Most of the teachers I have met in my roles as a science educator, have expressed that the most difficult part of a science lesson is having everything they need, when they need it. For an Elementary Science Lesson, the materials you need are not all that difficult to come by, most can be found at the grocery store. If you are prepared and organised, an impromptu science lesson should be no problem. I found that the following article has some great advice on how to do this and I also have a few suggestions of my own.

1) Once you have found a lesson that works well, buy all the supplies you need and prepare a lesson box. Be sure you try all activities yourself first so you know how to troubleshoot in class if necessary.

2) Make sure you clearly label the box and include inside a copy of your lesson plan, any student worksheets or instructions, and a list of materials/amounts so you can restock when needed. The linked article suggests a shoebox for each student, but I would have a large box for each science lesson/topic and have small shoeboxes or baskets stacked away, so that you can fill and hand out to each table with enough materials for students to work in groups.

3) Keep the lesson box in a communal area so that all teachers have access to the materials. The advantage of having a large lesson box is that you can have a few different variations of the lesson plan for different year levels and the box can be shared throughout the school saving on costs for supplies.

If all of this still seems too much for you, there are different organisations that will do the hard work for you. Many universities or large science companies with an education division offer science lessons or teacher resources, so have a quick search for organisations near you!

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This episode Cath shows you how to make a set of scales and demonstrates the maths behind it. This will be great for a elementary math lesson and older students could even use this for studying the physics behind the forces acting on the scales.

Let us know what you think in the comments!

ps the title is wrong in the video, sorry about that – Rory

Constructivist learning theory suggests that people construct their own understanding and knowledge of the world through experience and reflection. Interestingly, this bears considerable resemblance to the model of the scientific method.

The scientific method is a stepwise process followed by scientists to answer research questions.

  • Step One: Hypothsise. Ask a question you would like to answer and based on your prior knowledge guess at the answer.
  • Step Two: Experiment. Test your hypothesis. Develop an experiment that allows you to address your question.
  • Step Three: Observe. Look to see what is happening. Did you find what you expected? What do your results mean?

If we compare it to a constructivist learning approach, a similar process emerges.

  • One: Knowledge. Every person has their own unique knowledge base within which they frame all new experiences.
  • Two: Experience. Each new experience challenges that knowledge base.
  • Three: Reflection. Upon reflection one must reconcile their experience with their knowledge base. This may mean the knowledge base remains unchanged (i.e. the new experience reinforced prior knowledge) or it may result in new ideas being incorporated if the experience is contradictory to prior experience.

Both are models of experiential learning and can be applied in all subjects to build knowledge. Constructivist learning theory aims to use experiential learning to engage student interest, encourage ownership of learning and promote cooperation. Experiential learning is widely recognised within science education as a valuable teaching approach. Experimentation allows students to investigate the world while learning science concepts. It helps students learn how to learn and how to answer their own questions while encouraging creative thinking about how they may test their ideas to address their questions. Some schools are having great success with this approach in all areas of learning (You can read a story about a school in the US here). Try it with your own students and see if you can excite their passion for learning using structured discovery.

If you try this, or have tried it in the past leave us a comment on how it goes/went!

Rob in the GreedhouseThis weekend as part of our first excursion to the Monash Science Centre (more on that later in the week) we visited Cath’s husband Rob in his greenhouse. The trip highlighted for me the importance of presenting a balanced view when teaching a subject especially a controversial one.

Rob is a biomedical researcher at Monash University where he is studying genetic modification. This is of course a very deep and interesting subject but also one that gets a lot of negative attention in the mainstream press. However Rob’s research is in an area you never hear about when people decry the evils of genetic modification.

The research Rob is performing is into improving the effectiveness of vaccines produced by plants and delivering the vaccine orally. In short they are using tomato’s to grow an oral vaccine for tuberculosis. This is an area of study that is of great import as this research could perhaps save many lives. It is however not the sort of thing you hear about when people talk about genetic modification, where the outside impression is of a poorly understood frakenscience (yes I made it up) invading our foodstuffs.

I will leave the debate on genetic modification in our food, and the labeling of such for another time (I am personally undecided on the presence of genetically modified food in our food, but very much for the labeling of its presence). However our excursion showed the need for balanced reporting, and more importantly, balanced education on just what is going on in a scientific field. For a student to get a good understanding of a subject they need their teachers to provided them with an unbiased view of the field, not just that which the mainstream is focused on.

Photos from our excursion.

Though our content is aimed at a slightly older audience with a few small changes all of our experiments and activities can be used for a kindergarten science lesson.

Aim for an experiential learning approach.

  • If children are physically able to do the activities, have them explore the activity at their own pace. If they are not, use the activity as a demonstration or prep materials so children are able to do some of the activity themselves.
  • Allow them to be amazed, excited and have fun with the activities. They have a lot of time to build their knowledge, but by exposing them to science you’ll inspire them to explore and question their world while creating experiences they can build on later.

Encourage play

  • Increasing amounts of research show that play is an important part of development. Children learn how things act in different situations while developing problem solving and fine motor skills.
  • At such a young age, the process can be the most important part. Children learn the basics of the scientific method through trial and error and by deciding to try something in a different way.
  • Don’t be afraid to just let them play.

Put learning in an everyday context

  • Encourage questions and have them think about where/when/how etc they might have experienced this before in their lives.
  • Use everyday language and materials to demonstrate ideas. This avoids extra explanations while emphasising that science is part of our everyday experiences.

September 21st, 2009[Video] Rocket Reactions

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This episode Cath shows you how to make a film canister rocket using a simple chemical reaction. This is perfect for a first grade science lesson as it is a great introduction to both physics and chemistry. Older students will get a lot out of this video as well, experimenting with different water/air ratios to produce the best reaction.

September 18th, 2009Science, teaching and controversy


Roman fresco from Boscoreale (source Wikipedia)

The “Thaumatrope” video and teaching notes we just posted take us into an area of science that is still developing. Whilst everyone agrees that there is an optical illusion occurring (it was first noted by the Romans some 2000 years ago), the science of what is causing the illusion is still being debated.

The ‘traditional’ hypothesis about this phenomenon was that of “persistence of vision”. This stated that the retina (the light sensing organs at the rear of the eye) holds an “after image” for about 1/25th of a second. This placed the reason for the optical illusion in the eye. Since the early 20th century, the understanding of the human vision system has placed far greater emphasis on what is occurring in the brain as images are processed. However, there is still no complete understanding of this.

As a consequence, there are various competing theories all claiming to explain the optical illusion that we can see in the thaumatrope.

This illuminates a very real problem that science teachers frequently encounter: students perceive science and its ‘truths’ as information that is fixed and unchanging. Part of a science teacher’s responsibility is to convey science as a field of study that is evidence based – and if new evidence comes to light, then the ‘truths’ change! Exploring subjects such as the thaumatrope allows us to show science as a living, changing field of study, one in which debates and uncertainty exist and highlight the evidence basis of scientific enquiry.

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Let us know what you think down in the comments!

Teacher’s notes for the Thaumatrope and it’s Optical Illusion

Have fun with the thaumatrope! Kids really enjoy finding out about themselves and learning about the limits our own bodies place on our ability to observe reality is an important part of being a scientist.

Teacher’s Notes PDF

What is actually going on?

Kids will be very comfortable with the concept of a camera and are likely to apply this conceptual model to how they see – and certainly the eye itself follows the same rules of optics as a camera. However we “see” not just with the eye but with the brain.

The eye collects the light and focuses it on the retina at the back of the eye. Here, the light signals are turned into electrical signals that are transported to the brain by the optic nerve.

It is the brain that processes these signals and assigns meaning to them. This processing takes time and our brains can only ’see’ about 20 images a second. If images are presented faster than this, then they merge into one another. Movies consist of a sequence of still images captured by a movie camera at about 24 images (frames) every second. These are then projected on to the movie screen at the same rate and we see them as an uninterrupted moving picture. TV uses this same principle, but this works at 25 images a second.

Early (silent) movies used 16 images (frame) per second but this speed was not really fast enough to present as smooth movement. These old movies are now shown at 24 frames per second and it is this speeding up that gives these movies their characteristic ‘faster than normal’ view of the world.

What is happening in the brain?

Originally, the illusion of the thaumatrope was explained by invoking a ‘processing delay’ in the brain. This delay was called persistence of vision to explain how a new image ‘runs into’ a previous image. This theory uses the idea of an after image which remains in our vision system which merges with the next image in a sequence of rapidly changing images.

As we gradually understand more about how the brain works, this simple model appears to be inadequate and modern theory suggests a pair of visual illusions are working together. These are Phi phenomenon and Beta movement.

Teacher’s Notes PDF

I read an article recently on the BBC website about the difficulty of media studies vs chemistry.

Based on the hard data i.e. the pass rate of the two subjects, it appears as though chemistry is the far easier subject. Putting all controversial arguments aside (and there are many), I think the article vastly under-estimates the effect of engagement on behalf of the students and the teachers on the results. In my own limited experience I have found that the enthusiasm of a teacher can have dramatic effects on the attitudes and interest of the students to the subject matter. Also, the inherent interest of a student can surpass even the most engaged of teachers. In lessons for science, as in every other topic teachers should strive to engage themselves and their students in the subject matter.

Children are not all that different from adults in that they have no time for things that do not interest them, or at least things that don’t serve a purpose for them. Being interested and excited about a subject makes it inherently easier to learn. I personally found physics a cumbersome and time consuming chore only to realise as a teacher how much physics shapes our everyday world. Now I wish I had payed more attention in class.

Your enthusiasm as a teacher does effect your students. If you can find something interesting and engaging about your subject matter I am sure your students will as well. I have listed below the three best ways I have found to engage my own students.

1) Find out what your students are interested in and try to find a way to relate that to the subject matter.
2) Find something in the subject matter that interests you. Excitement is contagious, as is boredom!
3) Don’t be afraid to have fun. Theatre, games and laughter are good teaching tools.

How do you engage your students?

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Teacher Notes (PDF)


© 2009 What is the Science?