All of the things we make are made from materials of one kind or another. Sometimes they’re made from raw materials, and sometimes we have to make the materials first before we can make objects from them. The science of materials at its simplest is suitable for preschool classes, and it continues to be suitable for students in high school as well.
Observing and classifying
We always like to start a science lesson with observation. Here’s a simple activity that lets students of all ages begin thinking about materials:
- Gather a bunch of examples of objects. The picture at the top of the page shows a numb er of different household objects. We like to use shoes, too. Spread all your objects on a table in the classroom.
- Divide the class into groups. Explain that you’re going to sort the objects into groups in as many ways as you possibly can. Do one sorting together. For example, you could, as a class, sort a pile of shoes into shoes for sports (climbing shoes, basketball shoes, dance shoes) and shoes for ordinary purposes (loafers, dress shoes, ordinary sneakers). Ask for a few additional ideas for sorting: old vs. new; leather vs. cloth vs. plastic; kids’ shoes vs. adults’ shoes.
- Have students work in their small groups to find as many different ways to sort the objects as possible. List all the methods of sorting you’ve come up with on the board or on chart paper.
- From the list, find the sorts that depend on the materials the objects are made from. For the picture at the top of the page, for example, there’ll be objects made of plastic, metal, rubber, and combinations. There will also be objects that are magnetic and ones that are not, objects that stretch and those that don’t, transparent and opaque objects, etc.
- Note that materials are one way of thinking about objects. Discuss how the other sorting criteria (uses for objects, for example) affect or are affected by the materials being used.
- Students in grades 3 and up can now think about the properties of the materials. Things like metal and wood are materials, but things like transparency and magnetism are properties. Have students choose one category of materials and write a paragraph describing the properties of that type of material as thoroughly as possible.
While you have all your objects spread out, you can also play a game:
- One student is “It.” He or she mentally chooses one of the objects. Other students ask up to 20 yes/no questions to guess which object It has in mind. The first students to guess becomes “It” for the next round.
- A more sophisticated variation of this game has It provide clues one at a time, allowing other students to guess from the clues.
- Alternatively, have students write a description without naming the object. Have students read their descriptions aloud, giving a point to each student whose description is clear enough to allow others to guess the object being described.
Think about change
One of the things that materials scientists do is to think of ways things can be improved. Sometimes they think about new ways to use old materials, and sometimes they think of completely new materials.
Our Think About It Worksheet asks students to consider how objects could be changed to make them better. For example, what would you make flexible so it would be more useful? Use the worksheet to kick off some creative thinking about materials, and then move on to some real-world examples:
- Science Buddies has a collection of materials science activities including making plastic from milk.
- ACS has a page of resources for materials science.
- The American Society of Mechanical Engineers shares 9 new substances that could be game-changers.
- Paul Braun, a professor of Materials Science and Engineering, has figured out a way to improve batteries. Have middle school and high school students read this article on the new batteries and figure out what change was made and what problem the change is expected to solve.
Try your hand
Now’s your chance to make something! Bring some interesting recyclable materials into the classroom and challenge students to think of a good use for them. Sometimes this requires some lateral thinking; for example, Roald Dahl used bubble wrap to make chocolate candy and Roy Shearer made a wallet from a computer keyboard, both very surprising accomplishments.
Make a display of all the projects. You can award prizes for the best (or most astonishing) projects, but it’s also fun to create an exhibit for an open house. Or take photos, add captions saying, “We made a _____ from _____!” and create a slideshow for your class website.