Friday, November 9, 2012

Discrepant Events: A Science Magic Show!

Have you ever heard of Nikola Tesla? His story is fascinating, and sad. Suffice to say, the man was a scientific genius ahead of his time. I've read that scientists are still trying to figure out how he did some of the things he was able to do with electricity. Check out this picture of him sitting calmly in his laboratory while man-made lightning bolts crackle around him! The guy was a science magician.

Nikola Tesla, Science Magician

I should have had my camera in class for my Science Methods class this past Wednesday night. I had assigned my students to come up with discrepant events--science "magic tricks" you might say--and present them in class. No Nikola Tesla in our class, but they were pretty amazing demonstrations none-the-less...and definitely great for getting their future students interested and curious in science concepts!

Warning: the following paragraph includes a lot of educational jargon. If you don't care about educational jargon, skip down a paragraph. :-)

Discrepant events are a pretty powerful way to engage students in the processes of doing science. The basic idea is that you will demonstrate some sort of phenomenon that has a surprising or unexpected outcome. Educational psychologists would say these sort of events "prompt cognitive dissonance." In other words, they make your brain say, "Wait...what just happened?" and cause you to start asking questions and trying to infer what might be causing the phenomenon. This gets at all kinds of promising practices for teaching science, including identifying misconceptions, tapping students prior knowledge, and engaging in authentic inquiry.

Okay, enough of the education mumbo-jumbo...on to the fun! In class this week, all 26 of my students came with a crazy discrepant even prepared. No lie, we had people setting dollars dipped in rubbing alcohol ablaze, people standing on egg shells, and--the show-stealer of the night--grapes in a microwave...which arced with energy and burst into flame. (Okay, maybe we do have a Tesla!)

It was a lot of fun, and the students seemed genuinely excited and impressed with each other's work. Most indicated that after practicing an presenting a discrepant event of their own--not to mention seeing 25 others performed for them!--they would be much more likely to use these sorts of things in their own classroom. That swells me with joy!

Then, this morning, my friend Josh shared this link to the Exploratorium with me. Here you can find a whole bunch of great ideas for possible discrepant events! Definitely one I'll share with my students next semester.

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