The Plane Variable: A Science Experiment

A few weeks ago I wrote a post praising The Science Penguin's "Science Vocabulary Hands-On Instruction" packet. It's a fantastic resource for teaching science vocabulary that incorporates authentic, hands-on study of science concepts before applying explicitly taught vocabulary terms and definitions. I LOVE THIS STRATEGY! It has been so beneficial for my students to get hands-on experience with--for example--independent, dependent, and controlled variables BEFORE being taught those terms and what they mean. I've used many of the vocabulary activities in this packet, but the "Variables" lesson is one of my favorites!

Per the lesson outlined in the resource, we began our unit on variables by engaging in a whole-class discussion in response to the proposed question, "Does changing the size of the paper affect how far a paper airplane flies?" This was the perfect opportunity for me to reiterate the steps in the scientific process, highlighting the question and the students' hypotheses and having my kiddos record this information in their science interactive notebooks. After partnering with a classmate, my students then began folding their paper airplanes, using the exact same design for all three sizes of paper (8.5 x 11", 7 x 9.5", and 5.5 x 8"). Most of my students came up with their own designs, but some of them used the opportunity to conduct research on the internet, investigating known design flaws and strengths. They had a BLAST!

During the design phase, the kids and I had frequent discussions about which aspect of their planes was changed by the scientist (independent variable: paper size) and which aspect(s) stayed the same throughout the entire experiment (controlled variables: plane design and type of paper). These conversations were AMAZING! The kids were having the time of their lives designing paper airplanes while simultaneously getting hands-on experience with these scientific terms...long before they ever "learned" what they meant (i.e., copying unfamiliar terms and definitions off the board). I couldn't have been more thrilled with the authentic learning taking place in my classroom!

After folding each of their three airplanes, the groups designated a starting point in the hallway, then took turns launching their planes. This prompted a discussion of what they were measuring with this experiment (dependent variable: the distance traveled by each plane). Yay for authentic learning! 

The flight phase of the activity was a learning opportunity in its own right as students observed that the same planes flew different distances based on the way they were thrown as well as the amount of force used to launch them. More independent variables! Which...made my little scientists realize that the results of these tests were only marginally valid and reliable. OH MY GIDDY AUNT at the learning taking place!

Students measured and recorded in their science interactive notebooks the distance each plane flew. Only after several days of actual interaction with the terms independent variable, dependent variable, controlled variable, (and bonus words like scientific process, hypothesis, valid, reliable, results, etc.) did I "teach" the words and their definitions. Students cut out the included vocabulary foldable, glued it in their science interactive notebooks, and wrote the definitions under the flaps as we discussed them. Finally, my brilliant little scientists used their newfound knowledge to label their recorded results with the appropriate vocabulary terms. No surprise here...they needed very little help! Why would they? They'd already engaged in student-led, authentic, hands-on learning experiences with all of them! Whoop! (Insert "raising the roof" emoji here.) It was every teacher's dream-come-true!

What do teachers want? We want our students to engage in rigorous educational opportunities, student-directed learning, authentic vocabulary development... Basically--we don't want our kids to "learn" vocabulary by writing words and definitions 100 times without having any real understanding of their meaning. Resources like "Science Vocabulary Hands-On Instruction" help make this dream a reality! And with that...we're one step closer to our students' becoming the well-rounded world-changers we know they can be!

Thanks for stopping by! Until!



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