Blog Archives - Bobcat Laboratories
The Mastodon Matrix has arrived!!!!

“What is the mastodon matrix?” you ask with unrestrained inquisitiveness. “That sounds exciting!”
Well, let me tell you!  ------  Basically, it’s a bunch of dirt.

I know that was very anticlimactic. However, it is dirt that is 10,000 to 15,000 years old, gathered from an area immediately adjacent to mastodon remains…and we have 4 kilos (~8.8 lbs) of the stuff.

Our 5th- and 6th-grade scientists get to use it to learn about “science inquiry” – how and why we do science.  We will be searching through the matrix (the dirt) as part of an ongoing long-term research project to better understand Ice Age ecosystems being conducted by the Paleontological Research Institute (PRI) in Ithaca, New York.  PRI provides the materials and the protocols, BMS provides the enthusiastic curiosity and interest to actually sift through dirt looking for long-dead things and together we all expand our levels of understanding.

I am currently reviewing the protocols outlined by PRI and plan to have the students begin the research next week.  As it stands, this project will likely occupy 3 class periods for each group. That means we will be working through the processes and materials each day during 3rd and 4th periods from next Wednesday (12 Oct) through the following Thursday (20 Oct).

In this project we will be working with each of the DODEA STEM initiatives. We will be doing real-world scientific research, using technology to report our results and learn extra information, using our engineering design skills for creating and using specific lab equipment, and developing our math skills by sorting, counting, measuring, and tabulating data.

You are more than welcome to come down at any time to see what we are doing (or help in some way), if you are interested.  (I do request that no younger children come. I simply don’t have the means to keep my students on track with added distractions and all of the 5th and 6th graders will be taught how to handle this material in ways that minimize breakage and loss.) Please also keep in mind that I will limit the actual paleontological work to my 5th and 6th grade scientists. That will keep them focused on their tasks and help me keep things in order. We are all taking this very serious because PRI is counting on us to be accurate with our data collection, gentle with the materials, and mindful of the protocols that they have set in place – plus, we are required to send everything back to them when we are done.

So, if you are interested in watching or helping us search for real fossils from a real paleontological excavation, please let me know – or just pop on in to Bobcat Labs (BMS Room 514) during 3rd and 4th periods next week.

Maintaining acccurate, detailed knowledge at the same time as thinking creatively can be a very difficult, if not confusing, concept to master. This is especially true with young scientists who have such natural curiosity and clear, colorful imaginations.  It is easy for children scientists to transform what they observe to what they "think" their observation should be. Observations of insects can be easily drawn incorrectly (e.g., an ant drawn with three body segments but with a pair of legs for each segment, rather than their legs extending from their thorax). Science needs accurate details combined with highly creative ideas but the creativity needs to be appropriately placed inorder to prevent serious misconceptions.

Part of expressing creative ideas while representing observations realistically requires, at least, a basic understanding of the elements of art (line, shape, color, value, space, and texture). By understanding these aspects, students can do a better job of expressing their observations without introducing the bias of any preconceived ideas they might have. Describing data in written form goes hand-in-hand with presenting it visually and spatially and all of this beeds to be done accurately before any analysis or reflection on the the data can be performed.

Today we began with lines and shape. Observing and describing observations begins with understanding objects as basic geometric shapes. Once someone understands the basics of lines and shapes, and can apply that to the objects they are observing, (s)he becomes more able to observe and describe their observations verbally or visually in a more accurate manner.

Our activity today involved two primary steps.
  1. Studenst were provided a "Mystery Box" which contained 6 items of various shapes, sizes and textures.  Without looking at any of the objects, students needed to draw in their science notebooks how they perceived them.
  2. Each table of students were given a plastic cup and one of the objects from within one of their "Mystery Boxes."  After stacking them, they were required to draw what they saw, without moving the item or changing their perspective of the item.

In these activitities, students were able to see that our interpretation of what something is and how we observe it can be very different things.  They also learned first-hand that many people can be looking at the same thing but see it in very different ways. (Not to mention, seeing it in different ways and then understanding other peoples interpretations in ways that they did not intend.)

Science is teeming with misconceptions that arise from simple observations and misinterpretations.  Starting at the most basic understanding of observation and record keeping is the best way to minimize such problems.