What's This Stuff?

Type Category
Instructional Materials
Game , Instructor Guide/Manual , Informative Text , Interactive Simulation , Lesson/Lesson Plan , Student Guide
This resource, vetted by NSTA curators, is provided to teachers along with suggested modifications to make it more in line with the vision of the NGSS. While not considered to be “fully aligned,” the resources and expert recommendations provide teachers with concrete examples and expert guidance using the EQuIP rubric to adapted existing resources. Read more here.




In this activity, students use a series of clues to identify ten types of materials, some natural and others man-made.  Video clues and written clues are provided, and use of internet research is encouraged. The activity can be structured as a research project, or as a game. Teacher notes, a student booklet, and a background essay about materials science written for students are also included.

Intended Audience

Educator and learner
Educational Level
  • Grade 8
  • Grade 7
  • Grade 6
  • Middle School
Access Restrictions

Free access - The right to view and/or download material without financial, registration, or excessive advertising barriers.

Performance Expectations

MS-PS1-2 Analyze and interpret data on the properties of substances before and after the substances interact to determine if a chemical reaction has occurred.

Clarification Statement: Examples of reactions could include burning sugar or steel wool, fat reacting with sodium hydroxide, and mixing zinc with hydrogen chloride.

Assessment Boundary: Assessment is limited to analysis of the following properties: density, melting point, boiling point, solubility, flammability, and odor.

This resource appears to be designed to build towards this performance expectation, though the resource developer has not explicitly stated so.

Comments about Including the Performance Expectation
The resource is best suited for the beginning of an instructional sequence leading to this PE. The resource focuses on allowing students to discover that every substance has a unique combination of properties, and that properties can be used to identify substances. The resource does not delve into chemical reactions, so lessons about physical vs. chemical change might be the logical next step in a lesson progression aiming at this PE.

Science and Engineering Practices

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this science and engineering practice.

Comments about Including the Science and Engineering Practice
The students are encouraged to use a variety of sources to discover the identities of the mystery materials. The clues provided include video clues, written clues, image clues, and the Periodic Table of the Elements. Students are also encouraged to use internet websites for their research. A teacher may want to provide specific resources for the students to use in their own research, in order to ensure that students are exposed to a variety of types of information as they search on their own, or to guide students who might struggle with figurative language and idioms and who will therefore need resources that closely align with the more literal clues. Alternatively, the teacher could use the students’ own research as part of a lesson on trustworthy vs. untrustworthy resources, and/or on the value of using a variety of types of sources. This resource is highly suited for group work, in which students with a variety of skills and life experiences are likely to decipher more clues than would an individual student working alone.

Disciplinary Core Ideas

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this disciplinary core idea.

Comments about Including the Disciplinary Core Idea
The purpose of the activity is for students to identify a range of materials based on their properties. If a teacher wanted to highlight the vocabulary of physical vs. chemical properties, the activity could be extended. Students could be asked to identify a physical property and a chemical property of each identified material. Some of the materials’ clues refer to both types of properties, but others do not, so extended research would be necessary, and the teacher would need to introduce the specific vocabulary of “physical property” and “chemical property”. The optional background essay also alludes to both physical and chemical properties, but does not use that vocabulary. A teacher could introduce the terms and then ask students to locate/annotate examples in the background essay.

Crosscutting Concepts

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this crosscutting concept.

Comments about Including the Crosscutting Concept
In the video introduction/explanation of the task, the presenter specifically points out that one clue alone will likely not lead to an answer, but when clues are combined, “a pattern will emerge”. The multimedia nature of the clues includes charts and images, though graphs are not included. The student research booklet asks students to share both their guesses and how they figured them out. This would be a great opportunity for teachers to ask students to specifically identify a pattern they noticed, or a pattern in a chart or image that they made use of, in order to make their guess.

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this crosscutting concept.

Comments about Including the Crosscutting Concept
Both structure and function appear in the clues for each material, and in some cases the connection is made explicit. The man-made materials in particular emphasize how the structure can be designed to serve a function (e.g. the link between Kevlar’s polymer structure and its strength), while the natural materials emphasize how an existing natural structure can be leveraged to serve specific functions (e.g. bamboo’s root system making it useful for erosion control projects). A teacher could make sure the connection to the cross-cutting concept is highlighted by asking students to choose some substances and explain how their structures relate to their functions.

Resource Quality

  • Alignment to the Dimensions of the NGSS: The resource launches students into a puzzle or conundrum right away: what are these items? The task is designed to highlight the core idea of materials having characteristic properties. The practice of obtaining and evaluating information is central to completion of the task, and the cross-cutting idea of structure and function is repeatedly referenced in the clues. Students use patterns observed throughout the clues to make their observations. The resource does not address the whole of a performance expectation, but is well-suited for an introductory lesson to a unit or storyline about chemical reactions.

  • Instructional Supports: Students are engaged in using evidence to “solve a mystery”, and are asked to share not only their guesses, but their reasoning. The teacher’s guide offers suggestions for multiple ways to run the activity, allowing for differentiation within a classroom, or simply tailoring to a class’ needs. A glossary is provided for vocabulary support or extension. For students who benefit from a big-picture concept to “hang” specific examples on, the optional background essay provides this frame. Some clues rely on figurative language, wordplay and idioms; ELL students may need extra support with those clues. Students may benefit from being given a variety of answers, real and “fake” to choose among.

  • Monitoring Student Progress: The Teacher’s Guide suggests collecting the student booklet for scoring, but does not offer a scoring guide or rubric. The student guide as written will need some small modifications to highlight students’ understanding of the cross-cutting concept (see Tips above). The student guide offers only one modality for assessing proficiency, open-ended written explanations. A writing frame may be useful for some students, while others might be asked to model their process. As a more practical step from “what are these things?” a teacher could pose a question or scenario involving a material needed for a specific purpose. Students could decide which of the ten materials was best suited, and use the claim-evidence-reasoning format either orally or in writing.

  • Quality of Technological Interactivity: The clickability, building toward a goal, interesting and “cool” content, variety of types of clues, and awarding of points, are well-designed and motivational. The interactivity is not individualized except in the sense that students can choose which substances to investigate and which clues to view, in which order. The website uses Flash, which may be an issue for some computer systems or tablets.