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Teaching Challenging Science Concepts

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Take a minute to reflect which science topics you personally found challenging as a school student. For the majority of people, it would have been topics that were based on abstract concepts such as current and voltage, forces, atomic structure and the mechanisms of inheritance. As children learn best when they are taking a hands-on approach, learning about concepts that are either too small or too big to see and handle is conceptually very difficult. Teaching the abstract is a challenge that every science teacher faces but there are some strategies that can be used to help.

Make the invisible visible

A very useful method is to turn something that is abstract into something that is concrete. Opening up the invisible world and turning it into something that children can see, handle and manipulate will help them to understand. This idea of using physical models can be used when teaching many different concepts.

It works very well with atomic structure. Of course, the structure of a real atom cannot be seen but you can build scaled-up models to show it. Students can build their own models, drawing electron shells onto pieces of paper and then cutting out circles of different colors to represent electrons, protons and neutrons. As they are working out how many to cut out and where to place them, they are reinforcing knowledge about how to use the periodic table to work out numbers of sub-atomic particles in each atom and where they should be placed. The SciTT Kit 'The Atom Family' contains all the information and equipment your students need build their own models of atoms.

What about using students themselves to model concepts? One idea when teaching electrical circuits is to get the students to act as electrons in a circuit. One student should be the battery and one the light-bulb. The 'electrons' stand in a line and travel around a circuit which has been marked out in the classroom. As they pass the battery he or she gives each electron some 'energy' in the form of a piece of candy. As each electron passes the lightbulb they pass their candy to the bulb who waves their hands around excitedly to show they are lit up.

A fun idea when teaching changes of state, is to get your students to act as particles in a solid by standing in a group with linked arms and moving gently from side to side. They can then model melting and evaporating by changing their movement and arrangement to model particles in a liquid and then a gas. You can even play some music and increase the volume to signify an increase in energy.

As well as making these abstract concepts more concrete, they provide a memorable lesson which will help the children to remember them.

Make the unfamiliar familiar

Making links between an unfamiliar concept and a familiar one is a useful learning tool. One simple example is the use of analogies. The human immune system can be thought of like a castle. The strong walls are like the skin, acting as a barrier to the evil invaders - the pathogens. And the white knights in shining armour? They are the white blood cells. The story of a castle invasion is something that everyone is familiar with and it makes it easier to understand the roles of each part of the immune system, something that many are not so comfortable with.

A lot of what is taught in science lessons is completely unfamiliar to children and so they find it a challenge to understand. Linking these abstract concepts to ones a child has experienced will help to root it in a world that the child understands.

The size and scale of the Solar System is something that is very difficult to comprehend as it doesn't relate to anything tangible. However, modelling this using familiar objects helps to make it more familiar to a child. You can scale down size and distances to make a model Solar System that children can see. The SciTT Kit 'Bodies in space' contains all the equipment needed to do this as a class activity.

The concept of energy is extremely difficult for young children to grasp. A good way of introducing it is to say that energy is something that is used to do work but it can be difficult to visualise this in the classroom. A fantastic way to solve this problem is to show what wind energy can do, and the SciTT Kit 'Air is everywhere' does just this. The Kit contains a colorful wind catcher which spins in the wind showing wind energy being transferred to the catcher. This can then be applied in an engineering context to explore how windmills and wind turbines work.

Another similar technique is to try and apply everything taught in the classroom to a real-world application or something that the students are interested in. For example, rather than looking at inheritance using pea plants, study the features in celebrity families. When thinking about sustainability, relate this to how the students and their households can help by recycling more or using the car less.

Make the unappealing appealing

Things always seem easier when you're having fun and are engaged with an activity. When children are engaged in a meaningful activity they may even forget they are learning!

The vast majority of children find science more interesting when they are involved in a hands-on activity. With each and every SciTT kit designed for just this, you are bound to find something that injects a little fun when teaching even the most difficult of scientific concepts.

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