The Hands-On Study and Application of Science—How We Do It and Why It’s Important

As we announced in October, Colchester School District’s students surpass the state’s average in NECAP examinations in every grade, including in science. Students’ ability to participate in hands-on, experiential learning is critically important, and your schools work to provide as many hands-on opportunities as possible for students—from partnering with UVM to conduct atmospheric research to working with a state official to design simple water filtration systems … and from seeking grant funding to support the construction of a human-powered generator to teaming up with Colchester Police Department to explore forensics, your schools work to align with the Colchester School District Vision and Strategic Plan 2012–2017’s many pathways, including Pathway A: High Standards, Expectations, and Individual Engagement for All Learners; Pathway B: Technology Infrastructure and Integration; Pathway C: Learning Outside Our Four Walls; and Pathway E: Parent, Community, and School Partnerships Among Lifelong Learners. And we are having an astronomical reach—literally; did you know that one of our graduates is a flight controller for the International Space Station?

Hands-on study and application of science is important because making real-world connections to abstract classroom learning piques student engagement and attention—thus encouraging out-of-the-box thinking and enhancing learning. It also strengthens students’ observational skills and allows them to actively engage in their learning, providing additional sensory activities and expanding their curiosity. (All of this underscores the importance of the proposed renovations for the CHS science labs; if you would like more information about them, please click here.)

Recently, as part of a unit on geology, sixth graders in Colchester Middle School’s Infinity Program conducted hands-on experiments in order to explore the question “How does the earth’s surface change over time?

Hands-on experiment demonstrating the Plate Tectonic Theory

Hands-on experiment demonstrating the Plate Tectonic Theory

CMS science educator Mariah Keagy led the group in the exploration of the Plate Tectonic Theory, which holds that the movement of the earth’s crust is driven by convection currents beneath the surface.

Representation of convection currents

Representation of convection currents

Reconstructing the evidence for the Plate Tectonic Theory, the students investigated the concept of convection currents in water, examining how warm water rises and how cold water sinks as the result of temperature’s influence on its molecular density.

Armed with the knowledge acquired during their observations, the students then embarked on an inquiry exploration, creating convection currents in a tray and predicting what would happen if waxed paper “continents” were placed in the tray, as well.

Sheets of waxed paper representing continents shifting on the earth's surface in response to convection currents

Sheets of wax paper representing continents shifting on the earth’s surface in response to convection currents

The students observed how the waxed paper “continents” moved on the water’s convection currents in the same way that scientists believe the earth’s continents move on the earth’s mantle, causing volcanoes, earthquakes, and mountains as they shift.


After the experiment, some of the students wrote reflections demonstrating their learning. Here are some examples:

Have you ever noticed that all the continents fit together? This is because the magma in the mantle slowly moves, which causes the continents to shift. This is also called Continental Drift. Below is a picture of continental drift and how we discovered it. The waxed paper represents continents, and the food coloring shows the hot and cold water making a convection current.—Josh

The hot water has molecules that are less compact, and so it rises. The cold water has molecules that are more compact, so they sink to the bottom. This causes a cycle. Plates of the earth’s crust float on the mantle, and the mantle has convection currents, so the contents move by the currents. In our model, the water was the mantle, the food coloring showed the convection currents, and the heat on the bottom was the heat of the earth’s core. The waxed paper continents moved together and apart on the convection currents in the water like plates do on the mantle of the earth.—Gavin

We’re doing this because we are learning about Continental Drift, which is when plates of the earth’s crust move and break up and then move apart again. When magma in the earth gets heated by the core, it rises up and gets cold on the surface and then goes back down. In our model, the waxed paper represents continents, the water represents magma, the hot plate represents heat from the core, and the food coloring shows the water is moving.—Braylen

If you would like more information about the convection currents experiment, please e-mail Mariah Keagy (, and if you would like more specific information about CSD’s science curriculum, please contact Director of Curriculum and Instruction Gwen Carmolli at (802) 264-5999 or by e-mail at

Do you like CSD Spotlight? If so, please encourage your family and friends to subscribe! We are working hard to engage our community and keep everyone informed. Please help us spread the word!

Comments are closed.

Enter your e-mail address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by e-mail!

Join 1,281 other followers


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,281 other followers

%d bloggers like this: