Flashy science

We did a lab the past two days on reaction types. The students loved it- I did the whoosh bottle demo (combustion reaction), they got to light magnesium ribbon on fire (synthesis), they made lead (II) iodide (precipitation/double replacement- students today: “Is this banana juice?” Me: “When have you ever seen the inside of a banana that yellow?!?”). Lots of cell phones were out taking videos, and I’m just hoping that they edited me out of the videos they took of the whoosh bottle.

I do love it when my students get super excited about a lab, but sometimes I wonder if the content is getting lost in the flashiness of things. Although the advent of social media has decreased some of the surprise factor, it’s not a bad thing to have them come into class excited about what’s going to happen. And I love chemistry labs- chemistry is the class where I personally fell in love with science because not only did we get to find out why things happen the way that they do (long story short: electrons make the world go ’round), we got to do cool labs along with it. So I definitely don’t want to take away from the excitement and the wonder that is chemistry lab.

But, but, but. I want them to learn a little bit (or a lot) about what’s happening. Why it happens that way. What the macroscopic observations can tell us about what’s happening at the particle level (love Modeling Chemistry for this reason). I want them to be able to explain what they just saw, not just go “whoa, that was cool!” and have a neat video for their snapchat story. And I do my best, with the lab analysis questions and post-lab discussions (though I can do better with post-lab discussions, and I’m continually trying something new).

I find myself torn sometimes. The students who are genuinely interested in the why behind what’s happening will dig deeper and look for explanations and find it really satisfying to figure out what’s happening. And the students who don’t care about the why are still excited about class. But I wonder if there are ways to bring more students past the “cool ’cause it’s shiny” and into the “cool ’cause we can figure out what’s going on!” mentality.

So I’m still searching for ways to make the flashy go deeper. And I find myself having conversations (sometimes arguments) with coworkers about why we should or shouldn’t do a certain lab or activity. Usually, it’s a cool activity. Sometimes though, it’s only tangentially related to the content. I want my students to see the powerful, explanatory nature of science, and just doing fun labs doesn’t go deep enough. It’s a good way to start conversations with coworkers though (and I try my best not to be antagonistic)- how can we use this cool activity and make it more meaningful to what they’re actually assessed on? How can we help them make the connections to the content?

Hopefully my students learned or gained something about reaction types from the lab we did today. Hopefully they don’t find it too painful to write out and balance the equations from the word descriptions. And hopefully, as time goes on, I’ll find better ways to go beyond the flashy but retain the wow factor.

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