Engagement and Scientific Thinking

I use a Mystery Boxes lab to teach students to separate observations and interpretations. You could use this at the beginning of the year, or any time that you want to boost engagement and science thinking. My version is a little different than other ones you might find online, because it is designed to use multiple senses for observation, and to pose particular challenges to student thinking. I like to use with students a comparison between scientists and detectives. They both need to collect all their evidence before coming to conclusions. If they do their job well they can come up with some amazing answers.

Rebecca did this lab, and said about it, "I did that observation lab the first 2 days of school and it was GREAT!!!! The kids LOVED it, and it really alerted me to their misconceptions about observations. It was amazing to me how many students tried to make interpretations right off the bat and write those down in their observations column instead of actually looking for things they KNEW for sure first. They were very engaged, and it gave me the opportunity to hone in on this concept early. They were a little unfamiliar with Sherlock Holmes (a real travesty) but hopefully now they are at least a little intrigued. THANKS SO MUCH for the idea, I had a few teachers observe it, and they love the idea for a variety of grade levels!"

I get some small boxes and jars and put stuff in them and have kids record their observations in two columns—observation and interpretation. Some of the things I put in the boxes are:

--a box with nothing in it.

--a box filled with crumpled paper or packing peanuts that weigh very little but are tightly packed so they don’t make a sound when you shake it.

--a box with pieces of metal or nails in it.

--a box with pieces of plastic in it.

(students shake these and write down their observations, and then under interpretation but a guess as to what’s in it).


--a colored jar with clear water in it

--a colored jar with colored water in it

--a small jar with salt in it

--a small jar with sugar in it

--a small jar with baking soda in it

--a small jar with flour in it

--a small jar with honey in it

--a small jar with vegetable oil in it

--a small jar with water in it

--a small jar with alcohol in it

--a small jar with foil in it

--a small jar with a chips wrapper (folded inside out so that it looks like foil)


Boxes with a small cutout so they can feel inside but can’t look, and put inside

--regular paper pieces

--colored paper pieces

--leaves or pine needles

--grass clippings

--cooked spaghetti


Later I would talk to them about Sherlock Holmes and how he worked. I would show them the scene from Young Sherlock Holmes where boy Holmes first meets boy Watson, knows all sorts of things about Watson just from looking at him, and explains how.


Young Sherlock meets young Watson for the first time--and seems to know all about him straight away!
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