Let me demonstrate

The good ol' days, when all the best toys meant you didn't grow out of childhood

I love my job. Sure, there are aspects of it which can be frustrating, or even boring at times, as there is with any occupation. But to indulge in a moment of sinful pride, I’m in that enviable position where I get paid to do something I would do for free. For the past three years I’ve essentially trawled through old books, magazines, and the web for science activities and demonstrations, and then tested them. If they worked and were simple enough, I wrote it up and sent them to literally tens of thousands of people. If not, I put them to the back of my head in case I ever found a way to make them work.

Stacked in my mental archive are a number of toys, gizmos, demonstrations and experiments which explicitly exhibit some scientific phenomenon. While our official archive now has over 400 science activities, I’ve personally found (or in some cases, invented) about 150 of them. A percentage I’d come across before as a teacher or during my time as a science presenter, rejigged from a classic textbook. But each and every one I have tested, evaluated and tweaked to make it suitable for its task.

My goal is simple – I am a metaphor maker. I imagine what my audience might already know and manufacture a scenario which leads them to make connections between the islands of knowledge that sit scattered through their mind. The ideal result is a mental model of nature that can be further built upon with additional observations as the person continues to learn.

I can take a burning teabag and an explanation of a dance party and provide a foundation for understanding what makes it storm. Give me a stocked kitchen (with perhaps a thing or two from the laundry or bathroom) and I can explain all manner of electromagnetic, thermodynamic or entropic principles.

For all of my classroom experience, I’m still learning what makes for a good science demonstration. There are degrees of success and a wide variety of factors that confound expectations. Amongst them are the obvious – enjoyment, simplicity, predictability; yet there are always exceptions where the most strict rules are broken, turning an awesome display of fascinating science into a yawn-inducing act of excruciating boredom while making a tedious act provide hours of intense exploration.

Nonetheless, some bets are more guaranteed to pay off than others when it comes to creating resources that effectively communicate science. If I could write guidelines to a certain 20-something education student who abandoned his career in medical science to embark on a fool’s quest to teach adolescents the virtues of thinking scientifically, here’s what I would say;

1)      Science education cannot be captured in a tweet, catchphrase or banner slogan. No matter how many opinions, studies and years of experience you have, you’ll still be surprised.

2)      Science is not restricted to the subject you teach at school. It crosses disciplines, just as English is more than what you do in an English class, mathematics is not just number crunching and art isn’t just what you paint in a session of crafternoon.

3)      Science is not a method – it is a methodology. No strict sequence of steps can teach you how to evaluate an idea for its pragmatic worth in explaining the relationships between what we observe in the universe.

4)      One demonstration cannot explain a scientific phenomenon accurately. Two is a good start. Three gives you something to talk about.

5)      All explanations are effectively metaphorical. Not all metaphors are equally good as explanations.

6)      It’s impossible to form a belief without evidence, just as it’s possible to use non-scientific values to determine what that evidence is. My job is to show why scientific values do a better job of it.

7)      Scientific thinking emerges from discussion between equals over shared observations, not dictation from above over observations one hasn’t experienced.

8)      Arthur C Clarke was right – complicated technology might as well be magic. Never underestimate the combined power of a simple object and a good storyteller.

9)      Words aren’t what you find in a dictionary – they mean precisely what your audience understands them to mean.

10)  Ignore advice contained in a list. If it can be contained within a sentence, it’s probably too simplistic.

Now, if only I could invent a way of emailing this back to myself a decade ago.

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Published in: on November 24, 2010 at 1:18 pm  Comments (2)  
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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Will Grant, Mike McRae. Mike McRae said: http://bit.ly/e29vNt: Let me demonstrate. Sci-com advice to my past self. […]

  2. Time machine!

    You have the coolest job. As I was reading, I was thinking back to an excellent evolution/natural selection game we played in a biology class (http://www.indiana.edu/~ensiweb/lessons/ns.bean2.pdf). It was just the right kind of fun, because I’ve remembered it and the lessons I learned very clearly.

    Really good teaching is such an amazing art. I salute you! And I can’t wait to get your book!


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