Have Instruments, Will Question

measuringinstrumentsHow many creative young people (and maybe not so young people) like to tinker with “stuff?” I have it on good authority that some of my scientifically oriented friends ended up in their fields because scientists get to use cool stuff. What’s not to like about bubbling beakers, scales, stopwatches, and instruments that buzz?

A happy side effect of gizmo-fascination is that the instruments themselves can spur scientific problem finding. If I have a decibel meter, what could I do with it? What about a digital scale or a blood pressure monitor?

ThinkDataI recently enjoyed reading Renzulli, Helibronner, and Diegle’s Think Data: Getting Kids Involved in Hands-On Investigations with Data-Gathering Instruments. The general information on involving students in projects is useful, but I was particularly fascinated with the idea of sparking student questions simply by providing something that measures—especially something students haven’t measured before. Of course, the book makes numerous suggestions for both instruments and investigations.

For example, with a digital sound level meter students could investigate whether some grades are louder than others, how distance affects sound level, or how lung capacity is related to volume of speaking voice. (I would not suggest duplicating my childhood experiment when, for reasons known only to my five-year-old self, I decided it was important to know just how loudly I could scream. For scientific purposes, of course. My poor mother probably took a week to recover!)

youngscientistsBut the most interesting investigations will be those that spur from your students’ own interests. Simply knowing it is possible to measure sound levels opens the door to all manner of wonders. Think about the questions that could be sparked by instruments you might have in your basement—or could find at a neighborhood garage sale or electronics store. And, of course, there are apps that can transform a smart phone or tablet into all manner of scientific instruments. More on that another day.

For now, take a look around to see what instruments might spark questions. At my house I have a kitchen scale and paper strips for testing ph. How could I wonder with those? How might houseplants respond to water of varied acidity? How much variation is there in the weight of bags of M&Ms? I recently heard of a class that used a scale to determine if Double-Stuffed Oreos really had double the filling! Maybe I could investigate some questions with the laser level in the basement or the tire pressure gauge in the garage.

Take a look at the instruments around you and see where your curiosity takes you. And if your students raise interesting questions, we’d love to hear about it!

Renzilli, J. S., Heilbronner, N. N., & Siegle, D. (2010). Think data: Getting kids involved in hands-on investigations with data-gathering instruments. Austin, TX: Prufrock Press.

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