Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Science Lesson Ideas for the First Week of School

Queensland State Archives, Digital Image ID 1638
The first week of school is fast approaching. You have a sense of what you need to teach for the year, but it’s time to drill down to the day-to-day lessons!  The first week’s lessons are a chance to really engage students in science and find ways to get to know them (and vice versa).  Below are some first day and week ideas. 

First Day Expectations:

Before you start planning a 50 minute first day lesson, check to see what the first day schedule will be like. It seems as though every school organizes the first day of school differently.  At one school I taught at, we had 15 minutes with our science classes and spent the rest of the day with our advisory.  At another school we had twice the amount of time.

First Day Seating System:

There are many ways to organize getting students into seats in your classroom, taking attendance and teaching a lesson in 15 – 30 minutes. Below is how I handle the seating conundrum!

1.     Before the first day of school, buy packs of large (5” x 8”), colored index cards so that each period has enough of one color.

2.     Organize the colors into different periods (I always do rainbow order, with my first period as red). Fold the cards in half, length-wise, and write the first name of each student on the card.  Save extras—students who aren’t on your rosters will probably show up and need one or students will want a different name on the card!

3.     I like to arrange the cards alphabetically by first name and have students sit in groups arranged by first name. Early on, this helps me learn their first names better (inner monologue during cold calling: “Hmm… her name starts with an A…”)

4.     Before class starts, I quickly put the name cards on desks so students can see their names.  A “Do Now” on a powerpoint slide directs students to find their card, sit down and answer a few questions on the back of it:

5.     Once class starts, I collect any cards that no one is sitting at—those students often show up later. If they don’t, you know they are absent!  At the end of the class, I collect all the cards in order to put out the next day and help me learn names. Eventually I’ll collect the cards and keep them as cold-calling cards.

First Day Lesson Ideas:

  • Mystery Boxes

Mystery Boxes is a great first day lesson for many disciplines. There are different ways to do this.  Jean Beard created this lesson where students try to figure out the shapes inside the box.  These take a bit of prep-work to make.  An easier-to-prep lesson involved putting different objects in a box and ask students to guess what is inside based on observations. These lessons lead to a great discussion about the Nature of Science and how scientists use observations to make inferences, especially when we can’t see what we are studying (e.g., atoms, black holes, etc.).

  • Mystery Powder

This is my favorite way to wow students on the first day if I only have 15 minutes—especially if I am teaching Chemistry soon after. Students observe a white powder (instant snow), predict what will happen when they add water, and then drop a small amount of water into the powder. The powder will fluff up into fake snow, which surprises them! I explain that the water fits inside the holes of the powder using the diagram on the back. When I discuss physical and chemical changes later in the month, we refer back to this as an example of a physical change, since the water can evaporate back out.  If I have time, I also demonstrate adding water to a beaker of Sodium Polyacrylate. This is the same compound as instant snow, but it forms a gel instead of a powder. I then ask a student to pour it over my head, but luckily the gel sticks to the beaker!  Here is the handout I use.

  • Getting to Know You

This is my favorite lesson if I have a full period to teach it. If I don’t get to it on the first day, I usually include it in the first week.  I found this in a NSTA Science Scope journal and adapted it to make it fit.  I put objects around the room that represent me in some way. I like to make them tricky—a picture with me as a child and my great aunt, instead of my grandmother, a picture of my father in his navy uniform, a Turkish cookbook, and a skateboard I used to use a loooong time ago! Students rotate around the room and record observations of the objects and inferences they can then make about me (we review what the difference is). At the end, I go around and share out the truth—no I’m a terrible cook, but I’ve been to Turkey!  My favorite is the skateboard.  Students who skate can look at the marks at the bottom of the board and say what tricks I can and can’t do, while those who don’t skateboard can’t say as much.  We then talk about how prior knowledge deeply affects your inferences.  I would recommend asking a student to bring in his/her skateboard the next day to get this point across—it also is a chance to have a great start of the year with kids who may not normally feel like experts in science class.  Here is the handout and PowerPoint slides  I use!

  • Balancing Nails Challenge

If you are starting the year with Physics, this might be a fun one to start with. Each group of students receives 9 loose nails (or you can do it with 11) and another nail hammered into a board or piece of wood.  They are asked to find a way to balance all the nails on the head of the one that’s on the board.  Spangler Science explains it here.

  • Potato Mystery

If you’re teaching Biology, you can pre-soak potatoes in water, sugar-water and salt-water. Have each potato in a different cup (you can even use food coloring to differentiate each potato slice).  Ask students to observe each potato and make inferences about why they feel the way they do.  You can explain why the slices are different or let them ponder it until you discuss osmosis later in the year.  This may be best suited to high school students who already have some understanding of equilibrium and osmosis.

  • Making Silly Putty

If you or other science teachers at your school have done all the other ideas, this might be a good one to try (it’s not my favorite, but it still makes for a fun first day!).  Students predict what will happen when they mix Borax and glue together and share out predictions. For a chemistry connection, have students note the original states of matter. Students then mix pre-measured containers (Dixie cups!) together into a plastic baggie and voila, a gummy substance commonly known as Silly Putty forms!  Students share their observations and note the change in the state of matter.  For homework or if there is time, we discuss the history of Silly Putty with a reading on the back of the handout.

None of these are not original ideas—science teachers at your school probably use some of them at some point in the year—probably for the first day!  Check with other teachers to make sure the activity you use hasn’t already been done the grade before or a teacher is planning to use in a grade after.
Do you have other first-day lessons?  Please share on my facebook page, twitter or in the comment section below!

Next Up…

Other must-dos in the first week of school!


  1. I loved doing a simple lab the first day of school because it provided the perfect opportunity to have students engage in science while I made clear the behavioral expectations in a natural way -- rather than reading the disclosure statement. Good luck to all who are beginning a new year in the greatest way possible.

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