “unknown” marker because it has the most distinctive chromatography pattern.
  • set out paper and colors/markers in a central location in your room for students to use while making the name tents
  • enlist a collaborator who can be the “thief” and hide the armadillo in their room. I send the students to find the armadillo at the end of the lab.
  • IMPORTANT NOTE: assess the entry literacy level of your class through discussion with other teachers or knowledge of your school. This activity is NOT appropriate for students who cannot read and follow instructions.
  • EVEN MORE IMPORTANT NOTE: Do the lab to test things out. Go through the instructions step by step and make sure everything works in your classroom. The first day of school is not a day for “oops” teaching moments.

Wrapping up the Lab

When the each group has turned in their paper, call the class back together and discuss the results. It is usually good to have some “ideal” pre-made samples that you can show in case things don’t quite work out as expected.

Sample results. You probably want to make a set to have at the ready in case the students don’t quite get things right.

In theory, the students should all have name tents by this time, so you can call on students by name and start learning to put names with faces! Send a student to retrieve the armadillo (or whatever object you chose). While the student is away, discuss lab safety for future labs to review and see what students already know and what you will need to reinforce.

I use remaining time in class to play a review game or go over “fun things to expect” in science (or do any other annoying first day paperwork that needs to be done).

No homework the first day. As a young teacher I always tried to do too much the first day. Over the years I found it is best to do one thing and do it well rather than try to fit in everything.

Hope you have lots of fun with this lab. Remember to smile!

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