Middle School Science Activities

Each of these middle school science computer simulation activities take between 1-2 hours of class time. All activities were designed using the "backwards" approach by starting with standards and assessments, especially the Massachusetts science framework, with a special focus on overcoming misconceptions. All activities have been piloted with 50 eighth graders at an urban school and revised based on feedback and reflection.

Each activity follows this format:

  1. Pre-assessment
  2. Demo the model
  3. Students work with the model in pairs, guided by an activity sheet with instructions and questions
  4. Whole class wrap-up to draw out key learning points
  5. Post-assessment

The main role of the teacher is to clearly understand the learning objectives, focus students' attention on constructing understanding of these learning objectives, and continuously check students' understanding using Q&A as they work through the activity.

When preparing to use these activities, please read through all the materials and work through the activity in the role of a student. Although there is no programming involved in any activity, we encourage teachers to look at the code blocks and try to understand how the simulation was created, what rules the agents are following, and feel free to modify the simulation code (if you "save next version" you can preserve the original file). Also, all documents are in .doc format so feel free to modify the activities to fit the needs and abilities of your students.

Lesson Description Materials
Energy Flow in a Food Web : In this activity, students investigate how energy enters, leaves, and flows through a simple food chain consisting of producers (berry bushes), herbivores (rabbits), and carnivores (lions). The key concept is that energy transfer is very inefficient, i.e., so little energy is transferred to the next higher level of consumer and most leaves the system as heat from metabolic processes. The model helps students visualize how the inefficient transfer of energy results in the need for a large base of producers to support increasingly smaller biomass (we use population as a simplification) of higher level consumers.This activity encourages students to adopt a systems-level perspective to understand a food chain as an open system in which energy flows only one way and is not "recycled" like matter is.
Evolution by Natural Selection : Students observe a simulation model of two fish populations that evolve over many generations to adapt to two sets of environmental conditions. Through a series of questions and guided interactions with the model, students discover the three necessary conditions for natural selection to occur. The goal of the activity is to help students articulate a clear and correct explanation of how populations evolve through natural selection. The teacher guide identifies several common misconceptions that students may have about evolution.
Phases of the Moon : Students program the Earth and Moon to spin at the proper rate. Students observe the phases of the moon using the simulation model. The goal is to help students visualize the system so that they will remember how the phases of the moon correlate with the moon's location in Earth's orbit, and overcome a common misconception that the moon is new (or dark) when the Earth is between the sun and the moon. This is from a faulty conception that the Earth blocks the sun's light from reaching the moon.
Heat Transfer : Students observe and interact with a simulation where heat transfer is modeled as elastic collisions between agents that represent a "soup can" and molecules in the environment, which can be water or air. The temperature, representing the quantity of heat energy, is represented by colors. This model simulates conduction and convection heat transfer, as well as dynamic equilibrium. It attempts to address a common misconception about the existence of "coldness" and "cold transfer."
Motion : Students play a puzzle game that simulates a car rolling up and down several hills, powered by gravity alone and assuming no friction so that potential and kinetic energy are equally exchanged and conserved. Students also observe the motion of the car and how it relates to two graphs that represent the car's speed over time and position over time. Students learn to calculate average speed of different parts of the car's motion path.
Gravity Game : Students play a game that simulates different strength gravity on different planets. Although many students have a sense that the same mass may have different weights under different gravitational conditions, most students have never considered the reverse implication that same weight under different gravitation conditions must mean different masses. Students gain both an intuitive and mathematical experience of the relationship between weight, mass, and gravity as they play the game and answer activity questions.