The YouTube classroom18/07/2014
The internet has well and truly emerged as an innovative learning tool, writes STEVE McCABE.
When I was a high-school physics student back in the 1980s, back when nobody except Peter Higgs knew much about Higgs Bosons and superstring theory was all the rage, classroom science was altogether more fun.
When the mercury spilled out of a broken thermometer, my science teacher didn’t evacuate the building, didn’t break out the hazmat suits, didn’t even stop to wonder what on Earth a mercury thermometer was doing in his classroom. No, he had me make goalposts out of my fingers, and had my classmates play football with the little ball of quicksilver that shimmered across the desk. More deadly, then, but more fun.
We obviously can’t play mercury football any longer. Health and safety gone mad, perhaps, or maybe it’s a lack of resources or equipment, or perhaps what we want to do is on such a scale that it’s not feasible, but there are plenty of things that we’d love to be able to do in our classrooms but simply can’t.
Call it good fortune, call it scientific serendipity, but around the time that teachers were starting to realise that the one thing more important than students’ learning was their safety, and that it was time to start looking a little more closely at what we should be doing in the classroom, the internet started to emerge as a serious teaching tool.
The obvious place to start is YouTube. But where on YouTube to start? The occasionally excellent British series Brainiac: Science Abuse is well represented on YouTube, and while much of the content is a little gimmicky, it can be quite wonderfully thought-provoking. Can the radiation from mobile phones cook an egg, for example? Their answer doesn’t entirely convince me (I see flaws in their methodology), but it’s a great discussion-starter for senior physics classes. And if you want a demonstration of the increasing reactivity of group metals, then a six-minute sequence of potassium, sodium, and their mates being dropped into a bathtub full of water is hard to beat.
And I’ve yet to find a better, more graphic and visceral conservation-of-energy demonstration than their rock on a wire video clip. It’s brash, it’s showy, and it’ll keep Year 10 students fascinated beyond simply “Oh, cool, we’re watching YouTube videos!”
While Brainiac tends toward the flashy and the surface-level, Mythbusters is a more subtle and stealthy way to introduce the scientific method. Appealing slightly more to older boys, in my experience, Mythbusters takes the “analyse the living daylights out of a question” approach that fosters just the kind of critical thinking we really want to see in future generations of scientists.
A personal favourite is the question of which, a bullet fired from a gun or a bullet dropped from the same height at the same time, would hit the ground first. Again, it makes a great thought problem for young physicists, but the video also fires and drops bullets to make sure that the answers your students give – hint: remember that velocity and acceleration are vectors – is correct.
Also unmissable is the quite delightfully eccentric Professor Martyn Poliakoff from the University of Nottingham's School of Chemistry. His YouTube channel can be found here. The Professor, as classic and clichéd a mad scientist as you could wish to find, explores the periodic table with full access to the university’s laboratory resources – exploding things that we secondary and primary teachers can only dream of getting our hands on.
If Professor Poliakoff doesn’t do the experiment you want to see, you’ll possibly find it in Lonnie’s Lab, a series of demonstrations from the University of California at Berkeley’s chemistry lab – less theatre than you’ll find in some of the other videos I’ve mentioned, but more grown-up science explanations. You’ll also find footage of videos that I’d think twice before conducting in my lab – this one sees Lonnie the technician making sodium chloride the hard way.
YouTube videos are, no matter how informative they may be, ultimately a one-way street; eventually you’ll want a more interactive experience for your students. By far my favourite is the University of Colorado at Boulder’s Interactive Simulations site, which is free of charge; that’s quite remarkable when you realise how much work has gone into setting the simulations up. Probably the most effective are the mechanics simulations – being able to change mass, speed, angles, and the like to produce different outcomes is a great way to generate outcomes that can test predictions that students can make from their physics knowledge.
I also find that the DC electricity labs are vastly more reliable than the old and tired ammeters and voltmeters I have access to at school, and virtual wires tend not to fray and fail. You’ll find quantum chemistry, curve-fitting, Fourier analysis – tools and simulations for primary school children and university students. I’d be lost without it.
The internet really comes into its own in the field of human biology.
Teachers working within this field face a dilemma: we want our students to gain a strong and clear grasp of what’s going inside them, but for any one of a number of different reasons, we can’t really actually show them. This is where virtual tours of the body are thoroughly invaluable. Some, such as Virtual Human Body focus on systems, and show the various organ groups, labeled and detailed, for students to explore, while the Visible Man Project and others emphasise the body as an integral whole, revealing the structure of the body as a unit.
But regardless of the approach you and your students choose, you’ll be able to offer them a degree of detail and realism that you simply would not have had access to when I was trying to learn this stuff from a textbook, and possibly as a result, deciding that biology simply wasn’t for me.
I can’t leave without sharing my all-time favourite science video. It’s a quite simple, elegant demonstration of how to calculate the speed of sound, filmed in Japan a few years ago by the national broadcaster, NHK. It’s all in Japanese, but you don’t need to speak a single word to get what’s going on. It is typically odd in the manner that only the Japanese can quite pull off – odd and effective.
What’s your favourite science teaching resource on the internet? (Please comment below.)
- Steve McCabe is a physics and science teacher in South Auckland. He is also a technology commentator on Radio New Zealand National.