Blog of the Week: Magic, Science and Conversation

My brother-in-law Stephen Wolf is an 8th grade science teacher and science fiction author.   I loved this creative blog post about how he teaches complex concepts to his 8th graders--by writing stories.  I thought it was perfect for the everydata blog where we are constantly trying to simplify every day concepts.  Enjoy this guest post!

One of the challenges of teaching seventh grade is conveying abstract concepts to a group that isn’t always ready for such things.  Back in May 2011 we were approaching the unit on electricity and magnetism, which is where we are today with this year’s class.  I decided then to present the information in a new way.  So I wrote a short story.

Each chapter focuses on something different.  Chapter 1 is mostly about grammar, actually, and the proper use of “your” vs “you’re”. It was where I came up with the “one simple trick” of rereading the sentence always as “you are” and if it does sound correct, then it does need the apostrophe.  

Those are your shoes. = Those are you are shoes. (Nope, that doesn’t sound right, so no apostrophe.) = Those are your shoes.

I hope your feeling okay. = I hope you are feeling okay. (Wait, that does sound right, so I do need that apostrophe!!) = I hope you’re feeling okay.

Chapter 2 gets into the science.  Nathan is in his science class with his teacher, Dr. Lupino (wink, wink). The teacher essentially hypnotizes the class and the students are taken to a vast, open, empty desert.  There, Nathan sees giant dinosaur-like creatures: the Protosaurus and the Neutrodon.  The Protosaurus is beautiful and colorful and Nathan wants to run over and play with it, but a native of the region, Treesa, stops him, saying it’s dangerous to get too close.  She explains that her tribe has to stay near the dinosaurs because they know where the food is, but if they get too close they’ll be squashed.  

This is all a representation of the atom, where Nathan and Treesa are electrons who are drawn to protons, a.k.a. The Protosaurus.  However, if the two were to meet, annihilation would occur, releasing energy and destroying both subatomic particles.  But electrons still follow the protons anyway, risk and all.  The boring, dull Neutrodons are the neutrons, which act as a sort of nuclear glue to hold the protons together.  I made the creatures dinosaur-sized, conveying a sense of immensity, because an electron has a mass of roughly 1/1838th the size of a neutron.  Huge difference.

From there I discuss conductors, insulators, and resistors in a racing scenario.  Voltage, current, and resistance are demonstrated through skiing, and so on.  I have used this short story each year since I wrote it and I do feel it helps some of the students to better visualize what’s going on.  At least it isn’t just a plain old boring textbook, though this year my kids suggested adding illustrations.  If stick figures are okay, then I can do that… Haha.

To help the weaker readers, I also created a reading companion to help them focus on various aspects of the story.  I purposely threw some harder vocabulary into the story to challenge them, and I tried to give some context clues so they could try to figure out the meanings on their own.  We will see how the next test goes.  I hope they are able to make those connections between the analogies and the science, and yes, we will discuss them in class next week too!

My point in posting this here, though, is to remind myself and all of us that when it comes to writing, we can do just about anything. Even science.