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Essential Science for Teachers: Earth and Space Science

When Continents Collide Featured Classroom: Duke Dawson, Science Consultant with Debbie Bastian; Worcester, Massachusetts

Duke Dawson, Science Consultant
with Debbie Bastian; Worcester, Massachusetts

“I remember chemistry classes where we’d get nine-page protocols of what the experiments were, and I’d do every step and the liquid would turn blue and… I’d have no idea what I just did. I was doing “hands-on” science because I was touching things, but it just made no connection to me. It dawned on me in grad school that the inquiry approach really boils down to letting students have choices — letting them choose the materials or choose how to use the materials, that makes all the difference.”





School at a Glance:
Goddard School of Science and Technology

  • Location: Worcester, MA
  • Grades: K-6
  • Enrollment: 561
  • Ethnicity:
    48% Hispanic
    37% White
    11% Asian
    4% African American
  • Percentage of students receiving free or reduced-price lunch: 
    85% versus a state average of 29%

Duke Dawson earned his B.A. and Ph.D. in biology, and was en route to becoming a research scientist specializing in psychobiology — a field he playfully describes as “cutting up rats’ heads and removing their brains” — when he decided it wasn’t for him. Instead, Duke took a job at the New England Science Center in Worcester, Massachusetts, a small museum with a small staff, which meant his job description was pretty open-ended. “Some days I’d be doing live snake shows, some days I’d be building exhibits, but as the years went on,” explains Duke, “my job evolved into being the person who developed programs for teachers.” He now serves as a science consultant to the Worcester school district, and teaches classes at Anna Marie College and Clark University.

For the video, Duke worked with Debbie Bastian’s fifth-graders at the Goddard School of Science and Technology. Now in her tenth year in the classroom and second year as a fifth-grade teacher, Debbie is preparing to return to school for her masters in education, with a focus in reading.

Lesson and Curriculum

Lesson at a Glance:
Scholastic Science Place: Hands – On Science Series Scholastic, Inc.
Grade: K-6
Topic: Systems and Interactions

Duke worked with Debbie’s fifth graders on landforms. He started the lesson by leading the class in a brainstorming exercise identifying different types of landforms and how they might form. Then, with the students in pairs, Duke asked them to think about what kind of forces could produce a particular type of landform — mountains. After sharing their thoughts with the class, the students were able to start on the day’s activity.

The activity Duke prepared used Playdoh® and wax paper to simulate the collision between two tectonic plates. The students, again in pairs, made model continents by pressing different colors of dough into thin sheets, and then stacking the sheets into two multi-layered Playdoh® continents. After placing them on waxed paper, the students set the two slabs on a collision course. Upon impact, the slabs behaved like the pieces of continental crust they were fashioned after, bending and folding into a sort of Playdoh® mountain.

Duke was impressed with the students’ enthusiasm. “I heard some really good discussions going on in different groups and I think one of the strengths of the activities was that a lot of groups tried different things — one group had thick layers, and another had thin ones, so they all saw slightly different results.” For Duke, the goal of the lesson was to convey to the students that the Earth is a dynamic, constantly changing system, and he felt the activity was a success.

Duke closed the activity with a discussion about how accurate the model was. “Any subject where you use a model to explain something,” Duke said before the lesson, “there’s a huge risk that the kids are going to develop a misconception based on some part of the model that’s not totally accurate. ”

Series Directory

Essential Science for Teachers: Earth and Space Science


Produced by Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. 2004.
  • Closed Captioning
  • ISBN: 1-57680-742-8