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Daily Do

How Do We Describe Matter?

Welcome to NSTA's Daily Do

Teachers and families across the country are facing a new reality of providing opportunities for students to do science through distance and home learning. The Daily Do is one of the ways NSTA is supporting teachers and families with this endeavor. Each weekday, NSTA will share a sensemaking task teachers and families can use to engage their students in authentic, relevant science learning. We encourage families to make time for family science learning (science is a social process!) and are dedicated to helping students and their families find balance between learning science and the day-to-day responsibilities they have to stay healthy and safe.

Interested in learning about other ways NSTA is supporting teachers and families? Visit the NSTA homepage.

What is sensemaking?

Sensemaking is actively trying to figure out how the world works (science) or how to design solutions to problems (engineering). Students do science and engineering through the science and engineering practices. Engaging in these practices necessitates students be part of a learning community to be able to share ideas, evaluate competing ideas, give and receive critique, and reach consensus. Whether this community of learners is made up of classmates or family members, students and adults build and refine science and engineering knowledge together.


Bobby and Carmen have a problem to solve! They need to design something everyone at Engineering Camp can play with using only the materials they can find around the room. Will Bobby and Carmen succeed in using science and engineering to design a solution to their before lunch?

Engineering Design Process

In today's task, How do we describe matter?, students and their families engage in the engineering design process alongside characters in the NSTA eBook Properties Matter. The engineering design process is a series of steps engineers follow to solve a problem. You'll notice from the image in the upper-right hand corner (click on image to enlarge) that the engineering design process is a cycle - engineers repeat the steps as many times as necessary to create a solution to a problem. (In the eBook, this cycle is presented in list form to fit the space.)

Engineers need science ideas to inform the choices they make as they imagine possible solutions individually and then plan a solution collaboratively with other engineers. Students-as-engineers in today's task first engage in science and engineering practices to make sense of the science ideas matter can be described by its observable properties and different properties are suited to different purposes.

ebook Title Page


Before you invite your students to read aloud or read along with you, take a few minutes to become familiar with the eBook and suggested supporting resource(s).

  1. Bobby and Carmen use a ruler throughout the story to measure matter. You may want to have a ruler, measuring tape, or cloth tape measure (used for sewing) available for students to give the measurements on the eBook pages meaning. (If you have a printer, you can print this ruler for your students to use.) You could create opportunities for your students to use the ruler during the story. You might say, for example, "The block in the story is 10 inches long. Would you show me how long 10 inches is using your ruler?"
  2. You might want to have materials available that are similar to the materials Bobby and Carmen use in the story and a toy car. Your students and families might choose to imagine, plan, create and test their own track design.
  • Read the NSTA journal Science and Children article "Scaffolding for Failure: Helping Students Navigate Engineering Design Failure" to learn productive ways to talk with your students before and after they have experience with a design solution that doesn't meet the criteria for success.
  • Open and/or print the Properties Matter Activity. Your students and their families might use the engineering design process to engage in this activity or the activity might inspired other ideas about problems that can be solved based on the story or the student and family's experiences around their home or community.

Properties Matter offers many opportunities for students and their families to interact with Bobby and Carmen in the story. Below are additional tasks which provide opportunities for students and their families to engage in the science and engineering practices to make sense of science and engineering ideas.

Using the E-book With Your Children

Page 10

Page 10. Gather materials that Bobby and Carmen are observing (or materials that are similar). You may also want to have a ruler (and kitchen scale if one is available) ready. Students can record their observations in the What are all the ways we describe matter? table or use it as a guide when recording observations on blank paper.

Ask your students to choose of the materials and then say, "What are all the ways we can describe this material?" Allow students to look, feel, listen, and smell the material and begin describing it on their own.

When students run out of ways to describe the material, you might prompt them to consider the following properties:

  • color
  • size
  • shape
  • weight (Is it heavy or light?)
  • flexibility (Is it stiff or bendable?)
  • transparency (Can light pass through or does the material block light?)
  • texture (Is is smooth or rough?)
  • solid or liquid
  • stretchiness

When students have finished describing the material, ask, "How could we add more detail to your descriptions? For example, how big is big?" (measure the material). Other properties students might quantify are weight and stretchiness.

Next, ask students how they could change the shape of the material (cut, bend, twist, fold, etc.) This may help students think about the many different ways they might use the material in a design.

Finally, ask students how they might use the material in the design of a track (hold things together, make the track stronger/stiffer, etc.)

Complete this task for other materials your students are considering to use to build a track.

NSTA Collection of Resources for Today's Daily Do

NSTA has created a How do we describe matter? collection of resources to support teachers and families using this task. If you're an NSTA member, you can add this collection to your library by clicking ADD TO MY LIBRARY located near the top of the page (at right in the blue box).

Check Out Previous Daily Dos from NSTA

The NSTA Daily Do is an open educational resource (OER) and can be used by educators and families providing students distance and home science learning. Access the entire collection of NSTA Daily Dos.


The engineering design process (image) shared in today's Daily Do was created for Engineering is Elementary by the Museum of Science Boston.


Is Lesson Plan Physical Science



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