Creativity and imagination is the key. 18 ways to get experimenting with science classes, including mission impossible, the yuck factor and pop culture. All have been tried and tested by teachers and are guaranteed to work.
Ages 7 to 11
Your mission possible
To help pupils enjoy science investigations, tell them that they will be working for a secret agency on a mission.
To kick-start a lesson on thermal insulators, hide envelopes under the chairs of a few pupils and explain what they will be doing. One envelope explains that canisters containing liquid have become detached from their holding cells. Another says that the liquid needs to stay warm. On each of the group tables, set up a tray with different materials, measuring equipment, thermometers and other science equipment that will help the children carry out their investigation. Each time an agent opens an envelope, time is given to discuss how they can keep the liquid warm, at which point play the Mission Impossible film music.
Once pupils come up with a plan, open a briefcase complete with canisters and allow them to carry out experiments. I filled canisters with water and green food colouring, and my pupils came up with a range of ideas to keep the liquid warm; the common method was insulating the beakers. One group wrapped foil around it because they had seen it used at home.
Martin Van Hecke is a Year 6 teacher at Higher Lane Primary School in Bury, Manchester
Ice ‘n’ easy experiment
Enliven teaching about the insulating properties of materials by filling a pair of washing-up gloves with water, knotting the ends and freezing. Take the frozen hands into school and remove the gloves. Tell the pupils they were left on your doorstep by an iceman. Explain you are worried that the hands will melt. There is no room in the school freezer, so ask the class to suggest what you should do with the hands.
You want to put the hands in the same place and have one wrapped in something and one unwrapped. Ask the pupils which will melt first. They will probably say the wrapped hand, as we tend to equate “wrapped” with warmth. Ask pupils to check on the hands throughout the day to take photos and discuss what is happening and why. Then you can surprise them; the wrapping insulates, keeping the heat out, so it’s the wrapped hand that melts more slowly.
Elizabeth Smith teaches at Badsworth C of E Voluntary Controlled Junior and Infant School in West Yorkshire
Ask more, learn more
Stuck for ideas for an investigation? Try question cards. Make a set of question starters in speech bubbles — for instance: “Which? What if? or How does? And laminate them. Place the object for investigation (ice hands, seeds or sponges) in front of the pupils. Let them choose a question card, one between two. They have two minutes to talk in order to generate a question about their object. Of the 15 questions, there will be at least six that can be easily investigated.
Hey presto! The pupils have generated investigable questions and have ownership of the investigation. Imagine the endless uses of these cards in all aspects of the curriculum.
Pauline Armitage teaches at Woodlands Primary School in Grimsby, Lincolnshire
The yuck factor
This activity is an imaginative introduction to a topic on micro-organisms. Just before you start the lesson, take some hair gel (preferably green) and place a large amount on your hands.
Ask the children to stand in a circle. Once they have done this, pretend to sneeze loudly into your hands. Immediately after this, turn to the pupil next to you and shake their hand. This should get a laugh. They in turn shake the hand of the person next to them, while you turn to the person on your other side. See how far the hair gel goes.
Ask the children for their ideas about what the activity demonstrates. I always use this as an opportunity to remind them just how far germs can travel and link this to hand-washing routines. They could then produce some hand-washing posters to go around the school.
Louise Payne is Year 5/6 class teacher at Collingwood Primary in South Woodham Ferrers, Essex
Watch what you waste
A way of getting pupils to think about their impact on the environment is to do an audit of the waste in their lunchbox.
Working in pairs and wearing plastic gloves, ask them to sort it into containers labelled: reusable, recyclable, landfill and compost. Weigh the containers and instruct pupils to work out how much waste there would be for a week, a year and for every class in the school. Discuss ideas to reduce the waste. Perhaps it would be possible for your school to obtain a compost bin.
However, waste is only a small part of the environmental problem. For homework, pupils can look at the country of origin of their food.
Elizabeth Smith teaches at Badsworth C of E Junior and Infant School in Pontefract, West Yorkshire
Ages 10 to 11
Fountain of knowledge
Why not take a chocolate fountain into your science lessons? You will be surprised at how much your pupils can learn from it — and have a lot of fun.
Children are often hindered by a lack of scientific vocabulary at the end of their key stage 2 assessments. To embed much of that used in our science unit (QCA Unit 4D solids and liquids), I took a chocolate fountain into the classroom and we enjoyed the delights it can bring. As a healthy school, we served strawberries on skewers dipped into the chocolate. Naturally, the pupils had immense fun, but it was a wonderful opportunity to show chocolate in its solid form, apply heat to produce a liquid form and let it solidify once it had cooled. We repeated the process to show it was reversible.
The scientific vocabulary flying around the classroom was amazing, as one pupil pointed out: “Oh no, the chocolate has solidified on to the chair.”
Kari Anson teaches at Ladygrove Primary School in Dawley, Shropshire
A soft cell
Teaching electricity can sometimes be difficult because pupils can find it hard to visualise what you are talking about. So when I introduce the concept of potential difference, I use a toy garage with a wind-up car lift to represent a cell. A car represents one of the charges (current) in the circuit. I place it at the bottom of the lift and slowly move it up to higher levels. As this happens, I explain to the pupils how a chemical reaction is taking place in the cell (in this
example, in my arm) and raising the charges to a higher potential energy level. If we raise the car to the first level, it has gained energy but not as much as if we raise it to the second level, etc. I explain that the voltage is the amount of energy needed to raise each car (unit of charge).
At the top of the lift, the car can run down the ramp, like the charges flowing around the circuit. The only thing to be aware of and explain is that when current flows, it doesn’t start in the cell, but all of the charges start moving throughout the circuit as soon as it is connected.
Andrea Mapplebeck is a professional development leader at the National Science Learning Centre in York
Working in groups is mportant, but some pupils find it difficult. Science practical work, in particular, needs a bit of co-ordination of this kind, otherwise things can get rather messy.
Each table or bench is a group with one rotating "leader". The leader comments on the group's progress and behaviour in a group diary at the end of the lesson. The leader can nominate one or more pupils to ask and answer questions during the lesson. The group comments on the leader in the diary, and the make-up of the group is changed occasionally. The contents are fed back in class to initiate discussion about behaviour and attainment. This strategy encourages pupils to be aware of and take responsibility for learning.
Kevin Brookes is a retired teacher in Cleveland
Bare bones approach
Why not turn your evening meal into a teaching/learning tool? I did, and my pupils loved it.
After cleaning and bleaching the bones, I took them to school and presented them to my class for the topic of evolution. We examined the similarities in the arm and leg bones of a number of animals. This inspired pupils to look at shared features with the human skeleton. From this, we decided to set up an “evidence for evolution” circus. We made sets of “bones” from plaster of Paris of animals such as bats, chimpanzees and dogs. Each pupil prepared a commentary to help explain their evidence for evolution. Some pupils made models of butterflies and flowers with slight differences due to regional variations. Some made plaster models to represent the changes to the bones of the lower legs of a horse over time. Other pupils prepared a PowerPoint presentation on Darwin.
We arranged the classroom to have a wildlife feel and invited other classes to view our displays and discuss our evidence. This was a superb opportunity for pupils to research and appreciate the ideas behind evolution in a more hands-on way.
Stuart Bennett is head of science at The Robert Manning Technology College in Bourne, Lincolnshire
For teaching distillation in Year 7, the standard experiment involves distilling ink to get the water back, but I distil tea. Simple. Take a tea bag and kettle and brew tea in a beaker — no milk or sugar — then ask pupils how to get the water back.
They really don’t know how, but when you do ink they don’t seem to find this a problem. You then distil the tea the usual way in a Liebig condenser and hey presto — it’s water! The best bit is discussing whether or not you could add the water back to the residue and make tea. Yuk!
You can talk about tannic acid and why coffee is OK kept hot, but tea tastes foul. You can also talk about tannic acid in peat bogs preserving so-called bog bodies and the process of tanning leather (and tanning your stomach). I find the pupils are far more engaged with this than with distilling ink —and they remember it.
Carol Ashby-Rudd teaches at the Burgate School and Sixth Form College in Burgate, Hampshire
Pupils know from experience that drops of liquid act as lenses. They may have sneezed near a computer screen and seen pixels magnified by the water droplets. Challenge pupils to make a simple “microscope” using a drop of liquid from a pipette and keep it in place for viewing. Bent paper clips and holes of various sizes in card and plastic can be used. Pupils will note a problem using a water drop: it soaks into the card after falling from the paper clip, and
the small hole makes viewing very difficult — water is too runny.
Provide a range of more viscous liquids such as olive oil, washing up liquid and glycerine. A 2mm drop of glycerine on a strip of clear plastic works well, and magnifies about five times. Two lenses, one above the other, make a more powerful compound “microscope”. Also, try reading Micrographia by Robert Hook, who first used the word “cells”.
Julian Silverton teaches at the International School in Geneva
Reading images is a versatile technique to use in science. It gets pupils to extract information collaboratively from a picture or photo, rather than from text. It makes a great opener for new units, or as a revision lesson. First, find an image that relates to your classwork.
Reproduce the image on A4 and stick it on an A3 sheet. Give small groups the image; ask them to spend 15 minutes annotating it; writing around it; thinking of vocabulary they associate with the image; science links they are seeing; questions it raises or laws they see illustrated. They then give it a title. The class can have one image or several.
Groups give feedback and take questions. The technique works by fixing their understanding to an image for easier recall and consolidates their scientific vocabulary.
Suzie Phillips teaches at Bungay Middle School in Suffolk
Teaching sound at key stage 3 or 4 invariably involves the use of tuning forks. Discussing how the prongs move to produce compaction and rarefaction of air molecules, thus producing the longitudinal waves that we hear as sound, can be awkward as the prongs cannot be seen to move. Their movement can be detected by touching them on to a glass or the surface of water. But I developed a way to show the movement directly during my teaching practice.
This involves a tuning fork and strobe light. The strobe is set to about the frequency of the tuning fork — it is usually best to set the frequency before the pupils enter unless they are high ability, in which case the process may interest them. When the vibrating fork is held in front of the lamp and the flash frequency is gradually adjusted, the full movement of the prongs can be seen in apparently slow motion. This also works if the strobe light is pointed towards the
users so the tuning fork is backlit. The frequency for middle C is over 200Hz, so there is no problem in using the lamp with pupils who are sensitive to flashing lights.
Alan Hedges is a supply teacher in Lancashire and Cumbria
Ages 14 to 18
Lights, camera, lesson
Sometimes at the end of a practical lesson pupils do not have complete or expected observations. Try using videos and photographs of results to summarise the practical.
For example, in chemistry, halogen displacement test tube reactions are conducted. Pupils will not always make the expected subtle observations. I have a video clip to show the experiment and photographs in a PowerPoint slide to summarise the results. Once the practical is complete, pupils can watch the video, look at the slide and check that they have recorded the correct observations. They can then study their results to enable them to recognise and explain the pattern using their scientific knowledge, followed by the writing of ionic equations.
Emma Baker is an educational consultant
Debating ethical issues is a key part of science GCSE. It is a high-level skill for pupils to think from someone else’s perspective and scrutinise ideas, so I have come up with the idea of “box heads”.
Three boxes have faces drawn on them: one smiling, one frowning and one questioning. Three pupils put these on their heads. The smiling one must agree with a particular idea, and the frowning one disagree, giving reasons for their positions. The one with the questioning face must query the evidence. Other pupils can also contribute to the discussion. The pupils wearing the boxes then choose which pupil to hand their box on to.
Less confident children thus have a structured way to contribute to and be included in the debate and cover their blushes.
Laura Seabright teaches at Addey and Stanhope School in Lewisham, London
To help pupils understand radioactive half-life, I give everybody in the class a party popper and a regular dice. We discuss how the popper is like a radioactive nucleus: we cannot tell just by looking at it when it will go off, and once it has done so it cannot pop or release its radiation again. Everybody in the class rolls their dice. If they throw a six, they let off their popper; this is therefore a random event. We count how many poppers remain unpopped and record this. We repeat the process until all the poppers have been popped.
The whole process makes the plotting of the half-life curve much more real. The sample is a bit small, but this can be extended by giving each pupil a number of party poppers, as long as they throw the dice once for each popper. This also serves to keep everybody in the class interested for longer periods of time.
Tony Sinton is deputy headteacher at Dowdales School in Cumbria
Date with destiny
Turn an ordinary revision lesson into a “speed dating in science” event.
Ask the pupils to prepare an ID card with some interesting facts about themselves. Divide the class in two, with half as the “dates” and the remainder as “speed-daters”. Both need to do some preparation. The speed-daters have to learn the whole topic (such as humans) and come to the event with a list of relevant questions and answers from each section of it. Each date is given three sections (such as the heart) to learn, the choice based on areas where their homework suggests they need to work harder. Send out invitations. On the day, arrange the chairs and tables in a semi-circle, give each table a number, and set up a board at the back where pupils can post their verdict. Greet them with flavoured water, chocolates and mood music.
They have five minutes to mingle and can only mention relevant facts such as: “Did you know the heart has four chambers?” Give the speed-daters a score sheet and sit them opposite their date for three minutes. Then they rate their date for knowledge and understanding and move on. Provide drinks and chocolate throughout. At the end, allow pupils to read all the score sheets posted on the board.
Khatma Bibi is head of science at Bartley Green Technology College in Birmingham
My science space
Using a familiar method can help pupils struggling with difficult subjects. So I get pupils to create a Facebook or MySpace profile on paper, about hydrocarbon when teaching the topic of alkanes and alkenes. By creating worksheets with a similar layout to these websites, pupils remember more information, and in a logical order.
For example, the profile picture is the structural formula, “status” can be solid, liquid or gas, AIM screen name can be the molecular formula (for example, CH4), activities can be “cooking, camping”, groups can be alkanes or alkenes and under a “family pictures” heading, pupils can draw the other hydrocarbons in the family. The idea can be used either as a main teaching activity to introduce hydrocarbons or as a revision aid.
Jacquelyn Long is a trainee secondary science teacher on placement at St Peter’s School in Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire
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