“Matter” in an adult education classroom.

Here at The Literacy Alliance we’re very fortunate to have a science expert on our volunteer tutor staff at our New Haven location. No exaggeration meant when I say “science expert,” as this tutor has worked on a travelling science teacher crew. I’ve seen this tutor’s work first hand; he is a mastermind at designing engaging science experiments that fit our non-profit budget, and even better, require very little material prep ahead of time.

This last week our resident science guy hosted a lesson covering “matter,” and here’s his recap of how the lesson went:

January 17, 2016, science lesson on the States of Matter, led by Steven Hackmann.


To begin our lesson, I fielded definitions of the word, “MATTER.” The class offered definitions of “everything that exists,” “anything that can be contained,” “anything with mass,” “things with density or that takes us space,” “physical substance.”

We talked about the definitions.

We identified the three primary states of matter: Solid – Liquid – Gas

We identified examples of each of these:

  • Solids in the room – Table, chairs, floor, ice (H2O as a solid)…
  • Liquids – water (H2O as a liquid), tea, coffee, juice,…
  • Gases – Oxygen, Hydrogen, Steam and Fog (H2O as a gas).

To change matter from one state of matter to another you need to change the temperature.
For example:

  • To change H2O in its solid state to H2O in a liquid state, the temperature must increase.
  • To change H2O from its liquid state to a gaseous state, the temperature must increase even more.
  • The entire process can be reversed if we decrease the temperature, causing the gaseous H2O to condense and become liquid H2O. Continuing to decrease the temperature the liquid H2O can reach a freezing point making solid H2O.

We set up an experiment with an set of ice cubes to determine: “on which surface (black plastic lid, metal lid, Styrofoam cup) will an ice cube would change from a solid to a liquid in the shortest amount of time and on which would it take the longest time?” The students were asked to make a hypothesis (educated guess or a “what do you think” statement). The ice cubes (all about the same size) were placed on the surfaces to begin the experiment.

We moved on to a second experiment to create a Non-Newtonian Fluid that acts like a liquid and also acts like a solid.

Each student received:

  • a cup
  • a spoon for mixing
  • about 2 tablespoons of cornstarch
  • and about 1 -2 teaspoons of water.

The students would mix the cornstarch and water until it combines, looks smooth, and is of the consistency of honey. As they reach this stage, they will feel resistance to their stirring, in some cases enough resistance to nearly break their spoons. At this point they could observe their substance.

Students were instructed to pick some up in the spoon or in their hand. If they tip their spoon, the mixture will flow like a liquid back into their cups. However, if they take a finger and push on the mixture in the spoon, it will get hard. The Non-Newtonian fluid will act like a solid if pressure is exerted upon it. If pressure is released, it will act again like a fluid.

[In scientific terms, the viscosity (resistance to flow) of the liquid increases when pressure is applied to it.]

One of the students wondered if it was a reusable substance after the water would evaporate from the mixture. He was sent home with this as an experiment and encouraged to come back with his observations.

This will begin our movement into the lessons on Atoms, Molecules and the Periodic Table.

As they left, they checked the progress of the ice cubes. They were able to see that the ice on the metal lid had the largest pool of water, followed closely by the black plastic lid and with the smallest amount of water was the Styrofoam cup. We will discuss these findings at the beginning of our next lesson.

-Steven Hackmann