Melting ice cubes – one experiment, many ways (post 3/4)

Different didactical settings in which the “ice cubes melting in fresh and salt water” experiment can be used.

In part 1 and 2 of this series, I showed two different ways of using the “ice cubes melting in fresh water and salt water” experiment in lectures. Today I want to back up a little bit and discuss reasons for choosing one over the other version in different contexts.

Depending on the purpose, there are several ways of framing this experiment. This is very nicely discussed in materials from the Lawrence Hall of Science (link here), too, even though my discussion is a little different from theirs.

1) A demonstration.

If you want to show this experiment rather than having students conduct it themselves, using colored ice cubes is the way to go (see experiment here). The dye focuses the observer’s attention on the melt water and makes it much easier to observe the experiment from a distance, on a screen or via a projector. Dying the ice cubes makes understanding much easier, but it also diminishes the feeling of exploration a lot – there is no mystery involved any more.

Demonstration of melting ice cubes. The melt water is clearly marked by the dye. This makes it a good demonstration, but diminishes the satisfying feeling of discovery by the observer, because the processes are clearly visible right away rather than having to be explored.

2) A structured activity.

Students are handed (non-colored) ice cubes, cups with salt water and fresh water and are asked to make a prediction about which of the ice cubes is going to melt faster. Students test their hypothesis, find the results of the experiment in support with it or not, and we discuss. This is how I usually use this experiment in class (see discussion here).

The advantage of using this approach is that students have clear instructions that they can easily follow. Depending on how observant the group is, instructions can be very detailed (“Start the stop watch when you put the ice cubes in the water. Write down the time when the first ice cube has melted completely, and which of the ice cubes it was. Write down the time when the second ice cube has melted completely. …”) or more open (“observe the ice cubes melting”).

3) A problem-solving exercise.

In this case, students are given the materials, but they are not told which of the cups contains fresh or salt water (and they are instructed not to taste). Now students are asked to design an experiment to figure out which cup contains what.

This is a very nice exercise and students learn a lot from designing the experiment themselves. However, this also takes a very long time, more than I can usually afford to spend on experiments in class. After all, I am doing at least one hands-on activity in each of the lectures, but am still covering the same content from the text book as previous lecturers who used their 180 minutes per week just lecturing. And I am considering completely flipping my class room, but I am not there yet.

4) An open-ended investigation.

In this case, students are handed the materials, knowing which cup contains fresh and salt water. But instead of being asked a specific question, they are told to use the materials to learn as much as they can about salt water, fresh water, temperature and density.

As with the problem-solving exercise, this is a very time-intensive undertaking that does not seem feasible in the framework we are operating in. Also it is hard to predict what kind of experiments the students will come up with, and if they will learn what you want them to learn. On the other hand, students typically learn much more because they are free to explore and not bound by a specific instruction from you.

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