Some science experiments can appear to be magic -- at least until the mechanics and concepts are explained. Dr. Alan J. McCormack, a professor of science education at San Diego State University, found that incorporating magic into science lessons -- and later tying his lessons to the Harry Potter series craze -- made science more understandable and appealing for students.
Besides teaching at San Diego State, McCormack gives presentations at schools and talks with teachers about how to enhance their science lessons. He also is president-elect of the National Science Teachers Association. McCormack talked with Education World about how he developed his approach and why he thinks science instruction needs to be more hands-on.
Dr. Alan J. McCormack
Education World: What prompted you to try the magic approach to teaching science? How is the Harry Potter theme integrated?
Dr. Alan J. McCormack: When I taught seventh grade science as a brand new teacher, I first thought I could be successful automatically by modeling my techniques after my college science professors -- it obviously didn't work! Lecturing and writing concepts on the chalkboard werent very engaging for seventh graders. So I decided to try alternative motivational approaches; I learned to play the banjo and wrote science songs -- which still didn't work!
Eventually, I learned that approaching science as a largely hands-on, doing sort of enterprise worked much better. Kids became involved as they solved problems, manipulated materials, and created ideas for themselves. I also became enchanted with using discrepant events as "hooks" to begin laboratory investigations. That was even better. Finally, I discovered that theatrical magic could provide the ultimate in discrepancies, and I worked in learning to do that. I should emphasize that the "magic" I do always is based in scientific principles, and has definite educational objectives. Those include: 1) Developing interest and motivation; 2) Building scientific concepts; 3) Simulating ideas or objects that can't ordinarily be directly observed in a classroom; and 4) Developing logical and creative thinking skills. The "magic" adds spice to very solid science.
When the Harry Potter books arrived on the scene, they were tailor-made for me. I truly believe in incorporating storylines into science teaching -- they enhance both the science content and promote student interest. Id always used Dr. Seuss stories, such other childrens favorites as Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, and many stories students and I invent ourselves, to make science even more wonderful. And Id spent many years learning to perform magically and collecting great discrepant events and science-oriented stories. So Harry Potter episodes are perfect! They chronicle magical events that I can simulate and use as hooks to immerse students in hands-on science explorations. For example, Hermione and Harry learn to levitate a feather in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. I also can use magical means to levitate a feather, and that becomes a hook leading to principles of aerodynamic lift -- a scientific form of "levitation!"
EW: Can you describe one of your lessons that use magic -- such as the flaming book or the spouting teapot?
McCormack: My favorite type of lesson I call "Imagineering." These lessons begin with a storyline and an "invention" that performs some sort of amazing event. For example, in one lesson, The Amazing Water-Expanding Machine is introduced. The accompanying storyline is that Professor Dumbledore [from the Harry Potter series] has invented a new machine to solve a pressing environmental crisis -- droughts and lack of drinking water. The machine is a cardboard box with a funnel at its top and a plastic tube protruding from its side. After some comedic byplay, the science teacher demonstrates the machine by pouring 500ml of water through the funnel, while 1500ml of water runs out the side tube into a pitcher -- apparently producing about 1000ml of bonus water!
The teacher then challenges students to draw scientific models of how the machine might work -- by scientific or engineering means, not "little green men." Groups collaborate, and soon a number of creative alternative explanations are produced. Those are shared, analyzed, and celebrated. It becomes a delightful exercise in creative idea production; one of the hallmarks of great science. Later, the teacher exposes the operation of the invention -- its a mechanical self-starting siphon. A lesson ensues in which groups build and investigate siphons and build explanations of how siphons work. And so the lesson motivates, builds higher order thinking skills, and enlarges understanding of a basic physics concept.
EW: What do you most want students to gain from watching your presentations?
McCormack: I want them to pick up on the thrills of science and imagination. I want them to leave thirsting for more, and to pressure their teachers to bring more and more exciting science into their classrooms. I want them to realize that much "magic" is accomplished through clever uses of scientific principles.
EW: What do you impress upon your teacher-candidate students about teaching science?
McCormack:I impress upon them that science is about as interesting and as much fun as almost anything you can do. I hope they learn that the first commandment of science teaching is "Thou Shalt Not Tell!" By that I mean that learning science is something you do through your hands and senses; through direct confrontation with highly engaging problems to solve with thinking and investigation.
EW: What would you say to elementary school teachers who say they dont have time to teach science?
McCormack: I say that science is connected to everything else in the curriculum and in the universe. The best way to build new vocabulary with elementary children is to build a "Word Wall" on a large surface of your classroom, and do hands on observations of matter and organisms while making descriptions of the properties and characteristics observed and experienced. New words are added to the wall as actual experiences take place that activity cements learning in a way that memorizing vocabulary lists never can. We can teach reading by reading about fascinating science topics instead of bland old "Dick and Jane." Mathematics skills have meaning when you need them to deal with collected scientific data.
EW: Why has teaching science become so difficult to teach in the United States -- that is, teaching science in a way that conveys solid concepts, yet engages students?
McCormack: Unfortunately, overemphasis on standards and standardized testing have worked against learning for the pure joy of science. Teachers often feel they are pressured to "cover" science, when it really should be "uncovered" as the wonderful human experience it really is. I'm for a lot less testing -- which is predominantly based on vocabulary memorization -- and a lot more attention to the processes of discovery and being able to contend with actual problems through thinking. In a science program, sometimes less is more. Some fun and science "magic" can go a long way toward making both students and teachers happier and more joyful in what they do.
This e-interview with Alan McCormack is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.
Article by Ellen R. Delisio
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