This spring, I found myself in a position to purchase some badly needed laboratory supplies. (Note to district administrators: approving a lump sum to a science teacher for lab supplies is akin to dropping a chocoholic with a spoon into a vat of Godiva dark chocolate raspberry truffle.) One of my purchases–one that seemed a tad frivolous at the time–was a kit called “Marble Mania.” At just over $100, which was a sizable chunk of my allotment, it seemed somewhat of a gamble, but I was a little desperate to keep my students from nodding off during a challenging physics unit.
My background is in the life sciences, with a heavy dose of chemistry thrown in. I’m not a big fan of physics. Don’t get me wrong; physics is important. I’ve witnessed the untoward consequences of defying Newton’s Laws a time or two. After all, according to Gerry Mooney’s famous poster: “Gravity. It isn’t just a good idea. It’s the law.” However, most 9th graders don’t readily buy into the necessity of physics instruction.
Marble Mania seemed a reasonable solution to the problem of demonstrating such principles as inertia, momentum, and energy. To my dismay, the contraption arrived disassembled in a 24″x36″x6” box that proclaimed: “Over 500 pieces!” I’m going to be spending a lot of evening and weekend time on assembly, I thought. Oh, boy.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. Almost as soon as we spread the plastic baggies of multi-colored parts on the tabletop and dove into the 57-step assembly instructions, the students jumped in to take on roles. Some specialized in locating parts (thank goodness each part was numbered!), some in interpreting directions, and some in assembly. Most days, they forgot I was in the room. During their academic options hours on Mondays and Fridays, students asked to come work on assembly. Soon, Marble Mania was complete and placed in the hall outside our classroom for all the school to enjoy. My students were quick to point out which parts they had completed, or to show other students how to place the marbles correctly on the conveyor so they would trip the nifty sound switch on the left side.
I’m still not sure if these students can articulate Newton’s Second Law or the formula for calculating the acceleration of a 14 mm. marble down a 30 degree inclined plane, but they learned that the higher the marble is placed, the greater its acceleration and momentum. They learned how to read two-dimensional instructions to construct a three-dimensional model. They learned that if they stick with a project, even when the purple ramp doesn’t line up to the green wheel until they (eventually) turn it around and right side up, they’ll have something pretty impressive to show for their efforts.
(Note to self: take a chance on new strategies now and then; you might learn something.)