Science on Stage

A science teaching fair

‘How do you tell the difference between a hard boiled egg and a raw egg without breaking it?’ asks Zoltán Köllö, a teacher of physics and technology at the Illyés Gyula de Budaörs secondary school, in a bid to draw the curious-minded to his Hungarian stand. At the Science on Stage fair, organised by EIROforum (1), this is exactly the kind of banter that greets visitors. In marked contrast to the muffled atmosphere of traditional seminars and conferences, this event is above all a fair, offering a whole variety of exhibits and on-stage events designed to present the most innovative practices in science teaching.

The Hungarian stand The Hungarian stand
© Serge Claisse/ILL
An astrolabe reproduced by pupils at the Edouard Branly secondary school, in Créteil (France). An astrolabe reproduced by pupils at the Edouard Branly secondary school, in Créteil (France).
© Serge Claisse/ILL

‘How do you keep your pupils awake?’ That is the question the German Ulrike Bomschein raises at a neighbouring stand. Slightly provocative perhaps, but a familiar problem for the teachers who make up the majority of the fair’s 500 visitors from 28 countries. All over Europe, school pupils of all ages too often have an image of science lessons as being dull, drab and difficult. ‘My solution? A big bang that wakes them up!’ jokes Ulrike. But it’s not just any bang, but the bang from the Gauss cannon – an electromagnetic device for the acceleration of metal projectiles – that she built together with students from her science classes at the Robert Koch secondary school in Berlin. ‘The idea came to me when I saw how fascinated my pupils were by magnets,’ explains this young teacher.

Toilet paper provides the proof

Fascination is a word frequently used at this science teaching fair. From the very youngest age, physical, chemical and biological phenomena have something magical about them. The Austrian stand, for example, displays examples of questions asked by primary school pupils about the sun: ‘Why is it yellow?’, ‘How does its heat reach us?’ and ‘Why is it hotter in summer?’ Naive as they may sound, these are all inherently fascinating questions. The whole art of teaching lies in keeping this curiosity alive through experiments that become increasingly complex. ‘One of the greatest motivations for learning about science is to be faced with a disconcerting paradox,’ believes Joseph Trna, a secondary school physics teacher and visiting professor at the Masaryk de Brno University (Czech Republic). He promptly takes from his pocket a roll of toilet paper, tears off a few sheets, which he uses to block up the central cardboard cylinder, tapping it at one end. ‘You see, tapping makes the ball of paper move further in rather than pushing it out. How do you explain that?’ asks this jovial author and creator of a CD ROM entitled 50 physics experiments with toilet paper.

Chemistry and the alchemists

One would be wrong to regard such demonstrations as mere tricks designed to grab the attention of pupils. Behind each of the experiments presented at Science on Stage lies an in-depth examination of science teaching. ‘I have always been struck by how pupils in chemistry classes reason like alchemists from back in the Middle Ages who believed in the transmutation of elements, when any chemical reaction is a progressive transformation and not a rapid transmutation,’ explains Isabelle Marini of the University of Pisa (Italy). Inspired by the words of the American philosopher and educational reformer, John Dewey, who believed that ‘words only acquire any meaning when we discover this meaning in our concrete interaction with things’, Isabella developed an experiment that allows secondary school pupils to discover enzymes for themselves…using a few grains of barley, iodine dye and a little saliva! The salivary enzymes break down the barley starch, causing the iodine dye to change colour from blue to pink. By subsequently varying the saliva concentration, the pH or the temperature, pupils are able to discover enzymatic catalysis for themselves.

Choreography and mathematics

Other experiments are inspired by the constructivist movement, which believes that pupils progressively build their understanding of the outside world on the basis of their own experiences. Although unaware of it, many of the activities in which adolescents engage, contribute to acquiring such knowledge. Examples are sport, music and dance, all of which require an implicit understanding. ‘My pupils who do an ollie on a skateboard are very much aware of what muscles they use in performing this acrobatic movement…but they do not know their names or how they contract,’ explains Consolata Piscitiello of the Istituto Superiore Statale Liceo Alfitano I in Salerno (IT), where she runs a “science and sports” programme that combines mechanics and biology. Ernst Schreie of the Droste-Hülshoff secondary school in Freiberg (DE) applies the same approach to his lessons in wave physics using music as the starting point, because ‘physics and music are closely linked through the study of mechanical vibrations and waves’. At its stand, the Finnish delegation presents a multidisciplinary project, developed in partnership with the National Ballet of Finland, which sought to study mechanics on the basis of classical ballet movements. ‘What is fouetté-pirouette? It is the conservation of angular momentum! And pas de deux? That movement represents a displacement of the centre of mass,’ explain the teachers as they watch the ballet videos that their pupils must analyse.

Richard Spencer of the Bede Sixth Form College in Billingham (UK) uses dance for a completely different teaching purpose. ‘I will never forget the day when, after using all these diagrams, videos and multimedia materials to explain the movement of chromosomes during mitosis, one of my pupils declared, “I still don’t understand a thing”. So I decided that I would have to find something else. That is how I started the Samba of mitosis, a dance I choreographed in which two pupils move about like a pair of chromosomes.’ This is an excellent example of what dance teaching theorists refer to as learning “through using the body”. This same approach is also adopted by Dragos Constantinescu of the Valcea secondary school (RO) who, at the Romanian stand, displays the repertory of songs he composed with his pupils, the words to which are mathematical theories and formulae.

The roots of the astrolab

At the French stand, however, it is the theories of Jean-Marc Lévy Leblond and of ‘science as culture’ that provide the inspiration. Two guys, looking rather like rappers, stroll around Science on Stage, each of them wearing a curious circular, golden and finely chiselled object around their necks. So what is it? ‘An astrolabe,’ Steve Clamy and Steeve Samba, pupils at the Edouard Branly vocational training secondary school in Créteil (FR), reply in unison. An astrolabe? ‘Yes, they were used by navigators in the Middle Ages to calculate time and trace their route. They were built by Arab learned men of the IXth century and based on ancient Greek astronomy.’ During one school year, pupils successfully built their own astrolab at the school technology workshop, after studying the theoretical foundations of its workings in physics lessons and the origin of this remarkable instrument, which is now forgotten in history lessons.

Experiments, shows and, exhibitions, all designed to intrigue, amuse and above all provide food for thought…that was what this five-day fair was all about. ‘Curiosity is in our genes,’ declared Science and Research Commissioner Janez Potočnik at the event’s closing round table, ‘but this curiosity tends to die away as we grow up. We must awaken this dormant passion and initiatives like Science on Stage can be a very effective alarm clock.’ But what about those eggs? The answer is to spin them around, then briefly stop them by placing your finger on top. The egg that starts spinning again is the raw one…due to the inertia of rotational movements in liquids. ‘It is more than magic, it’s physics!’ exclaims Zoltán Köllö.

  1. This second Science on Stage festival was held in Grenoble (FR) from 2 to 6 April 2007. It was organised at the initiative of EIROforum, a grouping of seven European scientific organisations: CERN, EFDA, ILL, ESRF, EMBL, ESA and ESO. To find out more about these organisations see the special issue of RTD info, February 2007: www.ill.fr/scienceonstage2007
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