September 1998 — Volume 3, Number 3
The Exploratorium Guide to Scale and Structure
Barry Kluger-Bell and the School in the Exploratorium (1995)
Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann
Pp. vii + 198
ISBN 0-435-08372-4 (paper)
Appropriate materials are crucial for ESL and EFL teachers who want to do content-based language teaching. Trying to teach a complex subject in the student’s second language can easily lead to confusion or even surrender. The Exploratorium Guide to Scale and Structure provides a model for teachers who need a hands-on approach to any subject. It provides visual examples that are clear in any language, fosters an inquisitive nature and a trial and error approach to learning, and offers students the opportunity to communicate with their hands and minds.
This book is a product of the Exploratorium, a museum dedicated to a hands-on approach to learning, and the activities put forth in this publication demonstrate the approach well. Each of the thirty-six activities presented allows students to explore the materials presented to them and apply principles of physics to the different manipulatives made available. The activities are geared for third- through eighth-grade teachers. The guide offers classroom activities designed to come before the explanations to allow students the opportunity to tinker and figure out patterns for themselves.
Broken into three sections, the activities cover the content of the physics and engineering of structure, the mathematics of scale, and the effect of scale on structure. Section 1 activities demonstrate the forces that must be considered in engineering. The section encourages students to organize their plans before construction. After construction, the teacher encourages reflection on how well their results fit their designs. Students reflect on ways they could improve on their structure in terms of strength and stability. Cuisenaire rods, Lincoln logs, Legos, and sugar cubes are all recommended for tests of strength in building materials. Balance, center of mass, joint quality, and building up and out are the key concepts of the first section. For teachers who may need review, each section begins with a teacher’s overview of the concepts presented. Section 2 activities present students with structures made from equal content but different scales. At different sizes, the objects behave differently. Student measurements are charted to observe the different rates at which perimeter, area, and volume increase as a structure grows. Again, reflection and explanation follow the activities to allow students to observe their own achievements or failings and change their course of action. The third section sews the first two sections together as students observe and make hypotheses about the strength and stability of [-1-] structures of different scale. Students’ hypotheses involve suggested methods of counteracting the forces placed on larger structures such as bridges, cantilevers, and towers.
The Exploratorium Guide to Scale and Structure is a worthwhile investment for curricula involving basic principles of physics. The activities range from very basic, such as Water Drop Pennies (pp. 164-166), in which students count how many water drops will fit on the face of a penny before surface tension breaks the water dome, to more complex studies, such as Growing Cubes (pp. 115-118), in which students must record dimension changes as a cube increases in length. In Growing Cubes, the students are challenged to find a mathematical pattern to the increase in perimeter, total surface area, and volume of a cube as its length increases.
Each activity in introduced with helpful instructions on cooperative learning groups, materials, and clean-up. Suggested materials are all reasonably priced items found in any shopping center. Engaging questions and methods of passing out materials will help draw students into these activities. Students will enjoy the tinkering that the activities allow and encourage. Other positive qualities of the guide include its approach to student competition. Enough facets of any student construction are offered for observation. In this way, the different qualities of different constructions can be verbally rewarded. Several different types of success are recognized within the activity frameworks. Each activity can be followed by several suggested extensions. The extensions connect the content to the student’s personal life and to other branches of science. The same forces acting on towers made of barbecue skewers also act on rainforest trees and the guide allows for these comparisons. More direct comparisons are made between student constructions and similar architectural triumphs around the world. These activities can segue from physics to a study of ancient Rome by way of the Pantheon or to anatomy by way of the function of joints. The activities transfer well to more interdisciplinary lesson plans.
Suggestions are made regarding placement of the lessons. More complex activities offer suggestions of lesson plans and content that should precede. The previous exposure of the class to content is considered. Also, more simple activities offer suggestions about what type of content should follow.
The text is user-friendly in its vocabulary and page layout. Each lesson includes photos of the activity in action in an elementary classroom. Appendices C & D offer several blank data charts for photocopying and reference. Examples of student work are also offered. Typical student responses to questions in the text give teachers an idea of what to expect from their particular classes. Variations from responses in the text can punctuate new directions that students have discovered themselves as a result of their own [-2-] hypotheses and experimentation. Building on these activities is greatly encouraged.
Depending on how deeply a class is allowed to delve into physics and engineering, the guide can offer valuable instruction for several weeks of lesson plans. Deciding which activities to leave out of a class schedule is difficult. The activities hinge well on the ones before them and the full content of one lesson may require the inclusion of a different lesson at a different scale to come across to students.
The time and preparation needed for several of the activities are unrealistic. Finding an open area in which to store several cantilevers made from 4-foot long bamboo garden stakes could prevent teachers from undertaking this investigation. Also, certain activities require a time commitment of 3 to 5 sixty-minute periods while not fulfilling adequate content coverage to justify a full week of effort.
For an ESL classroom, the guide offers nonverbal learning rather than the verbal examples employed by many teachers to explain the laws of physics. This facilitates the participation of students with limited English language development. By demonstrating principles in action or allowing the students to demonstrate these principles for themselves, the teacher can facilitate the understanding of structure and its change with scale change.
Students working in this program are called upon to offer their best team effort to achieve goals of stability in structure. Excellent moral lessons are quietly woven into this curriculum. Goals can be met only through a better understanding of physical law and the inclusion of each mind, working together to experiment, observe what works and what doesn’t, and why.
University of Memphis
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