Casey Middle School sixth graders used handheld digital microscopes connected to their laptops to look for differences between cooler and warmer melting blocks — as well as checking out their own skin, hair and clothes.

They also experimented with melting different-sized ice cubes on different materials, including a plastic compact disc, a piece of corkboard and an aluminum plate. They recorded the temperature of the different materials, made observations and then shared what they learned with a partner.

The students came up with the experiment ideas as they investigated why ice melted faster on a cooler-feeling ice melting block than on a warmer one, a phenomena introduced at the start of a unit on thermal energy transfer.

“You learn better if you do it yourself,” said sixth grader Aliah Hamel. “I like the experiments. I like how we get to explore and do stuff on our own.”

Jasmine Lujan, left, and Camila Ordaz take the temperature on a piece of fabric. Sixth grade students at Boulder’s Casey Middle School are investigating thermal energy. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

Erin Mayer, who teaches sixth and seventh grade science at Casey, is using student-driven learning expeditions to give her students a deeper understanding of science concepts.

“I love this method of teaching,” she said. “Students are engaged. They both own and drive their learning process. They learn to think and act like scientists to move their thinking forward.”

She uses the same basic method for all her units.

She starts by introducing something puzzling that can be figured out with science, asking students to make observations and ask questions. Then they model on paper what they think is going on, using words or drawings, before coming to a consensus as a class on what they know.

Next, the class creates a “driving questions” board. Students generate and categorize all their questions, which are posted on the board, and come up with ideas for investigations to figure out the answers. Mayer uses their ideas to plan out learning activities. At the end, students revise their original models based on what they learned.

“One of my favorite parts of every learning expedition is having them compare their initial models to their final models so they can see a visual representation of their growth,” Mayer said.

She said she pulls from OpenSciEd, an open source for middle school curriculum materials, as well as using Next Generation Science Standards. To plan, she uses a 3D learning framework that includes core disciplinary ideas, or standards; science and engineering practices; and cross-cutting concepts, or the patterns that connect and link different scientific ideas to one another.

She said her classes are self-paced and proficiency-based. She gives feedback instead of letter grades and requires students to demonstrate understanding before moving forward. Learning activities are classified as “must do’s,” “should do’s” and “aspire to’s,” allowing students to dig deeper if they choose.

“This format allows me to spend all of my class time working alongside kids, providing immediate feedback and working with small groups for those that need extra support,” she said.

At Casey last week, sixth grader Leo Garcia said he was surprised when the cold black melted the ice faster.

“I’m thinking maybe because it’s cold, it’s absorbing the temperature,” he said as he used the microscope to get a closer look at the melting blocks. “Let’s observe it.”

Classmate Alex Mahan used two sizes of ice and two materials, cloth and metal, for his investigation.

“It’s comparing the small one and the small one and the big one and the big one,” he said. “I think metal will melt the ice faster than the cloth. It’s science, so we have to figure it out.”