Interactions: A 'Phenomenal' New Approach

Paper halves


“If I take a piece of paper, and I cut it in half, what do I get?” Kristen Mayer asks, standing at the front of a high school science class in Williamston, Michigan. As a doctoral student at Michigan State University, she’s been invited to come and co-teach the class. What her students don’t realize, however, is that the purpose of Mayer’s visit is to try out an experimental new physical science course.


The course is the product of an ambitious five-year project known as “Interactions: Student Understanding of Intermolecular Forces,” which kicked off in September 2011 with a $2.6 million grant from the National Science Foundation. Researchers at Michigan State University’s CREATE for STEM institute are seeking to answer two major questions: (1) How does student understanding of atoms and molecules progress over time? and (2) How well do various learning activities support the development of this understanding?


Mayer holds a freshly cut half piece of paper in each hand. “I can cut it again, and I get-” a student volunteers with the answer, “a quarter.” “A quarter,” Mayer agrees, putting scissors to paper once more. “Eighth, sixteenth,” she continues, as smaller and smaller halves drop to the floor until only a speck is left in her hand.


A typical science class might have begun with the words, “Today we’re going to talk about atoms,” followed by a barrage of information and definitions. Mayer, however, begins with a question: “Now theoretically, could I keep cutting and getting smaller and smaller and smaller pieces of paper,” she addresses the class, looking up from her work, “or at some point would I hit something that’s no longer paper… something else, something that paper is made of?”


With that question hanging over the class, students partner up and record their thoughts. Then they’re shown sample responses, written to sound like something students might say. Even now, 10 minutes into the class, “atoms” - the key word, the core idea of the lesson - hasn’t been uttered once.


“What students did you think had the best responses?” Mayer asks the class, referring to the sample responses they had been shown. One student defends his choice: “We all shared the same idea and thought process. If you could theoretically just keep cutting it up, it would no longer be paper but what paper is made of. One of them said wood, one of them said dust.” The student then takes his explanation further. “So it would eventually just turn into the atoms that make up what paper is made of.”


That’s the word Mayer has been looking for. “So you used a new term there. What do you mean,” Mayer chooses her words carefully, “what is - what does that word mean to you?” The student explains that atoms are what “everything is made of.” Mayer, instead of declaring the answer right or wrong, probes further. She repeats his definition back at him as the student nods.


Whenever Mayer works with students, she tries “really hard,” in her own words, “to respond neutrally to all of their ideas.” She does this because she wants students “to gain confidence based on the evidence they’ve gathered” as opposed to her reaction to their ideas.


Mayer calls on another student to answer, who explains that with the right equipment, one can keep cutting something forever, but that this act of cutting doesn’t fundamentally change what’s being cut. “It will always just be paper,” she says, to the agreement of a third student who is called on.


This exchange does not conclude with Mayer revealing who was correct. She instead transitions the class to a discussion of competing views on the nature of matter. All of this is deliberate, reflecting the shift brought about by how instructors teach science under the Next Generation Science Standards, a set of standards with which the Interactions curriculum is aligned. Kristen Degan, a teacher at the same high school where Mayer is co-teaching, noted that her role as a teacher under the NGSS has “shifted significantly from a holder of knowledge or a giver of knowledge to more of a developer of knowledge and understanding.”


Driving Questions and Project-Based Learning

A big cause for this shift lies in the way classes are now often framed at the onset by a “driving question.” Mayer asked her students if, after halving her paper again and again, eventually her scissors would cease cutting paper and “hit something that’s no longer paper.” The students may not have realized it at the time, but this was a way to prompt them down a stream of questions and experiments that would lead them to the atomic model. Ultimately, it was the job of the students to arrive at answers on their own, guided by the teacher’s probing responses. This type of student work, as opposed to taking notes on a lecture or memorizing a definition, more closely resembles the method that scientists actually use when they solve problems or describe phenomena in the real world.

This “phenomenal” new approach, central to a growing trend in K-12 education known as “Project-Based Learning,” is not limited to science. A history teacher, for example, might begin a lesson on the Civil War by asking, “What could the South have done to win?” An art class could introduce the Golden Ratio by asking how math and geometry create beauty. Literature teachers could assign dystopian novels and then start a discussion with “How much control should government have?”


In the process of answering these open-ended driving questions, students have to explore the answers to several smaller questions. The Interactions curriculum, for example, bases its first unit around the question “Why do some things stick together, while others don’t?” but breaks each lesson, or “investigation,” into questions like “How do electrically charged objects interact with each other?” or “How does an object become charged?” In solving these secondary questions, students end up developing a deep knowledge of the topic at hand, made all the more memorable because of their personal journey discovering the solutions, rather than reading or hearing the answers directly.


New Materials for a New Approach

An understanding of the way interactions occur at very small scales is central to many disciplines within science. Despite this idea’s importance, however, research has shown that the current teaching strategies so far haven’t been sufficient. The researchers at the helm of the Interactions project realized the need for new instructional strategies and materials, and got to work developing them.

Many of these new materials are hosted on the website of the Concord Consortium, a nonprofit research and development organization that works to bring “the promise of technology into a reality for education in science, math and engineering.”


Van de Graaff GeneratorSimulation


The consortium hosts videos of interactions occurring, such as sparks shooting from a Van de Graaff generator, as well as interactive computer simulations. One simulation allows students to see what happens when atoms come pass between charged plates. Students can adjust the mass of the atoms and the intensity of the charges on the plates, opening the door for experiments involving microscopic particles that wouldn’t be possible in a classroom.


Moving Forward

With the project now in its fourth year, the semester-long, three-unit curriculum is completed and in the field testing phase. As the Interactions project approaches its fifth and final year, revisions will be made to the materials based on analysis of the field test data. Then, an effectiveness study with a small group of teachers will take place in the Los Angeles Unified School District. If all goes according to plan, the Interactions curriculum could then see wider adoption throughout the nation.

The innovative approaches taken by the Interactions curriculum represent a significant shift in what teaching and learning in the science classroom look like. As the first results and feedback from this curriculum come back, it looks as if this shift is for the better.


Josh Anderson is pursuing a degree in Professional Writing at Michigan State University. You can view more of his work at


A series of eight videos on “NGSS in the classroom,” featuring Kristen Mayer and the Interactions project, can be viewed on the National Science Teachers Association’s website.