August 9, 2008

Using Object Boxes to Teach the Form, Function, and Vocabulary of the Parts of the Human Eye

By Rule, Audrey C Welch, Genne

Abstract. These science activities for elementary students focus on the external structures and functions of the human eye with hands- on object box activities based on the Montessori theory (1966) of concrete learning through manipulation of objects and focus of attention through touch. Object boxes are sets of items and corresponding cards housed in a box. Two types of object boxes are highlighted: (a) form and function analogy object boxes that describe the structures and functions of external parts of the human eye along with analogous manufactured items exhibiting the same forms and functions and (b) words with multiple meanings object boxes that present objects and two different meanings of eye- related words. These activities use analogy to help learners construct connections between previous and new learning along with developing vocabulary for better thinking and communication. Keywords: eye form and function, Montessori, object box

This set of classroom-tested science activities related to the structure and function of the human eye addresses instructional methods that allow learners to be actively engaged in inquiry for deep understanding of concepts, rather than merely memorizing terms and labeling diagrams. In the following sections we describe the importance of addressing student misconceptions, the roles of analogy and vocabulary in science learning, the theoretical underpinning of the activities, and national standards that support elementary student learning about the structure and function of the eye.

The Role of Analogy and Vocabulary in Alleviating Science Misconceptions

Students use their experiences to construct meaning about how the world works (Colburn 2007; Wubbels 1992). These mental models are unique and individual, but often they have inconsistencies. For example, students may think one thing but verbalize another because of memorized facts (Glynn and Duit 1995). Student ideas that differ from scientific explanations may reappear after instruction if the teacher does not directly address them. Such persistent misunderstandings have several contributing causes, including inappropriate analogies (Dickerson and Dawkins 2004; Dickerson et al. 2005; Rule 2005), terminology (Gair and Stancliffe 1988; Duit 1991; Patterson and Harbor 2005; Prather 2005; Shepardson, Harbor, and Wee 2005), and level of abstraction (Ben-zvi-Assarf and Orion 2005). However, they may be reduced with inquiry, active engagement teaching methods (Akinoglu and Ozkardes 2007; Colburn 2007), and targeting of misunderstood ideas (Hudson 2007). "It is thus critical that children's prior knowledge is taken into account in designing instruction that capitalizes on the leverage points and adequately addresses potential areas of misunderstanding" (Duschl, Schweingruber, and Shouse 2006, ES-3). The activities we present in this article address these causes by focusing on analogy and vocabulary-both common words and scientific terms-through concrete examples for deeper understanding.

Analogies are useful in teaching new concepts to students because they link prior understanding with the new information for a connected framework of ideas. Analogical reasoning enables learners to transfer knowledge from initial to future learning contexts, producing a body of broadly applied knowledge (Gentner, Holyoak, and Kokinov 2001). The main reason analogies may fail to improve student learning is that students may not understand the analogy (Thiele and Treagust 1994). Using analogies familiar to students and supplying specific examples of the analogs facilitates understanding. However, misconceptions can arise when students extend analogies too far (Duit 1991; Zook 1991); therefore, it is important that students map the similarities and differences between the target (i.e., the new concept) and analog (i.e., the familiar item; Glynn 1991). Analogy activities that incorporate student verbalization (Glynn and Takahashi 1998; Paris and Glynn 2004) and generation of new analogies (Wong 1993) are particularly effective. Even 2nd-grade students (Rule, Baldwin, and Schell, 2008, forthcoming) are capable of sophisticated manipulation of form and function analogies such as those presented in this article.

Vocabulary plays an important role in initiating and reinforcing many conceptual problems (Duit 1991; Gair and Stancliffe 1988; Patterson and Harbor 2005; Prather 2005; Shepardson, Harbor, and Wee 2005; Watts 1983). Students often confuse the meanings of words that have both a common meaning and a more technical or scientific one. For example, Rule (2005), in investigating elementary students' ideas about fossil fuels, found that elementary students confused cooking oil with motor oil and petroleum, and mixed the meanings of gas for vehicles (gasoline) and natural gas (methane). Furthermore, a large vocabulary bank for reasoning about and communicating science experiences is important (Vygotsky 1989). The reason students copy encyclopedia entries for reports instead of writing ideas is that they lack the vocabulary and experience to understand and reword what they read (Balaithy 1988). Vocabulary is also important in reading comprehension of science books, which often contain more terminology than texts for learning a foreign language (Anderson and Freebody 1981; Davis 1944; Nelson-Herber 1986; Yager 1983).

Teaching Science Vocabulary

Hands-on instruction using objects and word definition cards to teach common and scientific meanings of words has been shown to be effective in helping students learn science concepts and increase vocabulary (Rule and Barrera 2003; Rule et al. 2006). An activity that houses such a set of materials in a shoebox, called an object box, is based on Montessori theory (1966). Maria Montessori believed students needed experiences with materials to learn: "[T]o develop his mind, a child must have objects in his environment which he can see and hear. Since he must develop himself through his movements, through the work of his hands, he has need of objects for his work that can provide motivation for his activity" (Montessori 1966, 82). According to Sobe (2004), "The central feature in Montessori's attention pedagogy . . . was the concentration that the sense of touch afforded" (288). Tactile experiences with holding and arranging objects allow the learner to interpret what is seen, guide the accuracy of vision, and focus attention (Tozier 1911). Montessori developed many object box activities for teaching reading, writing, and language skills. The object box concept has been applied to science education with positive results (Rule 1999; Rule and Barrera 1999, 2003; Rule, Barrera, and Stewart 2004; Rule and Furletti 2004; Rule et al. 2006; Rule and Rust 2001). This science activity demonstrates how to use 2 types of science object box activities to teach the structure and function of the human eye to elementary students. The first object box explores the form and function of the human eye and analogous manufactured items, and the second object box focuses on eye-related words with multiple meanings.

National Standards Related to Structure and Function of the Eye

The National Science Education Standards highlight the importance of elementary students understanding the structure and function of the human eye. Content Standard C (National Research Council 1996) states that, as a result of activities in Grades K-4, all students should develop understanding of the characteristics of organisms: "Each plant or animal has different structures that serve different functions in growth, survival, and reproduction. For example, humans have distinct body structures for walking, holding, seeing, and talking" (129). Additionally, form and function is a unifying theme for science lessons suggested by the National Research Council (1996) and one of the main ideas of science.


For a class of 24 students, working in 4 groups of 6 students, provide:

* Paper and pencils or crayons for drawing diagrams of the external parts of a classmate's eye

* A diagram of the external parts of the human eye (see Figure 1)

* 4 form and function analogy object boxes (e.g., shoeboxes) containing a set of word cards and accompanying objects. The card fronts and backs are shown in Figure 2. Glue the corresponding cards together and then laminate them, or mount them on the front and back of mat board rectangles. Gather these objects for each set: a miniature roof with cardboard shingles, doll's raincoat, garage door remote control, egg carton, shoulder pad, bag with a drawstring, toy window from a building set, and ballpoint pen.

* 4 words with multiple meanings object boxes containing 4-6 word cards with accompanying definitions and objects. Try to make at least 2 different sets. See suggested words and objects in Table 1 and the example layout in Figure 3.


1. Students form pairs or groups of 3. They fold a piece of paper in half horizontally. On the top half, they sketch a partner's eye, carefully drawing all visible parts. Students label as many parts as they can. Then students brainstorm and discuss possible functions of each eye part, recording their ideas. 2. The teacher leads a discussion with student input while sketching a model eye on the board or showing an overhead transparency or electronic image (see Figure 1). Students make a drawing of this sketch on the lower half of their paper. The teacher adds the scientific terms for the visible parts of the eye and explains their functions, as indicated in Table 2. Students label their sketches. They compare and contrast their previously recorded ideas with those that were relayed by the teacher.

3. Students explore form and function analogy object boxes related to the external parts of the human eye. Each group is provided with an object box-a set of objects and cards housed in a shoebox. The students remove the objects and cards from the box, placing the objects on the desk or table surface and turning all cards to the front side while stacking them. Students choose a card from the stack, reading the front of the card, and noting the underlined form (physical characteristic such as shape, color, pattern, elasticity, configuration, or motion), along with its italicized function. They then attempt to locate an analogous manufactured item with the same form and function in the set of objects from the box. Each card is placed next to its corresponding object. After all cards have been paired with objects, students check their work by reading explanations on the backs of the cards. Card fronts are shown on the left and card backs are shown on the right in Figure 2.

4. The teacher demonstrates mapping an analogy on the board, asking for student input. Table 3 shows an example mapping of an analogy. Working in pairs, students choose an object and map the analogy. They then share their ideas with the class.

5. The teacher demonstrates how to generate other analogs for a concept in the form and function analogy object box. For example, the teacher asks: What other tough but sensitive items that make something close when touched might have been used instead of a garage door opener as an analog for eyelashes? Student responses might include a mousetrap, a button on a computer CD drive, or an electric stapler. Then students try to generate other possible analogs for the item they have just mapped.

6. Students create new analogies (written on index cards) for parts of the human eye that are not addressed by the cards and objects provided in the form and function analogy object boxes. These include the blood vessels, the nasolacrimal tear duct, the pupil, and the brow ridge. Table 4 shows possible results of student- generated analogies for additional external parts of the human eye.

7. Students use books to research the parts and functions of the eye and locate information on the Internet on an eye-related topic of choice. Possible topics include internal parts of the eye and their functions, eye exams (e.g., types of tests), common diseases of the eye (e.g., cataracts, glaucoma, retinal detachment), eyeglasses and how they work (e.g., types of lenses and coatings and how they correct myopia, hyperopia, and astigmatism), eyerelated careers, history of inventions related to the eye, color blindness, and blindness. Students make a poster to present information to others.

8. Students work in 4 small groups. Each group is given an object box that focuses on eye-related vocabulary words that have multiple meanings. Each box contains 4-6 word cards, with 2 different definitions for each word and an object that corresponds to each definition. Therefore, if the box contains 5 word cards, there also will be 10 definitions and 10 objects included in the box. Possible words and meanings are shown in Table 1. Students remove the word cards, definitions, and objects from the box to construct an orderly layout of materials on the desk or table surface as shown in Figure 3. The words are arranged as a vertical column in the center of the layout. On the sides of each word students place 2 objects representing the word's meanings. The corresponding definitions are then placed next to the objects to form a row of definitions and objects pertaining to the word card at the center. After arranging the materials, students record their work on a piece of paper. Then groups switch boxes and complete a new layout until they have seen all the eye-related words with 2 meanings.

Safety: The items used in the object boxes should be clean, durable, and in good condition. Never use dangerous, sharp, or poisonous materials. If medicine is required as an item, use a clean, empty container or simulated pills (perhaps painted papier- mache). Real food should not be used, as it presents too much temptation for some students and the candy or food will not be sanitary after being handled by students. Three-dimensional objects are better than flat images, so make every attempt to provide threedimensional objects or models so students can view the items from many angles and touch them. Colorful and attractive items are preferred; if making a model, do not hesitate to use bright colors and add glitter or sequins.


1. Look for inexpensive objects to use. Begin by examining junk accumulating in drawers at home and used toys (visit charity thrift stores where small toys and items are often bagged and sold at low cost). Shop at dollar stores, craft stores, discount emporiums, and garage or rummage sales. You might also ask students or their parents to bring in items to use for the activity.

2. Making items can cut the cost of a set of materials.

* Try sculpting items out of colorful acrylic polymer clay (it will harden to a tough plastic after being baked in the oven), white craft glue and copy paper, or thin plastic from lids and other items that you would normally recycle.

* Some items might be made by cutting, sewing, and stuffing fabric and adding details with sewn-on beads or embroidery.

* Colorful craft foam is easily glued in layers to form objects.

* Sometimes locating an image through an Internet search, printing it, mounting it on mat board, and then decorating it with glitter or three-dimensional features is the best solution to reproducing a hard-to-find object.

Results of Classroom Testing

A class of 15 fourth-grade students in a voluntary afterschool science program at a rural public elementary school in central New York State participated in the lesson presented in this article. We pretested and posttested the students to see what they gained from the activities. Students did not study or review the material outside of the after-school program.

On the pretest, students were able to draw and correctly label 2 parts of the human eye (usually eyelash and eyelid), whereas this increased to an average of 3 items on the posttest. Many students added the words iris, pupil, blood vessel, and orbit to their vocabularies. Similarly, students were able to supply correct definitions for an average of only 1 eye part on the pretest, but 3 eye parts on the posttest.

We also asked students to match eye-related words with their scientific and everyday meanings. On the pretest, students were able to correctly match approximately 14 definitions with words, whereas on the posttest they were able to match an average of approximately 25 of a possible 40. The teacher observed that students enjoyed the lessons, making such comments as "That was fun" and "I didn't know that before." When the object boxes were used, students worked well together and showed enthusiasm, asking, "Where is the next box? We finished this one," and "We are ready for the next box." They treated the materials with care and cooperatively took turns.

Extension and Application

* The emphasis on vocabulary and words with multiple meanings provides opportunities for integration with reading and language arts. Students might make their own object boxes related to another science topic. If finding real objects is a problem, students may print images of the objects from Internet searches and mount them on index cards. Definitions and word cards may also be written on index cards.

* Have students think of other words for parts of the body that have 2 meanings, such as foot (body part with toes or unit of measure), calf (lower part of leg or young cow), elbow (arm joint or pipe bend), nail (protective covering on fingertip or metal peg), shoulder (top of arm joint or edge of road), and hip (joint at top of leg or type of roof).

* Students may choose to make an object box that focuses on the form and function of the parts of a body system (e.g., digestive system, circulatory system; see examples in Rule and Furletti 2004)- or adaptations of animal body parts (see suggestions in Rule, Baldwin, and Schell 2008, forthcoming).


We found that our students engaged actively in all of the activities presented here. They particularly enjoyed working with the object boxes and arranging vocabulary cards, objects, and definitions. Making the object boxes was an investment in time and materials, but we will be able to use them again in the future. Students expressed an interest in making object boxes of their own; this is a way to create more materials while actively involving students.


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AUDREY C. RULE is an associate professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls.

GENNE WELCH is a substitute teacher in the Oswego city school district in upstate New York.

Copyright (c) 2008 Heldref Publications

Copyright Heldref Publications Summer 2008

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