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'Modeling' science classes ditch lectures for experiments and student-led discussion

Chemistry students at North Boone High School
Peter Medlin
Chemistry students at North Boone High School

Some science teachers are ditching long lectures in favor of hands-on experiments and classroom conversations. The method is called “modeling.”

North Boone High School sophomore Noel is blowing hot air onto a blue balloon. The balloon says, “Happy Birthday,” if you’re curious.

“The hot particles are going to start hitting the balloon," she said. "And then particles inside the balloon are gonna start moving around quicker because of that. Then after a little while, they'll move faster and faster and…it expands.”

That’s how this class — and all modeling classes — work. Her teacher, Zena McFadden, doesn’t stand at the front of the classroom and lecture for an hour while students scribble notes with their heads down. McFadden started modeling four years ago.

They introduce a topic. Right now, this class is in a unit about gas laws and atmospheric pressure. But there will be no textbook definitions today. McFadden wants them to discover the material on their own. As always, they jump right into a lab.

Typically, students experiment for three or four days, working in small groups on each lab activity. One of the other labs today involves a little marshmallow in a syringe. The marshmallow also has a tiny smiley face drawn on it.

“We started at 50," they said. "That's like at a normal size and then when we shrink it down to 15, the marshmallow shriveled up."

But why? They think that pressure is forcing air particles out of the marshmallow.

But what is pressure? And what even are particles? These are basic questions McFadden wants her students to learn and know through experiments. There’s even a banned word sign.

“They're starting out with nothing,” said McFadden, North Boone High School chemistry teacher who has been using “modeling” for a few years. “This is where it starts: ‘words we use but can't yet explain.’ And we're not allowed to use them until they can figure them out.”

So, one of the first experiments of the year is simply so they can prove that particles exist. All it takes is a can of Febreze.

“I spray some particles, and they raise their hands when they smell them,” said McFadden.

Now that they’ve got that established -- they can move forward. But there’s another component to modeling, one that’s just as important as the experiments. It’s called “whiteboarding.”

North Boone chemistry students "whiteboarding" after their experiments
Peter Medlin
North Boone chemistry students "whiteboarding" after their experiments

Once students finish their experiments, they draw their findings on a large dry-erase board. Then, they gather around with their classmates and present their explanations.

The rest of the class asks questions and together they decide what conclusions they can draw.

One class watched a video of a gas tanker that violently collapsed on itself. Now, they’re drawing and discussing their ideas of why that could have happened.

“Are you saying that they're putting particles into it?” calmly asks one student. The presenting student responds “I feel like there were already particles inside of it and they had nowhere to go.” Another chemistry student chimes in “If that was the case, then it would have exploded out, not in!”

Together, right as the bell rings, they put together that air particles and pressure on the outside of the tanker must have been a reason why it imploded and not exploded.

As they say in the class after each unit, “this is the story so far.” They reached their conclusion together and the models they build will change as they learn new information and new vocabulary.

Noel, a sophomore, says modeling took a minute to get used to. But now she likes it a lot.

“After people go out of their comfort zones, it's actually a lot easier to understand,” she said. “I find it easier because you're not zoning out as much. And you're not hearing from the same person; you're getting different perspectives.”

Phil Culcasi says that creating a comfortable atmosphere in your class is essential for modelers. He’s a chemistry teacher at Wheaton-Warrenville South. He helps put on modeling workshops where they teach modeling to educators from around the world.

In a normal class, kids feel pressure -- much like the little marshmallow in the syringe -- to only raise their hand and present ideas when they’re sure they’re right. Modeling wants them to take risks and be more vulnerable to learn as a group.

“I see my kids thinking more," he said, "and asking questions more."

And even though teachers like McFadden and Culcasi aren’t lecturing all of the time and feeding them answers -- they’re still guiding their students through each lesson.

“That's where the skill of modeling comes in,” said Culcasi. “The kids really aren't on their own. We're pushing them through teacher questions to get them to the concept we want them to learn by knowing what's come before and what's coming next.”

And some modeling educators say students engage with and retain information better through modeling than in traditional instruction. Two of McFadden’s old students even drop by the classroom and pick up right where they left off the year before on a lab about how YETI thermoses work.

McFadden says the move to modeling over the past few years has been liberating, and she loves that it’s not a competition -- it’s collaboration, a skill that will help them no matter what career they pursue.

“We’ve gotta listen to each other because everybody's ideas are important," said McFadden. "And you can't learn it without listening to somebody else."

As they say in chemistry class, “this is the story so far.”

Peter joins WNIJ as a graduate of North Central College. He is a native of Sandwich, Illinois.