Some Approaches to Learning Science Vocabulary and Concepts
Each year in my sixth grade science class, students begin their study of plate tectonics with the challenge of learning vocabulary. The study of plate movement is very abstract, and students have minimal background knowledge from personal experience. Most students come with a basic understanding about the layers of the Earth from their studies in elementary school. Some words, such as crust, mantle, and core, are friendly and easy to spell and have some relevance to other things in the students’ experiences. However, when the students start discussing divergent, convergent, transform boundaries, lithosphere, and asthenosphere, vocabulary can become a stumbling block since these words conjure few connections with students’ prior knowledge.
I have used traditional approaches to help break down the syllables of the words, and this does help students connect new words with prefixes and vocabulary they already know. For the word divergent, for example, the div at the beginning of the word reminds students of the word divide. The word convergent starts with con, which students can relate to the word connect, and this helps them remember that the plates push together in this type of boundary. Transform is more easily understood by students to mean “change”; but students do make the connection with the plates changing position—with the plates sliding horizontally. When we discuss lithosphere and asthenosphere, the students know that a sphere is a three-dimensional ball shape. The prefixes for these words, though, are not familiar and do not foster connections, and so we might have to look at other strategies to help students understand better.
A New Recipe of Sorts
Over the years there are often a few students who get the plate movements mixed up on assessments, despite our strategies. Some students need another, more concrete connection. What cements their understanding is seeing or experiencing the movements of the plates and describing and writing their observations while acting out each plate movement. A book called Geology Rocks: 50 Hands-on Activities to Explore the Earth (by Cindy Blobaum) suggests using icing and graham crackers to allow students to demonstrate plate movements (this is nicely illustrated in “Push Those Plates” on the Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology's site Hey Dude!! What’s Shakin’? web page). We found the icing to be expensive and a little too thick to be workable, and so we spread the pudding that comes in pudding cups thinly over sheets of aluminum foil. Students, working in pairs, use their own graham crackers to act out each movement, and the students follow up by eating the lab materials—except the foil!
Students record the procedure to be used in their journals before they begin. They clearly explain in their journals that the graham crackers are pieces of lithosphere (or tectonic plates) and that the pudding represents the asthenosphere (thick, sticky, upper mantle). In groups they discuss whether each material was a “good” model and the reasons why and record their observations. Students then write a finished lab report that provides a chance to use the new vocabulary and concepts they’ve mastered.
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