One particular day stands out in my mind when I think of junior high teaching. I was presenting a lesson on prehistoric tools. Force and motion, mostly, but a good dose of archaeology and anthropology, too. It’s a fun lesson, and I had a lot of hands-on elements. I was spending the whole day with one teacher, presenting to all his classes.
The first class responded as I had expected. They answered questions, asked questions, volunteered to take part, laughed at the jokes, saw the connections between their own lives and those of people living in this same place 10,000 years ago. It was a good class.
The next class filed in and sat, offering me an air of, “Here we are now, entertain us.” Some ate candy and drank sodas, many fixed their make up, several flirted with students across the aisle. Some stared vacantly with their mouths open. Some went to sleep. I did my presentation. Same material, same teacher, same day. After about five minutes, I wanted to say, “Look, you don’t want to be here with me, and I don’t want to be here with you. How about if you just leave and send in the next group, okay?”
Reminding myself that I was at least getting paid, I finished the presentation. The teacher shook his head over the class; that was how his second period went every day. The rest of the classes were fine. That second hour was just a class of reluctant learners. Fortunately, we don’t usually have an entire class that is like that in every subject. But we do often have at least some students who respond that way to science. Those students might have seemed like completely different kids in their art classes or on the playground.
Naturally, we always try to engage our students in the intrinsic fascination of our subject, to infect them with our enthusiasm. Probably, we also have grading policies and classroom management routines that encourage students to work hard and pay attention. And there is personal responsibility involved, as well. It is not our job to entertain our students, and our work is not a substitute for the students’ work.
Still, there are times when we want to make an extra effort to help disengaged students see the excitement of science, especially if they are able students who just need a little dose of motivation. Here are some possibilities for dragging along the science-challenged students.
Practical lessons can bring some students along:
- Chemistry of hair care may appeal to students who care more about looking good than learning much. They’ll learn things as they do it, but seeing a connection with something they care about can help.
- Waterskiing physics, skijumping, and Frisbee skills might motivate the more sportive students. All of these lessons are from newton’s Apple, and involve hands-on testing of an assortment of physical science variables.
- The $1 Microscope might appeal to practical students who like to work with their hands instead of sticking with the abstract. In the process of building this microscope, they will be unable to avoid learning how it works.
- Candy-making is a very practical application of physics and chemistry. Click for a list of links that make the point scientifically, and try it out for yourself. Appealing to the baser human desires can work wonders.
Exciting lessons, preferably with an air of danger, can also help. James Kakalios, in his The Physics of Superheroes, relates that his physics students complained that physics was not useful to them in daily life. “When I cite examples from superhero comic books,” he continues, students don’t make that objection. “Apparently they all have plans, post graduation, that involve Spandex and protecting the City from all threats.” In addition to Kakalios’s book, here are some physical science feats of derring-do:
- The Imploding Soda Can is a quick and flashy demonstration that has livened up plenty of classrooms.
- Doctor Doctor takes it a step further. Maybe your students will be inspired to make their own science videos after watching these.
- Wired Science examines chemistry sets, and whether the end of this once popular amusement in kids’ homes has had a negative effect on science students. Watch some of the dangerous experiments that used to be standard fare, and hear both sides of the question. Spark an interesting discussion with this video clip.
- Here is the famous Coke and Mentos experiment.
Once you’ve shown your reluctant students that physical science can be interesting, they may be able to take that momentum and pay enough attention to future lessons to learn that physical science really is interesting.