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Teaching Elementary School Science

Digital Idea Bank Activity

Mystery Boxes
An Activity for Introducing Data, Claims, Evidence and Negotiation

Essential Concepts and Skills: Iowa Core Curriculum, grades 3-5,


Identify and generate questions that can be answered through

scientific investigations.

Use evidence to develop reasonable explanations

21st Century Skills

Demonstrate productivity and accountability by producing

quality work (Employability).
NGSS Science & Engineering Practices
Planning and carrying out investigations
Analyzing and interpreting data
Engaging in argument from evidence
Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information

What students will be doing: The purpose of this activity is to

introduce the process of making claims and using evidence in science.
Students will explore and observe mystery boxes to determine which
object(s) from the given sample objects is inside the box. They will observe
the characteristics of the mystery box and compare it to known objects in
similar empty boxes. Students will then make a claim and support it with
evidence. Finally, students will negotiate using their claim and evidence to
convince others in the class what they believe is in each mystery box.

Materials: Assemble the mystery boxes. Create a number of mystery

boxes that include various objects. It is helpful to have multiple copies of
each box with the same object. You should wrap each box with some sort of
paper or seal the box so students cannot cheat by peeking inside. Label
each similar box with a letter. (i.e. shoe boxes that include a pencil are A,
Pringles cans that include a fork and a penny are B) You will also need
multiple sets of identical empty boxes for students to experiment with. The
boxes are easier to store from year to year if smaller boxes are used. Good
examples would include candy boxes, check boxes and jewelry boxes.

Materials that can be used in the boxes: Look around your classroom for
objects that are similar so students have to compare similar objects. Here
are some of the items that work well.
sharpened pencil
plastic disk
washer (large)
bouncy ball
wooden ball
plastic fork
plastic spoon
metal fork
metal spoon
plastic straw
plastic bendy straw wrapped straw
glass marble
anything else you have as long as you have multiple
copies. Create enough trays of sample materials for students to
observe for the activity.

Introducing the Activity:

Scripted Opening Questions or Remarks: Last week we talked
about what scientists do and what science is. Scientists are very good at

observing. When you hear the word observe what do you think of? (Most
students will mentioning what they see with their eyes.) Well in science,
the word observe involves a lot more than what you can see. It involves
anything you experience using your SENSES. Can you name the senses?
So give me examples of observations scientists might make with senses
other than their eyes. (Students might list smells, or feeling vibrations, or
hearing different sounds, like bird calls or insect noises, or even tasting
things.) Today you will be getting a chance to make scientific observations
to determine the identity of something you cannot see. You will be using
your other senses to gather data. Here are the materials. There are 5
wrapped/sealed boxes. Your job is to figure out what is in each box WITHOUT LOOKING! Direct students attention to the recording log
handout. Show the mystery objects under a document camera or put one
tray of the sample objects at each table. The goal is that students complete
the first part of the recording log by exploring the materials on the tray
before receiving a mystery box. If you are doing this activity at the
beginning of the year, it helps to have students complete phase 1 before
passing out the Mystery Boxes. Once students have completed Phase 1,
discuss the observations students recorded.
Before handing out the Mystery Boxes, review the Phase 2 section of the
handout. Lets take a look at what you will be doing in Phase 2. I will be
handing each group one box to explore in depth. As you can see on the
handout, you record your mystery box number, then manipulate the box to
collect as much data as you can using your senses. USE the descriptors
from Phase 1 to describe what you hear and feel and to describe how the
object(s) inside moves. Pay attention to what you are doing. Does it matter
which direction you tilt the box or if you do that fast or slow? How can you
figure out how long the object is or what it might be made of or what its
shape might be? Completely fill out this section of the handout. When it
comes time for you to figure out which item on your tray is actually in the
mystery box, experiment with the empty boxes and it items on the tray.
Can you recreate the same sound and motion? How can you use this to
help you decide once and for all, what is actually in the box. (DONT TELL
OTHERS YOUR GUESS!) If you complete all of the experimenting and
recording and are positive you know what is in your first mystery box, you
may try another box. For the remainder of the boxes you will not need to
record as much data: just the box number and your guess about what is in
it. But be sure to experiment with the items and empty boxes as you go.
Hand out one sample mystery box to each group of students. Ask students
to now experiment with their box and record all of their observations on the
recording log. As students are completing this phase circulate between
students and ask these questions:
What do you notice about the sound of the mystery object?
What do you notice about how the box feels?

What happens when you move the box?

Do you get more useful information when you move the
box fast or when you move it slowly? Explain.
How many objects do you think are in the box? What is
your evidence?
Which object from the tray do you think is in the box?
Why do you think a pencil is in the box? Is it the long
pencil or the crayon? Is it sharpened or not? Are the sides smooth
or flat?
Encourage students to explain their evidence specifically.
DISCUSSION about Phase 2:
Before giving students a chance to discuss the mystery boxes, introduce
the new science terms they will be using in this activity: CLAIMS, EVIDENCE,
Explain claim and evidence to students. Because you are being scientists
in this activity, it is important that you use the words on a scientist as well.
Scientists use the terms CLAIMS and EVIDENCE. We will be using these
words a lot this year in science. When you wrote your initial conclusion you
wrote down your best guess about what was in the box. This is called a
claim. (I think ______ is in the box.) Scientists always base their claims on
evidence.they dont just guess! You wrote your evidence (I know this
because.) A claim is a statement that answers the original question. In
this case the question was What is in the box? The evidence is the data
or proof you have. You can use evidence to convince others your claim is
correct. Another term we will use a lot this year in science is negotiate.
When you negotiate, you use your evidence to try to convince everyone
that your idea is correct. Without evidence, no one will believe you.
Keep the negotiating going until your group reaches a consensus about the
contents of the mystery box.
Phase 3: Form student groups based on which box they first explored. Put
students that explored Box A together to negotiate and complete phase 3.
Circulate between groups and encourage them to decide exactly which
object is included in their mystery box. Make sure they have good
evidence. As groups finish phase 3, have them join another group and
participate in another negotiation. You can also do this phase as a class for
each box, but it works better in small groups when you first start
negotiation. Keep the negotiating going until your group reaches a
consensus about the contents of the mystery box.
Phase 4 - You should have found that your ideas changed in some ways
and did not change in other ways. If you thought there was a plastic straw
in box A and after negotiation you thought a bendy plastic straw was in
the box, your ideas have changed because you added to your evidence

when someone pointed out that it didnt roll smoothly across the box.
The students will want you to tell them what is actually in each mystery
box. Do not tell them, but point out that scientists dont always get to find
out that answer but they have to continue to look for evidence. It also
encourages them to work together and not see one students ideas as
right and another as wrong.
Optional Extension: Some students may want to try to construct their
own mystery box. Provide this option as a home challenge in which they
can bring their completed box and have other students try to develop their
own claim and evidence.
Assessment: This is a formative assessment which will take place during
the activity. The assessment is demonstrated during the
claim/evidence/negotiation phase. Watch for student involvement and
collect the recording log to view evidence of
Use evidence to develop reasonable explanations (Inquiry).
Demonstrate productivity and accountability by producing
quality work (Employability).

Student Handout See next page

Teaching Elementary School Science

Name: _______________________

Mystery Boxes Thinking Log

Research Question - What is inside the mystery box?
Phase 1: My beginning understanding
Before you begin experimenting with your mystery box, study the objects on the supply tray. Write
specific information under each bullet.
Describe the different shapes of the objects.
Name the different materials the items are made of.
Compare the different masses of the objects. What are the two lightest objects? The
two heaviest objects?
Write words that would describe how these objects move across the tray or table.
Write words to describe how these objects would sound when they are dropped.

Phase 2: My Initial Exploration

My box letter is ________

Observations and Findings:
Examine your mystery box. Make a list of every significant observation. Use the descriptive
words from your list in Phase 1 Remember, an observation can use any of your senses. (You
cannot just say, It sounds like a ball.)

Initial Conclusion:
I think ________________________ is in the box.
I know this because . . .
Test Your Thinking:
Use the empty boxes and the items on the test tray to design a test to figure out what is in your
box. (Be specific about what you will do.)
I will . . .

Additional Mystery Box Observations:

Box letter: _________ My claim about whats in the box: ________________________
Box letter: _________ My claim about whats in the box: ________________________
Box letter: _________ My claim about whats in the box: ________________________
Box Letter: ________ My claim about whats in the box: ________________________
Box Letter: ________ My claim about whats in the box: ________________________

Phase 3 Sharing Ideas with Others and Rethinking

List what other people think is in the box and why they think this.

All of your group members need to agree about what is in the box and be able to convince
others. What evidence was the s best in convincing others?

Group Conclusion:
We think ________________________ is in the box.

We know this because . . .

Phase 4: Reflection on Negotiation

My ideas have changed because . . .

My ideas have not changed because . . .