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Forums / Chemistry / And Now There are 5 - teaching states of matter


And Now There are 5 - teaching states of matter

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Carolyn Mohr Carolyn Mohr 92326 Points

I remember when there were only 3! Now we have 5 or more states of matter to contend with. Since I teach preservice teachers, I am wondering if the middle and high school science texts are including up to 5 states of matter. I know it takes a while for text book companies to 'keep up', and I am wondering if since the 5th state is so elusive, should it be taught in elementary and middle school? Is the 4th state of matter being taught in elementary classrooms? AND are the state assessments up-to-date? What are your thoughts?

Kathryn Kennedy Kathryn Kennedy 9065 Points

Hi Carolyn - I teach 9th grade physical science and I include all states of matter. I actually pose this question to the students, 'What are the different states of matter?' and then we do a webquest for them to determine the answer. We also talk about primary versus secondary sources and the reliability of a website on this day. Students then create bumper stickers (take a piece of paper, cut it vertically in half) to remember the different states of matter and their descriptions. I would be curious to hear how other people discuss the different states of matter in their classrooms. Cheers! Kathryn

 Steve Staley 2480 Points

I teach 6th grade science and our program only teaches 3 though plasma has been introduced.

Kendra Young Kendra Young 17180 Points

Five? When? Really? Oh man. Seriously, I teach four states of matter in the 7th grade but would have mentioned the fifth had I known about it. Like plasma, I know it wouldn't be on a state assessment or anything like that, but I don't want my students to get to a higher grade level and think, "But Mrs. Young said there were only FOUR states of matter..." so I would do the same as with plasma. "You're not required to know about this one yet, I'm just giving you a preview of things to come." However, I've now also seen discussions mention 7 states of matter. In which case, I would probably revert to keeping my middle school students on those states of matter found on earth, and just letting them know there are more "out there." What are some of the other thoughts on this?

Louise McMinn Louise McMinn 5600 Points

I agree that you should mention all five phases to students, even in middle school. Teachers need to emphasize that science is always changing, and that we learn new ideas every day. However, most middle school students have difficulty even applying the three phases, especially when discussing phase changes and absorption and release of heat. For those I would stay with the three phases.

Ruth Hutson Ruth Hutson 64775 Points

Carolyn wrote, 'I am wondering if the middle and high school science texts are including all 5 states of matter. I know it takes a while for text book companies to 'keep up', and I am wondering if since the 5th state is so elusive, should it be taught in elementary and middle school?'

If you are referring to the Bose-Einstein condensate, I can tell you how I deal with it. I introduce it as a 5th state of matter when we study thermodynamics in my physics class. The class is mostly juniors and seniors. I feel they can understand the special circumstances necessary for a Bose-Einstein condensate to form. It is not in our textbook, but online forums do discuss it and there is even an outstanding PBS program about it---Absolute Zero. Most of my physics class is college bound so I feel it is necessary to introduce this state of matter.

Plasma as a fourth state of matter is standard fair. I think you can introduce the concept to elementary school students, but younger elementary students would find it a hard concept to grasp. We cover plasma as a state of matter with my freshmen, they accept it, and have some background knowledge from their junior high science courses. However, I don't think they truly understand what it is until they take chemistry.

I do not think it is necessary for elementary school teachers to introduce the fifth state of matter. If they can help their students understand phase changes between solids, liquids, and gases, they will have provided a solid background for middle school teachers to introduce plasma and high school teachers to introduce Bose-Einstein condensates.

Just my opinion....what do others think?

Pamela Auburn Pamela Auburn 68625 Points

Deciding when and how to introduce complex current information is always hard. One of the factors influencing that is the existence age appropriate accessible conceptual models. I agree that accessible models of BEC are not easy to come by; especially for younger students and those who are concrete thinkers. Skimming for web-based options I came across the following There is also a nice interactive animation here for more detailed background start here This is a nice description from the BBC One advantage I see to introducing BEC early is that it teaches students that science is alive and well and happening in their lifetime. Pam

Ronaldo Relador Ronaldo Relador 45315 Points

I believe that if the first three states of matter have been thought earlier in a student's life (before 4th grade), there's no need to be introducing them to the 5 states of matter neither in middle school of in high school. And I believe even the plasma state could be observed in their classrooms as early as Kindergarten so explaining to them about it in depth would not be at all impossible task. Now, the fifth state becomes their pride when they learn in middle school or 9th grade in Physical Science, because they are learning the fifth one.

Lorrie Armfield Lorrie Armfield 51438 Points

Interestingly enough, I attended a professional development today sponsored by Discovery Education entitled “Water, Water, Everywhere”. All matter is either mass or non-mass. Falling into one of these two categories are the 7 states of matter: 1. solid 2. liquid 3. gas 4. plasma 5. Bose-Einstein condensates and fermionic condensates 6. beam 7. thought wave. There are also lesser phases, which are worth looking into if interested in the subject. These include quark-gluon plasma, Rydberg matter, degenerate matter, strange matter, superfluids, supersolids, and string-net liquids. I personally am sticking with the three original states in Middle School (with a mention of plasma). “Everything is Matter, and Matter is Everything". LA

Jennifer Rahn Jennifer Rahn 67955 Points

I agree that it is important to keep it concrete through middle school at least. Even my high school students would have a great deal of difficulty identifying some of the more esoteric states of matter.

Eileen Blakeslee Eileen Blakeslee 4385 Points

I agree that middle school students have enough trouble having a complete understanding of all of the facets of the 3 states of matter. Our curriculum has them focusing on those. However, any time that science information becomes available, I think, that students should be made aware of it. I like the idea that mentioned doing a web search of the 5 states of matter. This could give the students a quick intro that would become in-depth in high school.

Ruth Hutson Ruth Hutson 64775 Points

Lorrie wrote, 'There are also lesser phases, which are worth looking into if interested in the subject. These include quark-gluon plasma, Rydberg matter, degenerate matter, strange matter, superfluids, supersolids, and string-net liquids.'

I am so glad you mentioned these lesser phases. Personally, it boggles my mind to think about them. I think it would be fun to have an extension activity where my juniors and seniors did some internet research to determine the characteristics of these phases and the conditions under which they are formed. I think it would open their minds to the amazing phase possibilities of matter.

Last year, in my physics class, I introduced Bose-Einstein condensates. It took my students awhile before the fully grasped the conditions necessary for this state of matter to occur. It's not like we can simulate it in the lab. :-) I had one student believe she could 'cook up' this state of matter at home until she suddenly understood how cold 'approaching absolute zero' was. I loved the look on her face when she had that realization...everything that we had discussed up to that point suddenly made sense to her.

Donald Boonstra Donald Boonstra 8585 Points

I think it is very important to introduce concepts when a student is cognitively ready. It is perfectly OK, I think to talk about three states of matter and still let students know that, as they learn more science, they will encounter more states of matter. This is also true of the many increasingly abstract definitions of mass. Telling students the definitions of different states of matter isn't really helpful -as Ruth pointed out when her student had that ah-ha moment. Most text books define plasma as a gas made of charged particles. That isn't entirely false, but as a NASA plasma scientist said to me one day in a wonderful discussion about plasma and K-12 education - would you be happy defining a gas as a liquid that is moving faster? That would mean a high speed stream of water is a gas. He said that defining a plasma as a gas in which the particles have a charge is as limiting. So,until students are cognitively and experientially ready to grasp the essential properties of a plasma - perhaps the most important of which is the creation of magnetic fields when charges move and the complexity of these fields with the twisting of currents in a plasma and magnetic reconnections that occur from these flows - then the students aren't ready to appreciate that state of matter,and you create misconceptions. I think it is always OK to tell students that as they progress in their understandings, they will have to revise what you are teaching now.

Lorrie Armfield Lorrie Armfield 51438 Points

Very Well Said Donald....I concur wholeheartedly!

Sue Garcia Sue Garcia 42675 Points

I teach 6th grade science and mention the five states of matter in terms of energy in my classroom. I have known about the BEC being accepted as the fifth state of matter for many years because one of my student-teachers, her college pre-service teacher's son was one of the original research scientists that worked on discovering it. You are correct, middle school students do not understand the concept-however when talking with my high school physics teachers about whether or not to use the "5-states of matter" in middle school, they were pleased that the term was being introduced and the fact that the students were learning that there were more than the four forms that we were currently teaching. (Plasma is briefly introduced in 5th grade as part of their Astronomy Unit.) There are many terms that my students do not fully understand, however by introducing the terms, students have the opportunity to attach future pieces of knowledge to what they have been exposed to, allowing further comprehension as they mature.

Brandy Stewart Brandy Stewart 7755 Points

I mention the 5 states of matter in 5th grade, in fact, I did just 2 weeks ago; however, I only focus on the 3. My students recited the 3 stages in rote as if they probably started learning it in Kindergarten, but when I introduced plasma I had them glued. I think one, they love that their teacher is a total Science nerd, but honestly, I am enthralled with plasma as well. I don't believe that in 5th grade it is too early. Like you guys said, if they are cognitively ready, they are. You could even just use it as an extension if you feel it is over their heads for your higher group.

Susan Aycock Susan Aycock 805 Points

Since there ARE 5 states of matter, it is important to introduce them. Even though the elementary curricula currently only require 3 states of matter, introducing them all early helps students later on. This scaffolding of information increases student interests and retention. We all know that the more often a student encounters information, the better that info is retained.

Vanessa Muhammad Vanessa Muhammad 540 Points

I totally agree!! We have to continue to help our students realize that science is ever changing, not to mention continue to encourage ourselves that science is ever changing!! I think it is very important to the academic growth of our students for them to be exposed (not tested) on many different facets of content....ZPD!!! Thanks for sharing everyone.

Guillermo Alleyne Guillermo Alleyne 865 Points

I teach 8th grade Physical Science and since last year, I have discussions on the fourth state of matter, Plasma. It is not an SOL question, but I believe that it is vital for the students to learn that science is constantly changing and evolving and that as a scientist our job is to expose the truth.

LeRoy Attles LeRoy Attles 56550 Points

Can someone give examples and pictures of the 4th and 5th States of matter. I know they exist but can not speak on them anymore than that. I need some examples to help my own understanding Thanks

Guillermo Alleyne Guillermo Alleyne 865 Points

LeRoy, I have a picture and some information about plasma. I will have to scan it and send it by tomorrow.

Carolyn Mohr Carolyn Mohr 92326 Points

I love all the comments and thoughts about teaching more than the 3 basic states of matter easily occurring on our planet. From your various comments I am hearing some agreement that it is important to be cognizant of our students' conceptual abilities to understand, while at the same time not limiting their thinking and understanding by teaching states of matter as "set in stone" pieces of information. I can still remember when someone first introduced me to plasma. (I was already a teacher and had learned there were only 3 states of matter!) Imagine, I thought - anything being able to be so hot that it can plasmalize?! If you don't see my naive or faulty thinking in that last haha moment, please read Dr. Bill Robertson's article about what causes the three states (and more) of matter: [url=]Science 101- What Causes the Different States of Matter?[/url] I also think the [url=]Science Object[/url] on this topic is an excellent resource for helping expand elementary teachers' conceptual thinking on the states of matter. I think it is important to share with our students - limitless thinking. If we are careful to not teach things as if they are set in stone, then students will not get the idea early on that there are only 2 or 3 of anything. (Do some of you remember when there were only two kingdoms of living things?) Getting back to states of matter and helping students see that a state of matter is more complicated than just heating and freezing water-I like to include a discrepant event involving oobleck during my unit on states of matter. The article [url=]Oobleck and Beyond[/url] includes how to make it. Thanks for sharing everyone. It is so helpful to me to hear others' views on these important teaching concepts. It makes me a more reflective practitioner and your ideas and expertise help me be a better teacher!

Ruth Hutson Ruth Hutson 64775 Points

Leroy wrote, 'Can someone give examples and pictures of the 4th and 5th States of matter. I know they exist but can not speak on them anymore than that. I need some examples to help my own understanding'

Hi Leroy,

Some examples of artificially induced plasma are plasma televisions and neon signs. Naturally occurring Earth bound examples are lightning and St. Elmo's fire. Naturally astronomical examples are our Sun and other stars. These represent plasmas heated by nuclear fusion. Accretion discs and nebulae are also examples of plasma.

Bose-Einstein condensates are on the opposite end of the heating/cooling curve. The first 'pure' B-E condensate was only 2000 atoms in size. The method in which it was produced is highlighted in the NOVA special Absolute Zero. The film can be streamed here for free. It is well worth the time if you do not know much about this state of matter. If you don't want to watch the entire show, you can skip to chapter 9 which talk about the teams of scientists that are credited for producing this state of matter and their extreme experiments.

Kathy Ceceri Kathy Ceceri 35 Points

I found this thread looking up states of matter for a project I am including in an activity book for parents and their kids from the editors of I only learned about the fourth state of matter last spring, working my way through the "Joy of Science" videos with my homeschooled kids. (And we watched "Absolute Zero," but somehow I didn't pick up that they were talking about a fifth state of matter!) Given that many kids never take physics in high school or college, I agree with those who say to introduce these concepts as early as possible. I also agree that kids need to learn that science is an always evolving body of facts and discoveries, not a set of answers in a book. But I really just wanted to point readers of this thread to two plasma demonstrations I did with my kids. These would work at any age and are dramatic enough to make a lasting impression! Go to and

Pamela Auburn Pamela Auburn 68625 Points

LeRoy and others. The Jefferson Lab has wonderful educational outreach materials available on-line (my absolute favorite periodic table, but that is off topic). Here is a link to their very understandable description of a plasma

Brandy Stewart Brandy Stewart 7755 Points

Kathy, those are great resources. I will be using them very soon!!

Laura Jones Laura Jones 9735 Points

Wow, I sure don't leep up on stuff. I do think that we need to emphasize that science is always changing and progressing--we all get locked into what we learned first and have to actively change our thinking when larger thought changes. THanks for this information.

Betty Paulsell Betty Paulsell 48560 Points

I have found all these posts to be very interesting to read and have learned much from reading them all. I taught sixth grade and introduced my students to all five states of matter, but we only explored the basic three in detail. Students need to know that five states of matter exist, but I do not feel that they are ready to understand the two others until they get more experience in science and develop the thinking skills to handle more complex concepts. If they go home and discuss states of matter with parents most parents will think there are only three. Children are proud to say to their parents that science changes constantly and they have learned there are two more states of matter to be studied. This could lead to parents and children exploring science together at home.

Lorrie Armfield Lorrie Armfield 51438 Points

Excellent post Betty. Just imagine how powerful learning could become for a scholar if a parent were to engage in such an activity (activities)! This would go a long way to helping scholars see the value of science beyond the walls of the classroom.

Caroline Encomienda Caroline Encomienda 720 Points

I love reading all the comments and ideas on states of matter. I agree that as teachers it is our responsibility in keeping our students abreast with the changing times and the progress that is happening in science. I have always concentrated in teaching the 3 states although I always introduce 4. Now I will definitely revise my teaching to introduce more states of matter. The information and suggestions are all very helpful. I did take notes of the websites and lessons. Thank you all.

Lorrie Armfield Lorrie Armfield 51438 Points

Hi Kathy, The resources you highlighted are great;I especially like the following Looking forward to showing this to my scholars. Thanks a billion for sharing. LA

Lorrie Armfield Lorrie Armfield 51438 Points

Greetings Guillermo, Like LeRoy, I too am looking forward to your information on plasma. Thanks for your willingness to share with us. I absolutely learn so much every time I log onto the forum. Scientifically yours, LA

Rochelle Tamiya Rochelle Tamiya 4095 Points

I agree with Louise....I do go over, as a review the 3 states of matter with my 7th graders as we discuss the water cycle, however, it is the STUDENT that often says, "yes, but what do you call slime? It's not a liquid but it's not a solid right?"...interesting enough, there are a lot of students who inquisitively such questions on their own. Like Louise, I briefly discuss (basic description; not chemistry based definition)the plasma state but instead of going into details about the plasma state, instead I do emphasis to students all the time, that science itself is constantly changing - that's what makes it so interesting and so fascinating...(like how it was once believed that all living things need oxygen to survive....not so true today)...

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