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.
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
Posted: Wednesday, July 13th, 2016
by Lisa Hegdahl
On June 30th, the California Science Teachers Association (CSTA) said, “Goodbye, and Thank You” to five of its dedicated Board members. On July 1st, we said, “Hello, and Welcome” to the five newly elected. It is my pleasure to tell you about these outstanding professionals.
Outgoing Board Members
In her role as Region 2 Director, Minda Berbeco raised the bar in terms of outreach. Minda also co-chaired, and will continue to co-chair, the Publications Committee. As president, I have some leeway in my due dates for my monthly President’s Message for the CSTA on-line Journal, California Classroom Science. Minda is very patient with me when my messages do not come in right on time. Recently, Minda, and her employer the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), graciously opened their office on a Saturday to host the CSTA Board of Directors meeting.
Minda was CSTA Region 2 Director and served faithfully on the:
- Publications Committee (Co-Chair – a job she will continue)
- Membership/Marketing/Preservice Committee
Posted: Friday, June 24th, 2016
by Jessica Sawko
The California Commission on Teacher Credentialing (CTC) could use the help of a few good science teachers that know a thing or two about the California NGSS. There are currently two test development groups that they are specifically seeking science teachers for. If you are interesting in helping to shape how California prepares its future teachers to take on NGSS, this is an excellent opportunity. The CTC is recruiting teachers to pilot and review test items for the CSET and for Content Expert Panel members for the redevelopment of the California Teaching Performance Assessment (CalTPA). Please consider these opportunities and apply today – the recruitment window closes soon, don’t delay! To apply and for more information visit http://www.carecruit.nesinc.com/.
Posted: Tuesday, June 21st, 2016
ACT NOW! Offer expires June 26, 2016. Flinn has partnered with the National Science Education Leadership Association (NSELA) to promote a limited-time offer for those interested in attending the Summer Leadership Institute this month.
Call for Free NSELA Membership and Save $225 on Your Registration! The National Science Education Leadership Association is offering this exclusive opportunity to attend its annual Summer Leadership Institute, June 28 – July 1, at the Marriott Mission Valley Hotel in San Diego, California. Learn More…
Posted: Tuesday, June 21st, 2016
As California embraces new ways of teaching and learning, teachers want more opportunities to connect with and learn from their peers. Teachers are the experts when it comes to the California Standards – no one knows more about what’s working in the classroom and where more support is needed. Yet, too often, teachers are told what they need to learn, rather than asked what would benefit them the most.
On July 29, all California teachers are invited to attend the second annual Better Together: California Teachers Summit, a unique day of learning led by teachers, for teachers. The summit will bring together teachers at nearly 40 locations across the state to share ideas, join a teacher network, and learn effective strategies for implementing the new California Standards in their classrooms. The program will feature keynote addresses by education leaders, TED-style EdTalks presented by local teachers, and Edcamp discussions on timely topics such as the California Standards in English/Language Arts and Math and the Next Generation Science Standards. Teachers will walk away with access to new resources and concrete tools that are already working in classrooms across the state. The Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities (AICCU), the California State University (CSU), and New Teacher Center (NTC) are partnering to organize this gathering. Learn More…
Posted: Monday, June 20th, 2016
by Minda Berbeco
A few years ago, I was at a teacher conference in Atlanta representing my organization, the National Center for Science Education (NCSE). I was chatting with a teacher and mentioned how I was going to be giving a talk shortly on climate change education, and the teacher to my surprise said to me, “well I teach chemistry, so that’s not related to me.”
That was a bit of a head-scratcher for me, and I’m sure that notion would be a surprise to every atmospheric chemist who works directly on climate change, or even the many oceanographers, terrestrial and aquatic biogeochemists and even soil scientists who work with climate change every day.
On retrospect though, I think I understand what he was getting at. Climate change isn’t in the chemistry science standards for any state. They aren’t in the life sciences standards for most states either. In fact, until recently if it was anywhere at all, it’d be in earth science or environmental science – which is often an elective at many schools. And yet, from a study that NCSE completed this past year in collaboration with researchers at Penn State, we know that over 50% of chemistry teachers are teaching climate change nationally and over 85% of biology teachers are doing it too! Learn More…