by Suzanne E. Hiller

An unfailing way to spark curiosity for learners of any age is to integrate natural objects into instruction. These specimens can range from common items such as seashells, pinecones, minerals, and fossils, as some examples. When students enter a classroom and see these objects, a natural response is “Is it real?” Another way to phrase the question could be, “Is it natural?”  This particular question lends itself well to an introductory, inquiry-based activity that encourages scientific observation skills, where students are comparing and analyzing objects.

To create this activity, locate natural and man-made objects and place them on a tray with a box underneath each object as a way of encouraging students to handle materials carefully. Have students work in teams and list their observations in a notebook or on a sheet of paper by each object. Then students can indicate whether they think the object is natural or man-made based on their observations and inferencing skills. Some possible items can be natural/man-made conglomerates, natural/man-made minerals, natural/man-made skulls (e.g., skulls made from 3D printers), and natural/man-made amber.

How can you tell if something is natural or man-made? If a conglomerate is not natural, when it is broken in half, it will appear to be like concrete inside. Tips for determining whether an item is natural or man-made (plastic) is to put a small pin in a candle flame and prick the specimen in an inconspicuous place. If the object smells like burning plastic, then it is not natural.

This activity lends itself well to training students in the science process skills of observation and inferencing, as an introduction to finer-grained scientific observation skills, and for classification skills. This technique works well in many disciplines, such as art, history, and language arts. An especially beneficial outcome of this type of activity is to build student self-efficacy for learning and to spark interest for upcoming elements in a lesson.