Laying Down Chemistry Foundations in Fifth Grade

Naomi Hamburger and Jordan Drosd, Fifth Grade West Teachers
Live Oak fifth graders engage in lively, inclusive discussion and scientific inquiry helping to sharpen their critical eye as future changemakers.
Fifth graders have been investigating properties of matter in their chemistry foundations science unit, as a part of their yearlong STEM throughline: How can understanding and expressing multiple ways to solve problems help me make better sense of my world? Fifth grade chemists have been dissolving everyday substances and have begun to explore surprising chemical reactions. Simultaneously, the students have been using their imagination and analytic capacities to draw conceptual models that represent the particulate nature of matter. In this way, our students are putting into practice the powerful ability to observe, draw inferences, and construct understanding of the world around them in a way that makes sense to them. 

What does this work look like in our classrooms? Fifth graders opened the unit with a whole group discussion of medieval alchemy, the occult practitioners who used potions to try and transform matter, for example turning base metals into gold. During our discussion, we saw students acknowledging one another’s ideas positively, building off their diverse sets of previous knowledge of alchemy, and reflecting an inclusive learning experience by helping classmates participate in their own ways.  

Smaller lab teams dipped tarnished pennies into different liquids to find out which one would change a dulled and dirty penny into a bright, shiny one. Teams reunited as a whole community to debate where exactly they thought the tarnish had gone. Energized discussions included student claims that were challenged in respectful disagreements. Students used colored pencil sketches and written observations to bolster their various assertions of what was happening to the penny’s tarnish.

As the unit evolved, students practiced close observation again by adding multiple metals to vinegar-salt solutions. Why did the copper seem to coat the steel nail? What was happening at the molecular level? Our students asked tons of insightful questions that reflected their active engagement and curiosity in this learning process. Each step in the learning process led to students refining their hypotheses and their hand drawn molecular models. Fifthie chemists also learned the hard-wrought art of rejecting a previously believed idea when introduced to new evidence that showed the initial idea to be false. Flexible thinking and adaptability is a must in fifth grade science!

Passing by the classroom now, you might see the fifthie chemists performing tests to detect acids in a variety of liquids. You might see them investigating acids’ reputation for being reactive substances. You might see animated learning happening in a social context of small groups or whole class discussion. If it’s silent, there is a good chance the fifthies have collected new information from a debate or experiment and are going back to refine their individual scientific writing and drawing. We are proud of our fifthie problem solvers and flexible thinkers and eager to see how they take this critical thinking approach to finding solutions to other challenging scenarios in their lives!


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