December 2014 – Vol. 27 No. 4

What Makes for an Effective Science Demonstration?

Posted: Saturday, September 1st, 2012

by Laura Henriques

You are standing at the front of the classroom, poised behind some apparatus. Students are watching expectantly. Something exciting is about to happen, but what? The tension in the room is palpable as students eagerly await the moment when you make the magic of science come alive. You make a motion to start the demo and then pause, pulling the students along with you to further build the anticipation. When you do the demonstration and it works you have their attention, you’ve piqued their interest and they are ready to learn.

This happens in your classroom every day, right? It could! Science demonstrations have the power to engage our students in a variety of ways. The ways in which we use our demonstrations make all the difference in the world.

Demonstrations can serve a variety of purposes. I had a friend who started every single day with a quick demo. He did them only once, and right as the bell rang. Students were required to write a brief description of what they saw and what they thought was going on. This was his daily warm-up. It was great for getting kids to class on time as he only did the demonstration a single time – if you were late you missed it and you weren’t able to get points for the warm-up without having seen the demo.

The same demonstration can be used multiple times for different purposes. At the start of a class or lecture, they can serve as a common experience to which you refer back to during class. On the other hand, if used at the end of an instructional segment they can illustrate a concept just explained. During the middle of instruction a demonstration can be used to review content or introduce new ideas. They can prompt lively discussion or be the prompt for a quick write.  Some may choose to combine these approaches, for example, doing a demo at the start of class to pique interest and provide a shared experience, then repeating it again after some learning has taken place so that students can apply what they have learned as they try to make sense what happened. Demonstrations can also be motivational, giving students a reason to pay attention, read and learn. Discrepant events are really good for that purpose as they captivate student interest because of their unexpected results.

More often than not, we shouldn’t spend too much time explaining during the demonstration. You will have time after the demonstration to ask questions and teach content. Silence is golden for some demonstrations. It builds the drama and focuses attention on the phenomena. Sometimes we do demonstrations to teach a particular skill. In this situation you will want to explain while you demonstrate.

Here are some tips to consider when doing science demonstrations.

  1. Prior Practice Prevents Poor Performance. A teaching buddy of mine used to drill into me these “5Ps of science demos” (and labs). We have to try them ahead of time. Know how it works, be comfortable with it and be aware of the tricks needed to make it work well. Demonstrations do not always work the first time we do them. Being comfortable with the materials enables you to be confident and comfortable in front your class. If it does not work as expected during class you’ll feel better about setting it up and trying again. (As an aside, don’t spend too much class time trying to make the demo work if it has failed a few times.)
  2. Don’t tell us what is going to happen before you do the demo. If you take away the element of surprise by telling us exactly what to look for and what to expect (and why) then you don’t really need to take the time to do the demonstration. Consider doing the demo without any explanation at all as a way to engage the class and pique their curiosity. This creates a teachable moment – students have seen something and now they want to know how and why it works. After the explanation you can do the demo again, this time talking about what is going on while performing the demo.
  3. Make sure people can see! You won’t want to go to all the trouble of putting together a demonstration if your students can’t see it well. Think about how the demo will look from the back of the classroom. Is it big enough? High enough off the lab table so that all can see? Does it need a solid background to be easily seen? Perhaps you need to use a document camera to project the demo so all can see it, or you need to raise the entire demonstration by putting it on a pile of books or a box so kids in the back can see. Maybe it would be more visible if you put it on the overhead and shined light through it or projected it. If you are doing something which relies on color changes it won’t help if you are wearing a multicolored shirt, maybe you need to hold up a piece of white paper behind the apparatus.
  4. Consider getting students involved in the demonstration. Some demos need an assistant or a shill. Enlist the help of your students! Some of the demos are easily replicated with common materials. Consider having students try the demonstrations at home, to teach family members. Not only does this get the kids talking about science with their families, it helps them verbalize what they know as they are explaining the science. Teaching the content helps them learn the content.
  5. Consider recording your demonstration. Some demonstrations are very time consuming to set-up. Some take place really quickly. Some are a bit persnickety and don’t always “work” exactly as planned. For those demonstrations it can be helpful to record the demo and show it in class. This method allows you to watch the demonstration in slow motion, pause at key points (to ask questions or reiterate key points), and you can watch the demo over and over without having to set up the equipment again.
  6. Showmanship matters! Not all of us are comfortable being goofy in class, but doing so can make a big difference. Compare these videos of the same demonstration. While we aren’t as funny or talented as Dom Deluise, we can all ham it up a little to build tension and build interest. The demo is exciting all by itself, but Dom Deluise gets the viewer (student) more involved and invested by pretending to be nervous about the outcome.

Mrs. Dowdle’s Inertia Eggs   (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B20GRM64JU8)

Dom Deluise on Johnny Carson (http://www.staged.com/video?v=4Vkc)

Doing demonstrations in your science classroom does not take the place of doing labs or activities, but they can greatly enhance your instruction. Try some and see how they work. If you find a collection that work well, consider sharing them with your colleagues at the CSTA Conference in 2013 or via an article in eCCS! I encourage you to share your favorite demo via the “comment” box at the end of this article so we can all learn from each other.

An Invitation

For those of you who teach physics or physical science in the LA area, California State University, Long Beach hosts a monthly Physics Demo Day. The 2nd Thursday of each month from 4:30-5:30 p.m., we gather to share our favorite physics demonstrations. Topics vary each time as we move through the physics curriculum. To find out more and to RSVP for parking visit PhysicsAtTheBeach.com.

Written by Laura Henriques

Laura Henriques

Laura Henriques is a professor of science education at CSU Long Beach and president of CSTA.

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Posted: Friday, December 12th, 2014

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You know you have it.  That lesson that never fails to engage students at a high level of learning; that teaching strategy that works every time; or that technology application that brought your classroom into the 21st century.  Why keep it to yourself?  Share it with your colleagues at the California Science Education Conference, October 2-4, 2015 in Sacramento.  CSTA is now accepting workshop and short course proposals from classroom teachers, informal educators, university professors, education professionals, and other members of the education community.  Sharing our best practices with each other helps to make high quality Science education a reality for all students in California. Learn More…

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Written by Lisa Hegdahl

Lisa Hegdahl is an 8th grade science teacher at McCaffrey Middle School in Galt, CA and is president-elect of CSTA.

The E Word

Posted: Wednesday, December 10th, 2014

by Jill Grace

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Engineering. Learn More…

Written by Jill Grace

Jill Grace

Jill Grace teaches 7th grade science at Palos Verdes Intermediate School and is the Middle School/Jr. High Director for CSTA.

Season’s Greetings

Posted: Wednesday, December 10th, 2014

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Written by Laura Henriques

Laura Henriques

Laura Henriques is a professor of science education at CSU Long Beach and president of CSTA.

CSTA Night at the Aquarium – A Good Time Was Had by All!

Posted: Wednesday, December 10th, 2014

by Jill Grace and Laura Henriques

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Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

Support CSTA and Take the Deduction on Your 2014 Taxes

Posted: Wednesday, December 10th, 2014

by Jessica Sawko

CSTA is so fortunate to have so many hard-working and dedicated members. CSTA membership dues support the production and distribution of this newsletter, CSTA’s state-level policy activities, including NGSS implementation activities, the CSTA website, and a small portion of dues go to support our state-level legislative activities. 2014 is a special year for CSTA, as it marks the 50th anniversary of the filing to CSTA’s Articles of Incorporation. Many volunteer leaders were involved in that process 50 years ago and to this day it is volunteers that do much of the work of CSTA.

CSTA is a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization and accepts donations to support our leadership programs, such as our leadership event held at the annual conference and designed to help nurture, inspire, and support California’s emerging leaders in science education.

As the end of the year approaches and you consider making contributions to charities and non-profits that support you and your values as a science educator, please consider making a tax-deductible donation to CSTA’s 50th anniversary fund. This fund was established at the beginning of 2014 and the monies donated to this fund support CSTA’s leadership development program. Donors who donate $50 or more will receive a commemorative 50th anniversary pin. Donations to this fund are tax deductible (please check with your tax-preparation specialist). Click here to donate online today.

If a donation to CSTA’s 50th anniversary fund is not a match for you this year, I hope you will consider supporting CSTA as you shop for holiday gifts (and year-round). Learn More…

Written by Jessica Sawko

Jessica Sawko

Jessica Sawko is CSTA’s Executive Director.