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July 2, 2010 10:41 AM   Subscribe

What's the single most interesting argument, discovery, phenomenon, or historical change in your field, hobby, or other area of interest... that the average 7th grade student could comprehend and appreciate?

My young students are incredibly jaded about education, and most of them are glued to their computer games whenever they're not studying. I have some unstructured discussion time with them, and I want to try to spark their interest and get them really thinking.

So, what's interesting and comprehensible (say, after reading two pages of text)? I'm looking for things that can appeal to a general group, not just the really smart or curious kids. Topics can be strange, silly, or completely serious. So far we have really enjoyed some topics such as obsolete tech, the psychology of best friendships, marketing, youth soccer, lottery winners, and so on. I have plenty of ideas, but my area of knowledge is naturally limited so I'm seeking better suggestions. Thank you!
posted by acidic to Grab Bag (28 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
There was a long period of time when astronomers debated about whether the universe would eventually stop expanding and start to collapse (resulting eventually in the Big Crunch, which is the opposite of the Big Bang) or whether the rate of expansion would steadily decrease (as a result of the gravitational attraction that the universe has for itself) but never quite reach zero. Then about 8 years ago a very surprising discovery was made, that the rate of expansion of the universe is actually increasing. We infer that there is something called "dark energy" which is driving this expansion, although we have virtually no knowledge of what this dark energy is. I personally found this to be a tremendously fascinating discovery. I also think that 7th grade students are capable of being interested in cosmology, even though it may sound very nerdy. It connects to very hot issues, such as where the universe really comes from, and what its ultimate destiny will be.
posted by grizzled at 10:52 AM on July 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

The mouse-wheel.
posted by rhizome at 10:54 AM on July 2, 2010

Technological singularity.
posted by nitsuj at 10:58 AM on July 2, 2010

Elevators in wind turbines. Seriously.

Back in the day, wind turbines were pretty short, so it was only a 30m or so climb. Towers were pretty narrow too, so you wouldn't have even thought of being able to fit a small elevator in there. Towers are much taller now, which means that really only younger techs want to (or can!) climb 'em. But since towers are wider, you can now fit a two-person lift (a pretty tiny one) in the tower, and can get a crew of two up to the top of the tower with their tools and equipment in five minutes. Currently, a good climber might do it in 10-15 minutes, with a five minute recovery, then a further five minutes winching tools and equipment up.

This allows older, more experienced workers to work on problems in the nacelle. I don't know of any manufacturer now that doesn't specify them, or require them for full maintenance warranty cover.
posted by scruss at 11:03 AM on July 2, 2010

This isn't a big deal in proteomics, really, but it's fun and easy to describe, and it involves dinosaurs.

A couple years ago, a group of researchers published a paper in which they claimed to have sequenced proteins from a powdered T-Rex bone that somebody dug up in Montana. This is patently crazy, at least on the face of it. No one previously believed that proteins would stick around anywhere near that long. The researchers claimed to show similarities to modern bird proteins that would be significant from a philogenetic standpoint. "Dinosaurs with feathers" -- you may have read some of the pop sci articles.

Trouble is... well, there's lots of trouble. They didn't release all of their data at first, and when they were pressured by other scientists to release the data, they did, and then they immediately hushed up some of the data that didn't look good. These researchers also run ostrich studies in which they've found the exact same peptides, and it's reasonable to believe that they might have sequenced a bit of protein that was left in the machine from an ostrich sample. One researcher thinks that these folks might have sequenced protein from bacterial biofilms that formed on the bones.

A summary up through 2009 is here. The controversy is even bringing out some creationist loons who astoundingly think that the Asara findings provide evidence that dinosaurs are only thousands of years old.

This is a current story, by no means settled. Asara and company sequenced something, but just what they sequenced and what it means is a big controversy.
posted by gurple at 11:05 AM on July 2, 2010

I'm not sure how applicable this will be to your audience, because I was always the bookish type willing to play along with the teacher in grade school, but have you watched any of the TV series Connections?

This is the kind of exposition you're trying to achieve, and even if this won't engage a 7th-grader audience, you should probably give it a look yourself. It's exactly what thought processes you're describing, extrapolated out onto human history in a very digestible and interesting way. The eras-names-dates of history get reduced to discoveries and concepts.

If you haven't seen it, I can guarantee you will have much more to discuss in that vein after watching four or five episodes. And who knows, maybe your class is up to it as well. I can't think of any presentation of history I've enjoyed as much as that show.
posted by Phyltre at 11:12 AM on July 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

There are a lot of interesting medical discoveries that could be covered briefly; I am partial to Crawford Long's discovery of ether anesthesia which was accompanied by much controversy, but the story of Louis Pasteur, Joseph Meister, and the first use of rabies vaccine is good, as is John Snow's discovery that cholera is waterborne and subsequent stopping of an epidemic by shutting down a public well. For non-medical things that might be interesting one of my favorites is what astronomers saw when they aimed the Hubble at a tiny speck of sky as far as possible from any visible stars: the Hubble Deep Field.
posted by TedW at 11:13 AM on July 2, 2010

Marcel Duchamp displayed a toilet in an art gallery.
posted by interrobang at 11:15 AM on July 2, 2010

This is dead serious (pun intended...), and maybe too convoluted/time consuming, but:

The 1972 moratorium on the U.S. death penalty imposed by Furman v. Georgia that ended in 1976 with Gregg v. Georgia, which, in trying to fix all the imperfections inherent in a system that asks humans to decide whether a person should live or die, also led to a Catch-22: a penalty that needs to be applied consistently to be fair but if applied automatically is unfair, that needs to be applied in an unbiased manner to be fair but if applied without considering the unique qualities of a person's life is unfair. In other words, the death penalty is unconstitutional if the jury's discretion to apply it is not sharply limited by objective criteria, but the death penalty is also unconstitutional if the jury is not able to take literally any fact about the defendant into consideration before deciding to impose it.

I would base the lesson on Justice Blackmun's dissent to denial of cert in Callins v. Collins, because it explains the whole problem simply and well, and it's a fantastic story: as the NYT article reporting on Blackmun's dissent says:

'From this day forward, I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death,' Justice Blackmun, the Court's 85-year-old senior member, wrote in an emotional, highly personal and solitary dissent from the Court's refusal to hear the appeal of a Texas inmate. Speaking only for himself, with no realistic prospect of leading the Court away from the general acceptance of the death penalty that he himself shared until recently . . . Justice Blackmun's tone was urgent, as if in the twilight of his career he wanted to reopen a dialogue on the death penalty that had all but disappeared from the Court with the retirements of Justices William J. Brennan Jr. and Thurgood Marshall, who both believed that the death penalty was inherently unconstitutional.

. . . Justice Blackmun's remarkable 7,000-word statement was aimed toward a future in which, he said, the Court would realize that the effort to administer the death penalty fairly and consistently was 'doomed to failure.' 'I may not live to see that day,' he said, 'but I have faith that eventually it will arrive.'

The opinion capped a long evolution for Justice Blackmun, who in 1972 was one of four dissenters from the Court's opinion in Furman v. Georgia that declared all existing death penalty laws unconstitutional. Four years later, in Gregg v. Georgia, he voted to uphold the new generation of death penalty laws that ushered in the modern era of capital punishment. . . . Two years ago, when the Court reaffirmed by the margin of a single vote the right to abortion that Justice Blackmun's majority opinion in Roe v. Wade had established 19 years earlier, he wrote a separate opinion to emphasize that the future of abortion rights could depend on the Presidential election then in progress. 'I am 83 years old,' he wrote. 'I cannot remain on this Court forever.'

I would have (I did, actually) loved learning about this as a 7th grader. It's definitely not as fun as the psychology of best friendships, and it may not be as interesting to students outside the U.S. (if yours are?), but it's an interesting look into a defining feature of our justice system and our society.
posted by sallybrown at 11:21 AM on July 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think 7th graders might find a chickenosaurus interesting.
posted by jmmpangaea at 11:53 AM on July 2, 2010

Since most of them have probably watched movies or played games involving aliens, why not start a genuine discussion about the ethical consequences and the responses of humans to either one of those things suddenly being a real life scenario. In that this was recently in the news with Stephen Hawking discussing it you could even pull a very recent example of why it might be something to consider seriously. Additionally, you can use it to discuss mathematics and statistics in a small degree in describing why aliens might exist, and you can even drag physics into it to discuss the realistic chances of aliens being able to actually travel here in a way that make it useful or meaningful to them.

"If aliens really did land tomorrow, how do you think people would react? How would you react? How would your parents react?" The upside to this is that you could prep more than a few great video clips, have plenty of short snippets to read, etc. that would be relevant and hold their interest and prompt discussion. You could easily use video from the serious (The Day The Earth Stood Still, 2001, Close Encounters, both radio and movie versions of War Of The Worlds, E.T.) to the stupidly ridiculous (Independence Day, Mars Attacks). You could go with various scenarios from the aliens just showing up and not doing anything to them showing up and openly communicating to them showing up and and invading (that one being the easiest one to react about, of course).

This applies to other things as well, such as zombies and superheros. Basically this would be similar to the various Science Of... and Philosophy Of... books that have been popular the past decade or so. While it might seem sort of like fluff, you can always use fluff as a genuine starting point for some serious discussions about how people interact in their world.
posted by smallerdemon at 12:03 PM on July 2, 2010

In 1970, Buckminster Fuller announced that for the first time in the history of mankind, genuine scarcity was no more and thus selfishness and war were obsolete as survival strategies. I can't find an exact quote so I guess I'll just give it to Wikipedia:

He was convinced that the accumulation of relevant knowledge, combined with the quantities of major recyclable resources that had already been extracted from the earth, had attained a critical level, such that competition for necessities was not necessary anymore. Cooperation had become the optimum survival strategy. "Selfishness," he declared, "is unnecessary and hence-forth unrationalizable.... War is obsolete."[19]
posted by philip-random at 12:12 PM on July 2, 2010

facebook and lots of computer games rely on the internet. maybe learn how the internet works. or how to build a computer game, or how to build a website.
posted by maulik at 12:21 PM on July 2, 2010

The Dunning Kreuger effect!, or "you don't know enough to know that you suck at this"

It originated from one of my all-time favorite studies. This is a good summary.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 12:38 PM on July 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Beginning in the early 1980's, computer aided design technology (CAD) began to invade the fields of architecture and engineering. No longer would people hunch for long hours over drafting boards with pens, ink, T-squares and triangles, now people hunch for long hours in front of computer screens. :-) From the mid '80's until today computer technology has improved to the point where the degrees of abstraction required for hand drafting have virtually disappeared; many buildings now are designed, modeled, and rendered entirely in virtual 3D space, even to the point where parts are made directly from the digital files. The ability to do this, to such high degrees of detail, represents a complete sea change in architectural design and all sorts of engineering.

For your students, plenty of free 3D software exists to test out their own design theories, most notably Google Sketchup. Lots of YouTube tutorials, websites (, exists for learning, and like I said, it's a free download. This package enables any videogame-savvy navigator of 3D virtual space to do things like model their own house in deep detail, for example, and place it in its own "real" site in town within Google Earth. It's really easy to use (my five-year-old enjoys helping me design castles and towers, etc. with it) and people make all sorts of things with it.

A correlation of 3D gaming to 3D making, and the realization that building things is more fun than using things, for the maker, might be the starting impulse towards discussions of architecture or engineering, and perhaps the vision of a career choice for someone.
posted by getAttr at 12:47 PM on July 2, 2010

Einstein's Theories!

Time machines. Worm holes. Photons. E= MC^2. Space time curvature. Black Holes. Einstein's Theory of Everything.

These topics are the kind of stuff that kids see in popular movies and video games these days. I'm sure many of them would be excited to know that some of the crazy, technological stuff they see on TV actually have some factual basis.
posted by nikkorizz at 12:47 PM on July 2, 2010

How are mountains made? Why are there deep trenches in the sea floor? What makes earthquakes happen? Why do volcanoes exist where they do? Is it possible all of these questions have the same answer?

Before the theory of plate tectonics, our theories for these things were quite inadequate. Slowly though, people realised that South America looks like it might just fit right in against Africa. Not only that, but a particular fossilized fern only exists on the north western coast of Australia and the southern tip of India - far too far away to be transferred by wind. And why do all these volcanoes line up along the edges of continents? Plate tectonics was a major paradigm shift in how earth scientists understood the machinations of the globe. You could have the kids look at a map of the world and try to piece together a supercontinent, or match up fossils or rocks on different continents, or think of ways to explain mountains and so forth without plate tectonics.
posted by twirlypen at 12:51 PM on July 2, 2010

Not a personal bit of knowledge, but a recommendation: listen to Radiolab. The production values are incredible and make complex ideas easy to grasp. You could play clips from the longer shows or even play the 'Shorts' episodes in their entirety, pausing them for discussion. Also, I don't have a link, but do a similar podcast that looks into explaining common phenomena, reminds me a little of MythBusters. Good luck!
posted by Happy Dave at 1:15 PM on July 2, 2010

One of the things I'm into, is games. You might consider actually getting some boardgames or cardgames into the classroom, with related materials.

Pandemic is a fun boardgame where players cooperate as World Health Officials to fight disease. It abstracts everything a ton, but it easily leads into talking about epidemics, health, cures, disease vectors, etc.

Dominion is a brilliant, quick, card game that abstracts the issues of feudal economics. It's a good place if you want to talk about the issues of food production, land ownership, etc.

Shock: Social Science Fiction is a simple roleplaying game that deals with the issues of technology and culture shock. History is full of examples, so it might be worth playing with on that level.

The King of Siam boardgame deals with the politics of Thailand during the colonial era, and the struggle to achieve unity without being colonized. It simplifies things into three factions- Royal Thais, Malays, and Lao peoples, but it might be a fun thing to play with to talk about that history.

Power Grid is a game about power companies, but it deals really well with the issues of markets, supply and demand, and technology growth.
posted by yeloson at 1:17 PM on July 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Philosophy: Talk to them about solipsism. Or don't, if you think that might push their apathy scale in the wrong direction. But they might find it really cool. Just press them: how do they know they're talking to another person when they talk to one of their friends?
posted by superiorchicken at 2:47 PM on July 2, 2010

I'm interested in immigrant students' performance in (American) schools. I taught a college level sociology of education class and had a week dedicated to immigrant students. There are lots of cool videos and interactive online stuff that I think would be accessible to 7th graders. Assuming you're in or interested in United States issues (though immigration is fascinating all over the world, I know most about U.S.).

One thing in particular is the shift of where immigrants were coming from in the early 20th century and where they are coming from post-1965/early 21st century. The NY Times had a whole series of stuff on this, perhaps most interestingly, an interactive map that tracks immigrant groups across the U.S. since 1880.

Students might be interested in learning their own history, the history of their peers (in the U.S. 1 in 5 students in a child of an immigrant or an immigrant themselves, so if you're in the U.S. it's likely you have some immigrant students in your class).

You might be able to do some cool stuff to get them interested too. Do you speak a second language? Start the discussion speaking in a second language and don't use English. What would it be like to start school in a totally different country in a totally different language?

PBS has a series called New Americans. Lots of info available there (could easily get 2 pages of text for them to read), and they also have videos and a variety of resources on the site.

Not sure if you want to go there, but you could discuss how immigrants are treated in the United States, legally and in terms of media/pop-culture, especially post-9/11, Arizona's SB 1070, California's English-Only Legislation (Prop. 227), and perhaps on the other end of things, "sanctuary cities."
posted by kochenta at 4:33 PM on July 2, 2010

I made a post about a spaceship propelled by nuclear bombs. That would have been totally relevant to my interests in 7th grade.

An interesting discussion would be, I think, why we should or shouldn't do it and why we aren't doing it right now.

Also, maybe you could teach them about the Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium. The relevant equation is remarkably easy to understand (p² + 2pq + q² = 1), and provides a mathematical method of determining whether, and in which direction, a specific trait in a population is evolving.

The elegance and objectivity of that really impressed me when I learned about it.
posted by edguardo at 5:53 PM on July 2, 2010

The importance of scale. If a structure was to grow without changing shape, the ratio of its surface are to its volume will decrease. This has many repercussions. Strength is proportional to surface area, as is wind resistance and heat loss. Force load (e.g. weight) and heat production are proportional to mass (okay, metabolism factors in too). This is why ants are so strong, why Godzilla or giant ants can't exist, why small mammals have crazy high metabolisms, why you can't build a skyscraper out of wood. This property is fundamental to understanding ... well... everything, but the math is definitely 7th grade.

A link to get you started.
posted by Humanzee at 6:02 PM on July 2, 2010

James Burke, The Day The Universe Changed immediately springs to mind. A source of good ideas anyway.
posted by idb at 7:48 PM on July 2, 2010

Instead of disecting a frog, why not dissect a TV one day (or a radio, or...)? One of the things I find really interesting about the last ten years or so is how computer control is moving us away from the relatively comprehensible world of mechanical relationships to this hybrid-interfaced world in which electronics are literally between you and the mechanics of things. Take for instance the recent events with Toyota accelleration: Once upon a time, an acceleration problem boiled down to a mechanical function that Shadetree Joe could tackle in the family yard. Now a government team & Toyota's best with all the electronic equipment they can jointly cary is left scratching its head over the problem.

I may be projecting, but I think the prevalence of relatively "incomprehensible" electronics is moving us, as a collective society, away from trying to understand how commonplace appliances like TVs, a/cs, vacuums and radios work. So why not go back to basics for a day? Take a peek into the areas where electronics and electrical luxury items are still comprehensible in a mechanical sense. It could be a very fun change of pace for the class.
posted by Ys at 8:04 PM on July 2, 2010

Having Homeostasis and the laws of Thermodynamics really, really helped me understand a lot of your Science 101-how the world works stuff.
posted by The Whelk at 7:29 AM on July 3, 2010

Also, a history teacher gave us Nacirema to read and discuss once around that same age and it was kind of a "Oh wow" moment - how an anthropologist might view North American culture.
posted by The Whelk at 7:32 AM on July 3, 2010

A lot of the ideas above area basically asking you to lead a speculative conversation about a (un)controversial topic in one branch of science or another. While this is a great way to foster creativity and model the hypothesis-generation process, it's also a disappointingly common way to seed misconceptions about science and spread "science" rumors that have no basis in repeated observation of the natural world. So please, if you choose to speculate, speculate responsibly.
posted by msittig at 8:26 AM on July 4, 2010

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