Making a Mallow Core – Science in Middle School

A couple of weeks ago, I gave a presentation about the WAIS Divide Ice Core Project for 8th grade art and science classes in the Seattle Public School system. I am grateful to the brainstorming sessions with Heidi Roop, a scientist that I met at the WAIS field camp. She has teaching experience and is a very creative thinker for developing activities for kids to learn about science. Our goal was to have the kids understand how particles and gases get into ice sheets. I also wanted the students to look at patterns and shapes in the core as a launching point for learning about natural processes. Heidi came up with the idea to use marshmallows as the ice and sugar sprinkles for particles.  I cut plastic sleeves used to protect florescent bulbs into lengths for the ice core and made wooden “tampers” to form the cores.

The art and science class presentations were a little bit different from each other. I first visited an 8th grade art class at Eckstein Middle School. In this particular class, the kids have chosen to take art as an elective for the entire year so I had a luxurious 1 1/2 hours for our activity. We began by talking about precipitation; visualizing snow falling through the air and what it would encounter on its way to the ground. I then distributed the tubes, “tampers”, and the marshmallows and particles. Each table of 4 kids were instructed to press the particles into marshmallows and add them to the core tubes. As the “crystals” accumulated, they tamped them down to mimic the pressure of more accumulation. At a certain point I yelled out “Volcano” when they were instructed to dump a little pile of Nerd candy to create an ash layer. This turned out to be a very exciting moment; they were very interested in seeing the Nerd layer in the cores they created. The kids then were asked to make drawings of the cores. They blew me away with their talent and focus. I love the variety of the styles. Scroll down to the bottom of this post to see some of their drawings.

The following week I joined Emily Elasky’s 8th grade science classes at Mercer Middle School. There were four classes back to back (whew), with a lunch break in the middle, so I had to make sure everything could be set up and cleaned quickly. Again the kids worked in groups of four students and were predictably agog over the opportunity to do a science project with marshmallows. The students made their cores and were then asked to write responses to several questions: What events in nature would affect the distribution of different particles? How would you test the core to determine the distribution of particles? What could you learn about the climate from testing for particles? The project reinforced several concepts about climate, how glaciers form and how the ice traps particles.

After the activity, I showed them pictures from my journey to Antarctica, talked about the National Science Foundation artists program and showed a video about the drill operations (thanks to Heidi Roop and Thomas Bauska). I wanted the students to see how similar the pursuit of science and art can be and to illustrate the myriad ways that we can all learn more about the world around us. Of course it is impossible to gauge the influence that my visit had on these kids. I know that they rarely get an opportunity to learn about the diverse ways that artists develop ideas. Or to consider the wide range of opportunities that are available for scientists, artists or virtually any occupation.  I assumed I would never be able to travel to Antarctica, certainly not to create art. But once I determined that it might be possible, the path to this project opened up for me.

Drawings from Erin Shafkind’s 8th Grade Art Class at Eckstein Middle School

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