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Systems and Scale | Activity 1.2

Activity 1.2: Expressing Ideas about Ethanol Burning (40 min)

Students complete the Expressing Ideas Tool for burning ethanol, helping them document, share, and examine their ideas about matter and energy during combustion. There are no “right” answers during this phase of the unit.

Materials You Provide

  • Sticky notes (1 per student)
  • ethanol, 95% (10-15 ml)
  • lighter (1)
  • Petri dish, glass (1)
  • Petri dish, plastic (1)

Resources Provided


Print one copy of the 1.2 Expressing Ideas Tool for Ethanol Burning, Big Idea Probe: Fill 'Er Up, and 1.2 Systems and Scale Storyline Reading: Learning from the Work of Elizabeth Fulhame  for each student. Prepare a computer and projector to display the presentation.


1. Have students discuss the pretest

Ask students to share questions they have after taking the pretest (for instance, on the back of their 1.2 Expressing Ideas Tool for Ethanol Burning). Explain that we will try to answer most of those during the Systems and Scale unit.


Use the student responses to the class discussions and also their ideas on the 1.2 Expressing Ideas Tool for Ethanol Burning, as well as the 1.2 Assessing the Expressing Ideas Tool for Ethanol Burning to assess their thinking at the beginning of the unit. By the end of the unit, students should be able to explain that ethanol is an organic material and water is inorganic. For now, listen to students’ ideas, with attention to how they describe matter and energy. In particular, suggestions that ethanol is “flammable” or “a fuel” are ideas that you will be able to build on. It will be unusual at this point for students to be able to identify properties that predict or explain why some materials are flammable and others or not (for instance, that flammable materials largely originated in living things—recently or millions of years ago—or specific chemical properties of flammable materials). They will learn to do this in this unit.


If you are teaching this to multiple classes, you can save different versions of the PPT, with Slide 8 completed for each block. Alternatively, have all classes combine their answers and have students look for similarities and differences.

Extending the Learning

In preparation for the rest of the unit, encourage students to conduct independent research on why some things burn and some things don’t. Students can read more about Elizabeth Fulhame, whose work contributed to the development of photography and scientists' understanding of chemical changes. Some additional resources with information about Elizabeth Fulhame: