5 Cool Science Activities to Keep Kids Learning During the Holidays

In the past, summer learning was sometimes treated as an optional, not-so-important part of education. After all, summer was all about taking a break from school. Not this year! With the COVID-19 outbreak, parents have been getting involved in home schooling this summer whether they like it or not, and we know that sometimes it can be hard to continually come up with new educational activities! 

Never fear, we’ve got a few good ideas of our own—after all, Twig Science Tools is packed full of them—and we’d like to share five of our favorites. We know all about how important it is to fight the summer learning gap, but at the same time, summer is all about fun, so we’ve selected activities that kids will really enjoy. They may not even realize they’re learning science at the same time—but they will be! So whether you’re a teacher looking for inspiration for summer school, or a parent looking to keep their kids busy over summer, the following activities are a great addition to your toolbox!

1. Grow Your Own Geode

Geodes are natural rock formations that have cavities lined with crystals or other minerals. They’re typically formed in igneous rocks by cooling lava or magma—but you can encourage your children to grow their own geodes, helping them to learn how different minerals create crystals of different sizes and shapes based on saturation levels and cooling rates.

What you need:

  • Alum powder
  • Epsom salts
  • Borax
  • PVA glue
  • Empty, clean eggshell halves
  • Food coloring
  • Three cups
  • An empty egg carton

Procedure: Coat each eggshell half with glue. Sprinkle a couple of shells with Epsom salts, a couple with borax and a couple with alum powder. Let these dry overnight in the empty egg carton. In the morning, fill the three cups with boiling water and add several drops of food coloring to each. Pour alum powder into the first cup into it stops dissolving; add borax to the second cup in the same way; and saturate the third with Epsom salts. It’s essential that in all three cases the mixtures are saturated—i.e., as much as can be dissolved in the liquid is dissolved. Pour each mixture into its corresponding geode: the alum mixture should be poured into the eggshell coated with alum, the borax mixture into the shell coated with Borax, and the Epsom salts mixture into the shell coated with the Epsom salts. Leave the shells to cool. Observe them after an interval of four hours and another of 10 hours, and then look again the following morning. What happens to the geodes? Do the crystals get bigger if they are left to cool longer? Which mixture creates the most beautiful crystals? See? Fun and scientific learning rolled into one. You now also have a number of beautiful paperweights!

2. Windmill Garden Ornaments

These beauties help kids learn how to measure the velocity and direction of the wind, as well as providing you with beautiful decorations for your garden. Why could it be important to measure the wind? Well, this natural resource is a major source of energy, and countries all over the world use wind turbines or windmills to harness this energy. Pinwheels use the same principle as windmills or wind turbines, providing an excellent way to study how wind energy can be captured so that it can then be converted to electric energy.

 What you need (per windmill):

  • Square of colored paper, 8 x 8 inches (20 × 20 cm)
  • Scissors
  • Pushpin
  • Length of thin dowelling

Procedure: Fold the square of paper in half diagonally, then open out before folding diagonally again perpendicular to the first fold. Open out flat. Use the scissors to cut along the folds, stopping each cut around 3 cm from the centre. Pull down alternating corners to the centre of the square, taking care not to fold or crease them. Hold each of the corners gently in place until you’ve pulled down all of them, then secure with the pushpin. Push the pushpin into the top of the dowelling, but leave just enough space to allow the windmill to turn.

Choose a windy day to take the windmills out. Ask your child to look at the front of the pinwheel. How fast does it go? What way do they need to hold the pinwheel in order for it to spin the fastest?

3. Color Your Flowers

This is a fun little activity to get young children interested in botany by showing them how water is transported in plants.

What you need:

  • Several white flowers (chrysanthemums or carnations work best)
  • Several different colors of food colouring.
  • Lukewarm water
  • Small vases

Procedure: Begin by cutting about a quarter from the bottom of a stem of each flower, making sure to cut at an angle. Line up the vases and fill each about halfway with lukewarm water. Ask the children to pour around four or five drops of food coloring in each vase. Alternately, you could vary the amount of one color that you put in each vase: one drop of dye in the first vase, four in the second, eight in the third, and so on. Now place a single flower in each vase and leave them for a day. Over time, you’ll see the flowers take on the colour of the water. How did that happen? Which colour is the darkest and which is the lightest? Why is one flower a pink colour while the other a deep red when they all have red food colouring? You can also remove a flower to cut the stem halfway, showing your children how the inside of the stem is the same colour as the water. You can have a lot of fun with this experiment using different flowers—you could even split the bottom of the stem of a flower vertically into two and put each half in a vase with a different color!

4. Edible Stained Glass

Food science at its best! Adding food coloring to this experiment gives it that artistic touch that kids love. It does require constant adult supervision, but the results are stunning and delicious. You can find the full experiment here.

What you will need:

  • Saucepan
  • 13/4 cups (350 g) granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup (120 ml) light corn syrup
  • Pinch cream of tartar
  • 1 cup (240 ml) water
  • Food coloring (preferably in at least three different colours)
  • Cooking thermometer
  • Baking sheet or disposable baking tray
  • Nonstick cooking spray

Procedure: In the saucepan, combine the sugar, corn syrup, and cream of tartar with the water and place over a very low heat. Stir constantly until the mixture is dissolved and becomes transparent. Check the temperature using the thermometer and let the mixture slowly come to the boil: for this mixture, about 300–310℉ (149–154℃). In the meantime, spray the baking tray with the nonstick cooking spray. When the sugar mixture comes to the boil, remove from the heat and pour the mixture very carefully into the baking tray, watching out for splatters. Allow the kids—still under supervision!—to sprinkle drops of food coloring over the mixture before spreading them in swirling patterns using a wooden spoon or butter knife. Leave the mixture to cool for a few hours. Once cool, remove the stunning glasslike sugar pane.

5. Grow a Plant Without a Seed

Farmers and gardeners use botanical science all the time when it comes to growing fruit and vegetables. Asexual reproduction of plants is an important part of the curriculum, so why not give the kids a head start for next year while cultivating some homegrown herbs at the same time?

What you need:

  • Old jelly jars (cleaned thoroughly)
  • Shop-bought basil, mint, and coriander
  • Room-temperature water

Procedure: Select a couple of healthy stalks and trim their ends. Let the children gently remove the lower leaves, but make sure to keep the top leaves intact. Half-fill each glass jar with the room-temperature water. Place the stalks in the water so that the nodes left from where you pulled the lower leaves off are submerged, but make sure the top leaves remain above the water line. Place jars in a well-lit area (although out of direct sunlight). In two weeks’ time the stalks should sprout roots and be ready to be potted up. Ask the kids if they thought that this would be possible.

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For lots more inspiring activities—plus high-quality science videos and lessons—check out Twig Science Tools

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What is Phenomena-based Learning?

Phenomena-based learning (PhenoBL) has been in the spotlight recently. First popularized due to Finland’s decision to revolutionize their curriculum in 2016, this buzzword is back on everyone’s lips again. This time, it’s in connection to the Next Generation Science Standards. We decided to demystify exactly what phenomenon-based learning is, and why it’s becoming increasingly popular.

Finland’s Phenomenal Institute says that in phenomena-based learning and teaching, “holistic real-world phenomena provide the starting point for learning. The phenomena are studied as complete entities, in their real context, and the information and skills related to them are studied by crossing the boundaries between subjects”.

In simpler words, PhenoBL is a method of understanding a phenomenon—an observable event—using various methods and perspectives, which may often overlap. PhenoBL takes a broad, multi-faceted look at events and occurrences happening in the real world, such as climate change, migration, or even the European Union. Looking at these subjects from a number of different angles helps the students to truly understand the workings of natural and societal events. We’ve created a quick shortlist of all the features of PhenoBL to give you a quick overview of what it means in terms of teaching in the classroom:

  1. Getting real: The real world is the bedrock of PhenoBL—providing a much-needed starting point that is repeated at every stage. Students and teachers choose to focus on a real-world phenomena: rain, space travel, or perhaps something problematic, like soil erosion. Students study a phenomenon that interests them, and use scientific enquiry and problem-solving skills with the aim of understanding it and demystifying it.
  2. Question and more questions: PhenoBL thrives on curiosity, and so students are encouraged to question what is around them. It’s not a revolutionary concept. Centuries ago, Socrates used a similar method of questioning to guide his students—in order to find the right answers, they had to know how to ask the right questions. PhenoBL echoes this approach, prioritizing how over why in order to inspire students to make observations.
  3. Contextualize: Phenomenon-based learning builds tangible connections between curriculum theory and the real world, but it also serves to link the various, separate subjects that students learn in schools. For example, the Egyptian pyramids display an acute knowledge of physics engineering, both of which require precise, complex calculations. Similarly, the study of fossils and sedimented craters—a perfect mix of geography and science—have helped scientists come to understand the Earth’s biodiversity millions of years ago.
  4. Change in a teacher’s role: PhenoBL recasts the teacher’s role, changing them from a provider of knowledge to a guide that helps students find knowledge on their own. This might initially be a slightly uncomfortable proposition for both teachers and students—watching students struggle prompts many teachers to want to jump in with the answer. But stick with the altered lesson structure: the aim is still to achieve learning goals.
  5. Other skills: The beauty of PhenoBL is that it also integrates the learning of important social skills, such as clear communication and the ability to function in a team. PhenoBL also encourages the use of other pedagogy models: project-based learning, integrated-learning, and inquiry-based learning, to name just a few.

So do we really need PhenoBL? Absolutely! In a world that is changing rapidly, PhenoBL lays the foundation for truly preparing the next generation to think and act like real-world scientists. PhenoBL allows students to own the learning process, transforming them from passive participants within education to active learners. What’s more, PhenoBL goes a step further in addressing the STEM crisis by combining it with the creativity of the arts, giving the next generation a rounded, holistic education.

Want to find out how PhenoBL works with our products? Contact us today.

Low Section Of Man Standing By Dinosaur Footprint On Rock

Why should kids study dinosaurs?

The word paleontology might not always inspire a lot of general interest, and yet we’d be hard pressed to find a kid who doesn’t love dinosaurs. The giant reptiles that roamed the Earth millions of years ago continue to captivate the interest of young and old alike. But what makes these extinct beasts so popular? The late paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould attributed the popularity of dinosaurs to three main qualities: they were big; they were fierce; most importantly, they are extinct – and there’s merit to this theory.

 

Many of the well-known dinosaurs, such as the Tyrannosaurus rex, the Brachiosaurus, or the Triceratops were all massive animals. But there are also other, considerably smaller dinosaurs that defy this theory – look at the Compsognathus, the Hadrocodium and the Microraptor. No matter their size, dinosaurs manage to capture interests.

 

Ferocity also has a major part to play in terms of popularity. Humans love the thrill of danger – we go bungee jumping, ride rollercoasters and watch horror films. Dinosaurs are as fierce as they come, but of course, they can’t hurt anyone – they’re extinct. They provide the ultimate leap of the imagination.

 

Finally, possibly the biggest contributing factor to dinosaurs’ popularity is the mystery around the their disappearance. After millions of years successfully roaming the Earth, their sudden mass extinction continues to haunt the human imagination: What killed the dinosaurs?

 

So, is it worth studying a group of animals that has been extinct for 65 million years? We certainly think so. Here are four reasons why:

 

1.The study of fossils – yes, including those of dinosaurs – are invaluable to scientists trying to understand climate change. A recent scientific expedition saw a team of scientists drilling into the crater long believed to have been caused by the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs. The extensive process, documented by the BBC, helped scientists understand what happened the day the collision happened. Scientists theorise that the asteroid was travelling at 64,000 km/h when it smashed into the Earth – so hard, and with so much energy, that it vapourised the ocean and completely obliterated the asteroid. The surrounding sea floor was forced outwards and upwards to extraordinary heights before collapsing in on itself, forming a ring 141 km in diameter. Earth’s climate was changed drastically: the Sun’s light and heat was blocked out by the ash cloud that rose as a result of the impact. Fossil evidence has helped scientists to understand all this, and more.

 

2. The study of dinosaurs is crucial to understanding to the mechanics of evolution. More than 700 species of dinosaurs have been found and identified so far, but there are hundreds more unknown. There is a huge amount of variation within the species we know: the Triceratops has the largest skull ever recorded, and the hadrosaur continually replaced its teeth as they wore out. What’s more, there are even creatures living today –like birds, turtles and crocodiles – that share evolutionary lineage with dinosaurs.

 

3. Scientists around the world today are undertaking extensive research on extinction, using dinosaur fossils to understand the biodiversity of the Earth millions of years ago. Human activity has severely altered Earth’s biodiversity, and succeeded in entirely wiping out hundreds of species. By studying extinction and the subsequent effect it has on food chains and Earth’s ecosystems, scientists can begin to understand the complex relationships between species and their surroundings.

 

4. Despite the popularity of dinosaurs, the general public knows very little about fossils and their distant origins. Some people believe that dinosaurs can be resurrected through the extraction of DNA found in fossils – although yes, that was mainly the fault of the film Jurassic Park. But on a different level, people simply don’t know how to uncover and excavate fossils properly. Precious samples are being discovered by people all over the world, but a lack of proper education on how to dig up and handle fossils means that many specimens end up getting damaged, sometimes irreplaceably so.

 

As our world changes, scientists continue to research dinosaurs, and for good reason. Whether it’s to gain an in-depth understanding of the animals in the hope of finally, unequivocally figuring out the actual cause of the mass extinction, or to gain a better understanding of the Earth’s ecology – there’s no denying the importance of studying dinosaurs!

Helen Quinn talks to Twig about NGSS

As many of you will know, America is about to undergo a sea change in science education and Helen is firmly at the heart of that transformation. She chaired the National Academy of Sciences committee that created the Framework for K-12 Science Education – the foundation of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). The NGSS program is a new way of teaching and learning science where students are supported to think like scientists and ‘figure things out’ rather than memorize key facts.

 

As you can imagine, our conversation with Helen dived straight into the Next Generation Science Standards; specifically, why she thinks the introduction of these new standards is needed so urgently, and her vision for what she hopes they will achieve.

 

“[Science] gives us the knowledge that allows us to think through the impact of our actions in a different way, and I want every citizen to have that knowledge and be able to affect the future in ways that are constructive and positive.”

 

So if you’re looking for some inspiration or just a reminder of why you work in education for a living, just click the link and watch the interview with Helen. We hope you’ll leave with a sense of reinforced purpose. We know we did.

 

View a clip from the interview here:

How can schools and governments improve teacher retention and recruitment?

Teachers are the backbone of any society. As educators, teachers have a far-reaching and lasting effect on their students. A recent survey suggests that teachers can influence their students’ choices of college majors and careers. On a more urgent note, good teachers can raise the quality of education, which directly translates improvement in PISA scores and assessment results. Long term, an improvement in education directly correlates to employability and progress. It’s no wonder then that many high-performing nations have strict selection processes for recruiting new teachers. Singapore, for example, recruits only the top graduates, and even then only one in eight is actually selected.

 

Teacher recruitment, however, is facing a huge setback at the moment. A 2016 report showed that nearly 30% of teachers were considering leaving education within 12 months. This included early-education teachers, teaching assistants and Special Educational Needs (SEN) teachers. The reasons cited ranged from plummeting morale, poor work/life balance and heavy workloads to a narrow and uncreative curriculum. In 2017, another survey of more than 3000 teachers under the age of 36 suggested that more than 4 in 10 (45%) could choose to leave within five years.

 

How does this affect other sectors?

A crisis within teacher recruitment and retention can have a domino-like effect on a nation. To start with, a decrease in teacher retention and recruitment means that existing teachers are faced with greater workloads. It also means more secondary school teachers are forced to teach subjects they aren’t qualified to teach. For example, in STEM subjects such as physics, the proportion of those teaching without a relevant qualification rose from 21% to 28% between 2010 and 2014. This means that the future STEM workforce is being taught by overworked and exhausted teachers with no expertise in STEM.

 

So what can governments and schools do to overcome this crisis?

On the face of it, the solution seems straightforward. Most surveys conducted to explore this issue have teachers citing poor morale and salaries, heavy workloads, rigid curricula and poor work/life balance as the predominant reasons for wanting to quit their jobs. The Department for Education’s most recent teacher workload survey found primary school teachers with less than six years of experience were working an average of almost 19 hours per week outside school hours, with most teachers citing administrative duties adding to their workload.

 

Funding seems central to solving most teacher-recruitment and retention problems. Despite the UK government’s recent decision to invest £10 million into recruiting foreign teachers to help with the teacher-recruitment crisis, teacher pay rises stay capped at 1%. Poor pay, coupled with poor management and time pressures, leads to a sense of being undervalued. More and more teachers also face mental health issues for these reasons.

 

The first step in helping teachers is to stop blaming them. Most schools want to help their teachers but find themselves unable do so due to limited funding. Over the years, some schools have taken to applying for private funding from alumni and parents; however, most schools are forced to make do with public funding. How schools can help, however, is by better management. This extends towards the curriculum. Schools can give teachers more flexibility in preparing and delivering their lessons, as well as keeping administrative work to a minimum. This might help to reduce teacher workloads and encourage a better work-life balance. Another practice is to provide continuous professional development for teachers, keeping them updated about the latest teaching technology and techniques that might help them reduce workloads. Much has been said about technological resources for teachers. However, it’s important that schools take the time to figure out which resources might suit their budget needs. For example, a school with a modest budget might profit better through a digital teaching resource that can be accessed via a variety of devices, rather than one that requires investing in a product geared towards learning. Also, teaching resources that are adaptable to a variety of pedagogies offer more value than those that need to be constantly upgraded or expanded depending on student groups.

 

Governments can also support schools by implementing less stringent curricula, allowing teachers to choose the best pedagogies and techniques to teach their students. For example, Finland gives its schools a great deal of autonomy over the use of curricula and assessment, compared to other countries. Most Finnish teachers hold master’s degrees, with knowledge and experience in research and practice-based subjects. More importantly, they are given a great degree of freedom in designing and delivering lessons. They also clock the least amount of working hours in comparison to their colleagues in other countries.

 

If governments can’t afford pay rises, they need to compensate for this by offering reduced working hours and more freedom in delivering lessons. Experts have also suggested increasing pay rises, where possible, within poor districts that usually suffer the most in terms of funding and quality teaching.

 

As with most important things, there is no single or simple solution to the crisis surrounding teacher recruitment and retention. However, it is essential that steps are taken to properly address the issue, at least on a smaller scale initially, in order to preserve a valuable national workforce.

Assessments: helpful or a hindrance

Educational institutes around the world use assessment to measure student performance and learning outcomes, with international assessments such as PISA gaining increasing popularity. Much debate has taken place about the genuine value of assessment, from primary assessments to international tests like PISA. So, is testing really helpful to students? Or does it get in the way of learning? We decided to investigate.

 

What is assessment and why do we need it?

Often, assessment is confused with testing. Testing is just one form of assessment. Students can also be assessed by various methods such as project-based learning and phenomenon-based learning.

 

Assessment is an important part of education, helping policymakers and industry thought leaders determine whether curriculum goals are being met. Assessment is the baseline against which decisions about learning outcomes, educational policies, curriculum standards and, yes, even funding are made. In short, its importance hinges on the fact that it provides measurable results.

 

Is assessment helpful?

While assessment is invaluable to policymakers and educators, the real question stands: is it helpful to students and teachers? The answer is a resounding yes. Here’s why:

  • Assessment helps educators determine if learning goals are being met.
  • Assessment helps us understand the efficiency of the latest pedagogies and teaching methods.
  • Assessment identifies students who are struggling academically, allowing schools and educators to provide them with extra support.
  • Schools need support too. Assessment can help policymakers to identify schools that need extra funding for professional development or classroom supplies etc. For example, reports show that only 19% of low-income students met the ACT test benchmarks.
  • Assessment also helps teachers develop achievement goals when planning their lessons.

 

So when does assessment become a hindrance?

The biggest concern with assessment is the competitive pressure nations put on their schools and teachers to get better scores. When educators and nations begin to use test results as a source of competition rather than growth, they unwittingly skew the basic purpose of assessing students, which is to evaluate their progress and support them in overcoming their weaknesses.

 

Another trend stemming from international testing is the tendency to blame teachers for poor test outcomes. Teachers form the backbone of educational systems, often working long hours beyond their working days to help support students. The purpose of tests like PISA ought to be to ultimately support teachers and help them manage their workloads. However, parental and social expectations often lead to criticism of teaching styles or methods, casting doubt on teachers’ ability to do their jobs well. This, in turn, translates into teachers quitting their jobs and/or a drop in teacher recruitment.

 

Assessment can work incredibly well when it is used to evaluate learning goals and progression. It only becomes a hindrance when it is used to bring down teacher morale and put pressure on schools to compete with other others around the world.