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The Mystery Box

September 11, 2010

It occurred to me that I should explain the Mystery Box that I mentioned in the “Ready, Set, Go!” post from a couple of weeks ago.

Some time in the past I was part of a “what to do on the first day of school” discussion in some sort of electronic forum.  I don’t recall exactly which one.  Someone (again, I can’t recall who) mentioned this mystery box, and linked to a schematic for making one’s own.  I liked the idea, so I did it!

The idea is to introduce students to the nature of science.  Here is this box, and you can’t see inside of it.  One thing happens given one set of initial conditions, and if you change the initial conditions something else happens.  What do you think goes on inside the box?  Whatever you come up with serves as a model for the box.  It is a mental model.  If if is a useful model, it will ALWAYS predict what will happen, given the initial conditions.  If it is not a useful model, it will be wrong sometimes.  Students can try to revise their model if they can’t make accurate predictions with it.

Students OFTEN ask me to reveal what is inside the box.  I refuse.  Students have come to me the week before graduation, wanting to know what was inside the box that they last saw demonstrated on the first day of school the previous year, 22 months previously!  But I never tell.  Instead, I tell them that nobody has ever seen the inside of an atom.  But we have a pretty good model that predicts how things behave if we assume the existence of tiny “particles” called protons, neutrons, and electrons in a certain configuration.

Nowadays, I pair the Mystery Box demonstration with a writing activity, because we have to use all curriculum areas to teach literacy, including writing.  I don’t mind that, but it takes a little away from the freedom of how I did it originally.  Students used to be able to draw pictures showing what they thought was inside the Mystery Box, and therefore used to be able to express much more detailed mental models than they can do in writing.  It’s a little frustrating.  Drawing is a good tool too, and I want to encourage it.  Drawing a picture is a major component of solving physics problems!

Here is my video of the Mystery Box, so you can see what the students see:

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