Impromptu inquiry

This week I had the pleasure of whipping together an unplanned inquiry-based learning exercise with my students–and being wonderfully surprised with the participation and learning that occurred! The students had ‘pullouts’, which I don’t understand at all, but it meant that I could interact with a small subset of students without worrying about sticking to the curriculum. I had very little time to think about what to do, so I focused on teaching with balloons, since there are a bunch of discrepant events and activities that can be done with them (e.g. google “balloon party tricks”). To warm them up, I asked them what they knew about balloons. Common responses were: they can be blown up, they are stretchy, they are made from rubber, they are different colors, etc. Next, we investigated what happens if a blown-up balloon is held above a flame, either filled with air (it pops!), or filled with water (it burns but will not pop!). It was also great fun to try to put a needle through a balloon…

But, the REAL fun began when Ms. Reno brought out the balloon cars! The cars had an attachment point for a balloon which could be blown up from the back of the car with a straw. We began investigating the relationship between the size of the blown up balloon and the distance the car would travel. One groups’ hypothesis was that the larger the balloon, the farther the car would go. Another’s was that if the balloon was too large, the car wouldn’t go at all. We tested the opposing hypotheses by blowing up the balloons to different sizes (measured as circumference) and measuring the distances the cars travelled with a meter stick.

Since I have never played with these cars before, I had no expectations of what would occur. Intuitively, I thought that larger air displacement from larger balloons would push the car further. Guess what? Both sets of student hypotheses were correct!

We graphed the results of our trials and discovered that 1) As balloon circumference increased, so did the distance the car traveled–to a point, 2) once the balloon reached a critical large size, it unbalanced the car into a wheelstand, which prevented it from moving at all! Best of all, the students were able to extrapolate from their data and realize that the relationship took the form of a parabola. Way to go, Central Middle 7th graders!


About Sarah Roels

I'm a former Ph.D. student at the University of Kansas in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department. I study mating system evolution in plants, using the model system Mimulus. I now work at Michigan State University as their GK-12 project manager.
This entry was posted in 2011-2012 GK12, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Impromptu inquiry

  1. Robert C Everhart says:

    It sounds like this went really well! Did the students come up with the idea to measure the amount of air in the ballon vs the distance the car travels by themselves, or did they need some prompting? I feel like the leap from “hey I have a balloon” to “hey wouldn’t it be cool if I blew this balloon up huge and let this car go” to “I bet I can make mine go farther” to “how did you do that and what else would work?” is a natural progression if we give the students a few minutes of unstructured exploration time to get there. And then to make hypotheses, record data, make a graph, and talk about it? I like this one. I might have to steal it! 🙂

  2. Sarah Roels says:

    They came up with the idea relatively unassisted but needed a bit of help in the details. For instance, they wanted to measure the size of the balloon but weren’t sure how and they were so excited about finding out whose balloon made the car travel the most distance that they forgot to ask for a meter stick to measure it. I’ve been told that the balloon-driven cars are pretty easy to find at toy stores.

  3. What a great activity! Truly student centered learning, with good teacher encouragement. I always kept a package of balloons around for impromptu activities too. You can also put up a piece of string and use a balloon, a piece of straw, and some tape to make a rocket. They will almost always learn more with inquiry!

    • Sarah Roels says:

      Thanks, Patsye! It’s been interesting to do inquiries with the students. It definitely does seem to increase student learning, and make it fun!

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