The Day the Balloons Danced11/06/2018
Ian Milne is the celebrated winner of the inaugural NZASE Peter Spratt Medal. The award was presented at the SciCon 2008 Conference at Te Papa, Wellington. Ian was selected in recognition of his dedication to Science education, and the work he did with Peter Spratt. Ten years on, with SciCon 2018 coming up in July, we thought it fitting to reproduce one of Ian’s most recent publications. We would like to thank The Journal of Emergent Science, and Ian, for their kind permission to reproduce the article in its entirety.
The Day the Balloons Danced
Sometimes in our working lives, elements of our beliefs and behaviours combine together and reward us with an aesthetic experience that reminds us of the richness of humankind, as we interact with the wonder and beauty of the natural phenomena that surrounds us on this planet. Over the last week I have been privileged to be the relief teacher for Room 21 – a class of 30 Years 5 and 6 (ages 9-11) children at a local primary school – and the facilitator for a class of 41 Years 03 beginning teachers at the local teacher education resource centre. The teachers were involved in a beginning teacher mentoring programme, of which my workshop entitled ‘I wonder what I need to think about if I want to engage my students with their learning in science?’ was part.
The children in Room 21 were having a science day with me whilst their teacher attended a professional development (PD) course for the day. We explored and experienced aspects of the natural world that usually fascinate and engage them. A relevant context was explored organically, and students used their developing understanding of and inferences from their observations of their frequent aesthetic experiences to create explanations of what they had experienced, observed and wondered about.
Throughout the day, the children were required, with the facilitation of their teacher (me), to use their developing science, mathematical and literacy knowledge and skills to explore, create and test tentative explanations of the natural phenomena involved. This short article attempts to draw together those elements of my practice and beliefs that culminated in the pandemonium created when a class of 41 adult teachers each blew up a coloured balloon and, on the count of three, released them above their heads. The resulting mayhem of balloons literally dancing around the room as they propelled themselves through the air, before succumbing to the forces of gravity and coming to rest on the floor, brought tears of delight to all involved. This moment of glee, wonder and awe reminded me of Rachel Carson’s (1998) plea for teachers of young children to experience the natural world through the eyes of children.
In that moment, I am sure everyone in the room returned to their childhood and experienced the actions of nature through the eyes of young children. This awe inspiring moment kept returning to me over the last few days as I attempted to rationalise the moment through a synthesis of the elements of the practices and beliefs that informed the decisions I took, and which led to this aesthetic and enduring learning experience for those involved.
The decision to ask the teachers to blow up and release the balloons was not a spur of the moment action. It was a byproduct of my work over the last ten years, as I have been developing the ‘Creative Exploration’ (Milne, 2017) approach to teaching and learning in science, which involves children exploring, developing and testing explanations of their aesthetic experiences of the natural world. The sense of wonder generated both collectively and individually through these experiences provides an authentic context for inquiry learning in primary school science.
The emphasis of this approach has moved from just exploring the experiences to creating, testing and sharing scientifically the learners’ developing explanations of the phenomena involved. Over the last six years, I have been fortunate enough to work with science champions at a local primary school, where we have explored natural phenomena through a lens of ideas associated with the contexts of matter, energy and change over time. It was over this time that the emphasis of my teaching and the children’s learning moved to creating collaborative narratives of their journey, as they explored, wondered, tested and shared their developing explanations of common aesthetic experiences of natural phenomena.
The teaching and learning approaches that I have adopted over the last twenty years for enhancing children’s engagement in science were often in contrast to what has been taking place in schools. With the introduction of science capabilities and the Royal Society leadership programmes for science teachers, there has been a noticeable change for the better in many schools. Over the years, I noticed that many schools, as part of their commitment to inquiry, were developing programmes of study that were guided by deep questions relating to environmental issues affecting our lives and planet Earth.
Whilst the aims and goals for developing attitudes, values and actions to protect the environment are commendable, these programmes were often video and book centred and children rarely explored, experienced and tested their ideas. The aesthetic experiences encountered when exploring changes that occur when energy is transferred in the context of natural phenomena provide learners with an opportunity to develop and test personal explanations of these phenomena in a scientifically, hands-on and engaging manner. This is especially the case if the contexts being explored are everyday phenomena such as air, water, sun, gravity and other related aspects, including living matter.
Another feature of my work with primary aged children is to explore how children respond to the concept that matter and energy are viewed by scientists as one and the same. Working with rubber balloons, air and energy transfer provided a relevant and authentic context within which to explore these ideas with children.
Back to the dancing balloons!
A few months earlier, my science champions were exploring their ideas about energy transfer in the context of sound. We were blowing up the balloons, then letting out the air and exploring how we could change the pitch of the sounds by stretching and releasing the neck of the balloon. As the air was rushing out, causing the rubber neck to vibrate, it created sound waves that moved through the air, with some coming into contact with our eardrums. The children were engrossed in their exploration of this aesthetic experience when I casually asked the class what would happen if we let the air filled balloons go. A six year old student, in a very matter of fact way, called out,
‘The balloons will dance’
She then proceeded to show the class how it would happen by moving her hands through the air above her head, demonstrating a flight path that the balloon might take as it was pushed through the air. Her imaginary balloon soared upwards, turned loop over loop, flipped sideways before suddenly stopping and dropping flat and limp to the ground. Her performance in sharing her previous experiences of playing and exploring with balloons and energy further enhanced my belief in creative exploration.
My role as a teacher was now to scaffold her to develop the language and skills to explain the scientific concepts involved, so that she could share them with others. Of course, before we did this, we all blew up our balloons and watched the balloons dance around the room after we released them.
Going back to the collaborative narrative of part of Room 21’s recent science day with children, we started the day by reviewing our ideas about what we mean when we use the terms ‘science’, ‘working scientifically’ and ‘doing’ science. We spent a little time exploring what the terms meant, including identifying that the word ‘OUR’ was the most important word in the review. It is important that we share the ideas that we use when creating and sharing our explanations of whatever natural phenomena we are experiencing and exploring. We then discussed what ‘doing’ science could look like. I read the start of a story A Sprinkle Here, A Sprinkle There (Anderson, 2004), about a girl who wonders what caused the salt and pepper to fall differently onto her father’s sandwich whilst they were having a picnic on a breezy day. She thought that the salt might be heavier than the pepper and that the wind would blow the pepper further away as it fell out of the shaker. She drew a diagram of her thoughts, which showed the wind blowing the light pepper grains further than the salt grains. She had created a model to explain what she thought was happening. The girl decided to test out her theory. She was ‘doing’ science as she was testing her explanation of what she thought had happened to the pepper grains.
Next, we played with a collection of toys and materials, including James the Tank Engine, Pa Pa Energy Tubes, rubber balloons and a collection of everyday common materials. We used the toys and materials to explore different examples of energy, including sound, wind and movement. We also talked about how energy is transferred when matter/materials move/work. We spent time blowing up balloons and letting out the air. We made different sounds as we pulled the neck of the balloon apart and the air particles rushed out. Most of us let our balloons go after we had filled them with air. The balloons flew around the room before running out of energy and dropping to the floor. We even blew some up until they popped. As we blew them up, we were transferring energy from ourselves to the balloons. We could feel the particles of air pushing outwards as the particles of the balloon were stretched until they split apart and the energised air escaped. Later in the morning, during a fitness exercise, we made a human model to demonstrate the changes that we observed as a balloon is blown up until it pops. We all linked hands and moved close together – a human model of our balloon that needed to look flat and limp. As more imaginary air was blown into the balloon, we modelled the changes by taking steps backwards. Our arms
became stretched and the air kept pushing, stretching us until one of our classmates could not hold on any longer and the air exploded out of the balloon! We all collapsed and our ‘balloon’ was now flat and limp again. We did this several times. The next time that we carry out this activity, we may consider modelling the air particles inside the balloon. As more children are pushed into the balloon, it will have to expand. We could also model how the balloon particles are attached to each other, by having the adjoining human ‘particles’ holding on to a rubber balloon, so representing the bonds between the balloon particles.
When we got back into the classroom, we created a series of annotated diagrams to explain the changes that we had observed as the balloons were blown up before being released or exploding.
Student D drew two diagrams showing cross-sections of both the horizontal and vertical perspectives (see Figure 1). I compiled, with the children’s help, the narrative of the events as they happened and this forms the basis of the commentary in this article.
The compilation of collaborative narratives of my work with science champions and school classes such as Room 21 has become a feature of Creative Exploration, developed as an outcome of my teaching and learning practice over the last six years. With the students’ assistance, we have moved from filling in prepared frameworks to class PowerPoints and are now compiling collaboratively written narratives. These narratives are supported by annotated diagrams, where we share the journey we travelled as we explored, wondered and tested the developing explanations of our experiences of aspects of the natural world.
Walking back to the classroom, one child suggested that we should redo a recent class survey of the school subjects that the class likes doing best. Science had been the second most popular, behind Art. The child felt that science would now be the most popular subject if we repeated the same survey.
The teaching and learning experiences of which I have been privileged to be part whilst working with these groups of learners can also be classified as being aesthetic. It has reinforced my belief that aesthetic experiences of natural phenomena provide a valuable context within which both teachers and learners can engage with learning in science, in a sustained and purposeful manner.
Anderson, K. (2004) ‘A Sprinkle Here, A Sprinkle There’, Connected, (1), 22–25
Carson, R. (1998) The Sense of Wonder. New York: HarperCollins
Milne, I. (2010) ‘A sense of wonder, arising from aesthetic experiences, should be the starting point for inquiry in primary science’, Science Education International, 21, (2), 102–115
Milne, I. & Cremin, T. (2017) ‘Creative exploration’(pp.7790). In Davies, D. and McGregor, D. (Eds.), Teaching science creatively (2nd Edition), pps. 77–90. Abingdon: Routledge
Ian Milne is a semi-retired primary science and mathematics educator and an active primary school teacher, who provides inclass support and mentoring for primary teachers and school science leaders. He also runs science champion programmes in two primary schools. When he introduces himself to teachers and children, he describes himself as a Grandad, husband, primary school teacher and science educator.