Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

Teacher professional development and classroom resources across the curriculum

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Physical Science: Session 1

Session 1. What is Matter?: Properties and Classification of Matter

Learning Goals

Moon module
The moon as seen from space.

During this session, you will have an opportunity to build understandings to help you:

  • Recognize the criteria that make something “matter”
  • Differentiate between essential and accidental properties of matter
  • Understand some of the history behind the classification of matter
  • Begin to build a model that differentiates between solids, liquids, and gases

Video Overview

What is matter? This question at first seems deceptively simple — matter is all around us. Yet how do we define it? What does a block of cheese have in common with the Moon? What are the characteristics of matter that set it apart from something that is definitely not matter?

Matter is one of the big ideas in science. Most areas in physical science can be discussed and explained in terms of matter or energy, and matter is a subject that naturally bridges to the other sciences (chemistry, life, earth science, etc.). In this session, we’ll build a working definition of matter, learn to distinguish between its “accidental” and “essential” properties, and explore it through classification, an activity with a rich history in science.

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Video Outline

The video opens with a conversation among first and second graders and their teacher, Joanie Grisham, at the Fayerweather Street School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. After they sort through a variety of meanings for the word “matter,” they begin to make a list of criteria that can be used to decide whether something is or is not matter.

The program continues with what we call the “Science Studio,” where children in different grade levels are presented with examples of a variety of phenomena and asked to decide whether they are matter or “not matter.” From these and Joanie’s students’ ideas, we begin to build a working definition of matter using a graphic organizer.

We then visit Dr. Alberto Martinez, a science historian at the Dibner Institute for the History of Science and Technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He points out the importance of classification in science and how it helps us make sense of the “wealth of experience that is available to us.” Later Dr. Martinez traces our classification schemes for matter back to Aristotle’s theory that everything is made up of earth, air, fire and water, with each element behaving in a manner consistent with what he called its “natural place.”

Then, children in the Science Studio apply their classification skills to a favorite form of matter — candy. We then visit Boxborough, Massachusetts, where Cindy Plunkett leads her first graders in a lesson from the Science and Technology for Children (STC) curriculum, Solids and Liquids, in which they sort a variety of solids by their observable properties.

Back in the Science Studio we see what criteria the children use to describe solids, liquids, and gases. Starting with the criteria the children use, we build on our graphic organizer to begin to distinguish between the states of matter.

We continue with a visit to another classroom in Salem, Massachusetts where Chris Bash’s 4th and 5th graders explore a “mystery substance” that challenges the our working definitions of solids and liquids.

The video ends with a visit to the MIT Plasma Science and Fusion Center where plasma physicist Bob Granetz and his colleagues apply temperatures hotter than the sun to hydrogen gas, to create a fourth state of matter, plasma, which makes up 99% of our universe.