These are not simply facts to be memorized. These are complex concepts that students need to develop through engagement with the natural world, through drawing on their previous experiences and existing knowledge, and through the use of models and representations as thinking tools. Students should practice using these ideas in cycles of building and testing models in a wide range of specific situations.
At this grade band, students can begin to ask the questions: What is the nature of matter and the properties of matter on a very small scale? Is there some fundamental set of materials from which other materials are composed? How can the macroscopically observable properties of objects and materials be explained in terms of these assumptions?
In addition, armed with new insight provided by their knowledge of the existence of atoms and molecules, they can conceptually distinguish between elements (substances composed of just one kind of atom) and compounds (substances composed of clusters of different atoms bonded together in molecules). They can also begin to imagine more possibilities that need to be considered in tracking the identity of materials over time, including the possibility of chemical change.
Students have to be able to grasp the concept that if matter were repeatedly divided in half until it was too small to see, some matter would still exist—it wouldn’t cease to exist simply because it was no longer visible. Research has shown that as students move from thinking about matter in terms of commonsense perceptual properties (something one can see, feel, or touch) to defining it as something that takes up space and has weight, they are increasingly comfortable making these kinds of assumptions.
This is one example of the ways in which the framework that students developed in the earlier primary and elementary grades prepares them for more advanced theorizing at the middle school level. Middle school science students must conjecture about and represent what matter is like at a level that they can't see, make inferences about what follows from different assumptions, and evaluate the conjecture based on how well it fits with a pattern of results.
Research has shown that middle school students are able to discuss these issues with enthusiasm, especially when different models for puzzling phenomena are implemented on a computer and they must judge which models embody the facts. This approach led students who had relevant macroscopic understanding of matter to see the discretely spaced particle model as a better explanation than alternatives (e.g., continuous models and tightly packed particle models). Class discussions allowed students to establish more explicit rules for evaluating