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What a Blast!

Dr. Elizabeth D. Holley, Willard School, Ridgewood, NJ
September 01, 1999 | FOSS in Schools

Top image: Members of the Bergen County Police Department's bomb squad answer questions about real-life black boxes posed by the fourth-grade students of Dr. Elizabeth Holley.

In science, as in other curricular areas, teachers strive to provide students with opportunities to practice their skills in ways that simulate authentic or real-life situations. In the FOSS Models and Designs Module, the Black Box investigation should be no exception. In this investigation, teachers are encouraged to group students into research teams that cooperatively attempt to identify a black box's internal components and their configuration. These research teams report to others in a mock conference where they share ideas, problems, and possible solutions. Teachers point out similarities and differences between this process and the one used by real scientists. These real-life, authentic comparisons can be both strengthened and highlighted in an activity designed and undertaken by Dr. Elizabeth D. Holley of the Willard School in Ridgewood, New Jersey.

With the close of the Black Box investigation drawing near, a teacher-led discussion of black boxes in real life was held. The question, "If a real black box were found, how could someone determine what was in it?" was posed.

Quite by coincidence, a local police detective stopped by for a visit and was drawn into the lesson. Students posed questions to the detective who explained the proper police procedure for dealing with a black box or any suspicious package with unknown contents. He asked the students what strategies they had already utilized and what tests they had undertaken. He compared their procedures to his and helped them see why police react in the manner in which they do.

From a quick inspection of a black box, the officer was unable to determine its contents and layout. The students asked him what he, as a detective, would do next if the black box were truly suspicious. He calmly answered, "I'd call the Bergen County Police Bomb Squad." The students' enthusiastic response was "Let's do it!"


Caroline Logue points out the internal configuration of a black box in an x-ray taken by members of the Bergen County Police Department's bomb squad.

The Bergen County Police Bomb Squad was subsequently contacted, and a class visit was scheduled. The long-awaited day came. The squad members arrived at Willard School toting the equipment they would use had they been responding to a call regarding a suspicious black box. Again students were given the opportunity to explain their investigation of the black box. Then individual members of the bomb squad met with the student research teams and critiqued their lab reports. The officers explained their training, procedures, and related tales of past cases.

The officers decided that, in the case of the suspicious black box, an x-ray would have been taken to provide them with more information. Every student begged them to x-ray the box. They watched anxiously as the x-ray was developed in the portable developer.

The level of suspense increased when the first x-ray proved to be too powerful to accurately see inside the black box. A second x-ray was taken successfully. Amid astonished gasps, the officers examined the x-ray and pronounced the contents to be "a marble and corrugated paper held together with masking tape." They went on to explain the configuration of the paper within the box. Students marveled at the officers' expertise and continued to ask appropriate science-based questions concerning the equipment capability and the officers' ability to read x-rays.

Although the teacher's primary purpose in inviting the officers to the classroom was to provide a reality-based science experience, other very important lessons were learned. The students developed a real bond with the officers and became concerned for their welfare while on the job. They also developed a heightened awareness and appreciation for the training and everyday work of law enforcement officers.

Submitted by:
Dr. Elizabeth D. Holley
Willard School
601 Morningside Road
Ridgewood, NJ 07450