Mining for Chocolate Chips

I got back to school this week after spending a week in a half in Costa Rica.  It was so amazing and will need its own  post soon! Since I missed a couple days of school due to the trip, I felt like my students needed a fun engaging activity when I returned so we did one of my favorites – cookie mining!!  The students have been learning about the rock cycle, natural resources, and mining so I wanted to do a hands on activity to illustrate the effects of mining on the environment.   cookie-mining1

It is a super easy activity and requires little prep so it was perfect to do on my first day back.  You need copies of the handout – mining area and questions, chocolate chips (I use Chips Ahoy) and toothpicks.  The students put their cookie on their mining area and try to extract as many chocolate chips as they can in 2 minutes and then examine the effect on their land.  It was interesting to see that the students had 2 main mining strategies – some students destroyed their cookies (and land) to get every chocolate chip out.  Other students were motivated to keep their cookie whole so they could eat a whole cookie at the end of the activity so they had much less mess. This led to a good discussion at the end about different companies and why they might use different mining practices.  All in all it was a great day!  My students loved it and made me feel like super teacher for giving them cookies on my first day back.



Human Pendulum

I love teaching science because it is all around us in our everyday lives and it can explain the phenomena we encounter daily.  For example, yesterday my family went for a hike.  That in itself brought up many different science topics – the vultures were riding thermals and gliding through the sky, the cows were chewing their cud- a symbiosis and anatomy lesson), adaptations of the ground squirrels, etc, but then we found a rope swing!  The kids loved it!

As they were swinging, it was so interesting to see them figure out physics principles by trial and error.  During their experimenting, they found that the higher they started their swing, the farther out they went.  They also manipulated their bodies to turn during themselves during the swing.  It was such a perfect natural experiment for force and motion.  Even though we didn’t have conversations about the science behind it, they now have some real life experience to connect for forces, motion, and pendulums.  Totally ties in with NGSS – 3rd grade.  I totally want to go back now to make up an experiment and collect some data and maybe follow up with this lesson at home.  My daughter is in second grade right now and they don’t do much experimenting at her school so it would be perfect to do it at home.

Sledding STEM

Finally, it is winter break! I am so excited to stay at home and play with my kiddos.  Yesterday we had so much fun doing our own STEM project.  I set up a bunch of materials and asked them to make a sled that will slide quickly down a ramp.  My daughter LOVES creative challenges like this.  She is 7 and does not abide by the philosophy,”less is more” she is of the mindset, “more is more”.  She started off with a simple flat sled, but over time it became an RV type sled with a kitchen, bedrooms, and even a toilet. Then she added a sail so it could also go in the water.


My son is 5 and he can easily be frustrated when things don’t go as expected and with STEM projects, that seems to happen a lot.  It was great working with him because he was able to test it on the ramp (The coffee table with 2 legs up on the couch) and then evaluate it and make improvements.  At first it was really hard for me because I wanted to give him advice and do parts for him so he would be successful, but as I let him work, I saw that he could figure it out on his own.  They worked and played with their sleds all morning.  We walked down to the elementary school to try them on the slides, but unfortunately the gates were locked.  I had mine set up as a discovery building challenge, but I extended it to do in my classroom to focus on physics of motion, speed, and friction.  You can find it in my TPT store!


The finished products!

Water Bottle STEM

Have you noticed that middle school students get obsessed with the weirdest things?? This year at my school it is the water bottle flipping phenomenon.  Trying to flip a water bottle and get it to land without falling over.  They do it CONSTANTLY.  They never seem to choose quiet activities to obsess over.  The sound of those water bottles crinkling and landing is one of the most annoying sounds ever.


We have one more week of school until the winter break – for me it is actually just 3 more days.  I just finished a unit and I didn’t want to start something new right before the break so I decided to use the time to reinforce some of the science practices.  I haven’t had the students  design their own investigation yet and thought this would be a good time.  So I decided to create a lab based on the water bottle flip.  My students were going to determine the volume of water to add to the water bottle so it has the highest flipping success rate.  The students worked to design and test their experiment.  They were given some guidelines and then they were free to test.  It was a lot of fun.  The kids loved it!!   After performing the tests, the students used math to analyze their data – converting from fractions to decimals and then to percents, graphing their data, and sharing their data. Later in the week they are going to plan an independent investigation looking at additional variables that might affect water bottle flipping like the size of the bottle, the type of water bottle, the brand of the water bottle, etc.

It was super easy to get all the materials.  I went through the recycle bins around campus and got lots of water bottles and I had rulers and beakers.  The bottles got pretty beat up after each class.  They seemed thinner than I remembered, but that is probably good since they are using less plastic, but the denting around the bottom may have affected our results. I definitely needed new bottles for each class.   I want to look into using gatorade bottles since they are much sturdier, but I am not sure how they flip.  I spent about a half an hour with my own kids sitting on the floor flipping water bottles to practice before the lab.  If you haven’t ever tried it, it is pretty addictive and it feels awesome when one lands.


More Christmas STEM

My kids and I have really been enjoying our Christmas STEM time.  Our most recent activity was making erupting fizzy snow.  It was super easy, all the ingredients were from the dollar store, and the kids could not get enough of it.  slide2We made it in a large mixing bowl and then separated it into two pans for each kid.  C loved making hers into snowballs.  S was more into making his snow erupt and fizz with the vinegar.  I couldn’t resist and got into it too.


Crafty Christmas


The month of December always makes me motivated to do more crafts and activities with my kids.  Maybe it is all the cute ideas on Pinterest that we must get done, or maybe it is because it gets dark and we are stuck inside.  Whatever the reason, I have noticed it has happened for the past few years.  Today I started looking into ideas for the kiddos (and who are we kidding, and for me!)   On pinterest I found a recipe for marshmallow playdough.  Who knew you could make playdough out of marshmallows?!?  I decided to step it up a notch and make it more Christmasy so we made two types – candy cane and chocolate.

The recipe is very easy.  For the candy cane dough we added:

  • 6 big marshmallows
  • 2 t coconut oil
  • 3 (or more) T corn starch
  • 1 crushed candy cane

ingredients.pngPut it all in a small bowl. Then you put it in the microwave for 30 seconds until the marshmallows puff up and melt.

Then you mix it all up.  I started at first with a spoon and then knead by hand adding more corn starch if it was too sticky.  At first it just smelled like coconut, but after a bit of playing with it, there was a slight hint of peppermint.  If I had had some peppermint extract, I would have added a little bit. The kids loved it!  It was very soft at first, but firmed up as it cooled but the texture was great – soft and a bit stretchy. They had so much fun rolling it out and tasting it too.

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We made a second batch and replaced one of corn starch with cocoa powder.  It smelled amazing, but it was not as stretchy as the candy cane one.  They still rolled it out and used cookie cutters to make it into gingerbread shapes.

To add to our Christmasy theme, we went for a neighborhood walk after dinner to look at Christmas lights at my son’s request.  Then a Christmas movie, a Christmas book, and now off to bed.  Gotta go rest up for more crafts tomorrow.

Earthquake Provocation

A few summers ago I took a PD with Modesto Tamez from the exploratorium. It was amazing to learn from him – his presentation style was very unique and engaging and it was impossible not to smile when he presented.  One of the many things I learned from him was “Provocations”.  These were WOW activities in science to get the students engaged and thinking about a concept.  Over the break I was trying to think of a provocation to engage students in the science of earthquakes.  We had already build structures, we looked a real world data, but I need something else, another hook so they would be interested in seismic waves, stress in the crust, etc. After looking online for activities, I found it. I found this blog post online about a teacher who had set up a simulated earthquake for her students.  I knew this was what I was looking for.  Many of my students have been here during small earthquakes, but many of them don’t remember them or slept through them.  So I felt like they needed  a “real” earthquake experience.


I met my students in the hallway and told them that over the break something had happened in my classroom and it was up to them to figure out what happened and write evidence based on their observations to support their claim.  Before class I had pushed desks around, knocked chairs and supplies on the floor, and set out pictures of earthquake damage – focusing on schools, and had live footage projected at the front of the class.  The students came in and walked around taking it all in and recording their observations.  As I walked around, it was clear that the kids had figured out that what happened and had made good observations.  As they were wrapping up, I turned on earthquake sound effects and told them there was an aftershock and made them all duck and cover under their desks.  It was a fun way start to our lesson on earthquakes.

ASTC and AZA Passport Programs

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Free Admission to zoos and science museums nationwide!  You can’t beat that.  Two summers ago we were visiting family in Massachusetts and we got to spend a couple of days enjoying Boston.  While we were there I wanted to check out the Museum of Science in Boston – I am a bit of a science dork.  The prices were $25 for adults and $20 for kids – thats $90 for our family to visit!  I am a thrifty (cheap) person so this seemed like an outrageous amount of money to pay for one day at a museum.  As I looked into coupons and discounts I noticed they were part of the ASTC passport program.  This program includes about 300 science museums around that country that have free admission for members of other ASTC museums.  I looked to see which museums in my area were part of this program and we chose to become members of one of our favorite spots –  Happy Hollow park and zoo in San Jose. The cost of the membership was $140 for the family and was a member of the ASTC passport program and AZA reciprocal program (zoos and aquariums) so this gave us free admission to over 400 zoos, aquariums, and science centers throughout the country and 50% discount to ones within our area.

Then it became my mission to use this pass as much as possible during the year we had it which took us to some amazing and unforgettable places that we would probably not have visited.


On a trip to Oregon we saw the Spruce Goose at the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum which has an amazing indoor waterpark next door (not included in the free program, but totally fun!)


We went to the Winston Wildlife Safari also in Oregon – this one was %50 off admission.  It was so cool!  There is a huge open space with hundreds of different animals and you drive through in your car.  Some animals came right up to the car.  The kids loved it.

We also explored many of our local science museums:  Lawrence Hall of Science, Chabot Space and Science Center,  Children’s Creativity Museum, Lindsay Wildlife Museum, and of course many visits to Happy Hollow – our actual membership.


We looked into renewing our membership, but Happy Hollow decided to leave the passport program so we decided it was not worth it anymore.  Luckily I just found another local museum that is part of ASTC and AZA and it was only $99 for the membership – Curiodyssey.  Such a deal!   I actually purchased the membership online while we were in Santa Barbara so we could go to the Santa Barbara Zoo and the Sea Center on Stern’s Wharf.  Both were free with our membership.   I’m so excited to continue visiting zoos and science centers this year!


Being Okay with Uncertainty



I just got back from 4 amazing days with my family at the beach in Santa Barbara.  My kids are still young (7 and 5) and they are just so curious and learn and explain the things around them based their experiences and observations. I asked my daughter, “what do you think causes the waves” and she thought for a bit and answered, “the animals moving in the ocean.”

As an adult, I feel like I am often compelled to find the “right” answer.  And often to find that answer I hop onto my phone or computer and look it up.  And usually within a couple of days I forget about the question, and more importantly I have forgotten the answer to the question. My students are like this too. They are eager to have the “right” answer and get frustrated and even anxious if they feel I am not giving them the answer.  While at the beach I was reminded that most of the time, the answer isn’t important, it is the question and the process to try to answer the question that holds the real learning.

For example, while we were at the beach I noticed small holes in the sand. As I looked at the holes I realized I thought the holes were made by organisms living under the sand.  This was an explanation I had made as a child and never had questioned it.  I asked Kyle, my husband, “What makes the holes in the sand?”  I was curious to see if his answer would be the same as mine, and I was surprised when it wasn’t.  His explanation was the holes were air bubbles from air in the sand rising to the surface when the area is under water.  Now faced with a different explanation, we both started looking for evidence to support either explanation. We noticed many things: the holes were only in the part of the beach that was covered only during high tide; the sand in the area was not as dense and compacted as the sand closer to the water; the sandpipers and plovers feeding in the area were feeding closer to the waterline in the dense, wet, holeless sand.  All of our evidence seemed to better support Kyle’s explanation.  But it didn’t really matter what caused the holes, the question made us more alert to observations around us and got us thinking about the question.sciatbeach.png

This real life learning is so much more engaging and memorable that reading something online or in a book.  It made me think of so many questions at the beach that would be great for my students investigate that tie in with the science concepts I cover in the classroom:

  • Is the tide moving in or out?
  • Can you build a taller sandcastle with wet or dry sand?
  • Why does kelp have air bubbles?
  • What is sand made of?
  • What is the best way to prevent beach erosion?

So inspiring!  Can’t wait to get started on making these ideas into lessons.

Spaghetti Engineering


Living in California, earthquakes are a big deal.  Most of the students in my classes have experienced an earthquake – although many of them slept through them.  Since it is a topic that hits close to home for them (did you catch my pun?!?), the engagement factor is high.  We lead up to this project by first mapping where earthquakes happen in the world (look for this in an upcoming post).  Students notice and explain that earthquakes happen near plate boundaries.  We then made a color coded risk map of the US showing which states are most at risk using data collected over a 15 year period.

During the time we were working on the earthquake unit, geologists in Southern California issued a heightened earthquake risk warning.  Perfect timing for us.  We read this article from Popular Science and learned that earthquakes cannot be reliably predicted, and the best way to stay safe is to be prepared – leading us to our earthquake engineering project.

The lesson follows the steps of the engineering design process:


The students worked in groups of 3 or 4 – I chose the groups this time, but I have let them choose their groups in the past.  There doesn’t seem to be a perfect way to do this and someone always seems to end up with hurt feelings because their group isn’t listening to them.  It is a hard thing, working in a group, even for adults, let alone 12 year olds.  My own kids and I like to watch MasterChef and the dreaded group challenges and the conflict that comes from that.  But we work through it and I will sometimes have to step in and explain working in a professional group means that all ideas are heard.

Each student takes on a role:  Architect, Accountant, Materials Manager, and Project Manager. They are given a budget of $3000 – $5000 – I have changed it up each year.  I open my supply store and the students plan out their idea and write me checks to “purchase” supplies.  Having a budget keeps them from wasting materials, and they are given 3 checks to use so they can come to the store 3 times during the project so they have to plan ahead.  Then they start building, testing, and improving their design.  I have a shake table set up in the back of the room so groups can test as they build.  This is a really important step since many of their initial designs end up falling apart and they the need to rethink and redesign.

On the final day, we test the structures one at a time as a class. This is a fun culmination to our project and the students and I have a lot of fun with it.spaghetti-structures-cover

Click on the above image taken to the Teachers Pay Teachers page with a complete copy of the lesson, student handouts, and teacher pages.