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Seeing Invisible Things

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I’ve used this Ruben’s tube video by Jared Ficklin for a couple of years in a physics class to show students sound. He does a nice job explaining about compression and rarefaction making the curves (since sound isn’t really a sine wave), but other Ruben’s tube videos, not even the Mythbusters clip, do not. Also, it’s hard to find a student not-impressed by fire:

Even though I’ve seen this guy’s garage more than a few times, I never looked at his bio until the other day (I mean, how many YouTube post-ers do you actually check out?) To my surprise, he’s got a TED talk too. Reminding me of an Oregon hipster (although he’s from Texas), I also think it’s awesome that he speaks to a room full of TED-people in a plaid shirt and jeans.

And then I looked at his TED bio, which has a link to his webpage. This man does a lot of stuff with sound and fire! Okay, that’s kind of a silly statement, considering that first video clip. But really, it’s an impressive amount of tinkering. I wonder how much he spends on propane. But the other things listed in that webpage are also pretty cool. The Stephen Hawking star map is fantastic. The articles he’s written. I think I have a nerd-crush.

So what does this have to do with Neil deGrasse Tyson?

What can I do to get the attention of a bunch of nearly-grown-ups (i.e., teenagers in my classroom)? Do I have to use fire? I sure will, if it works (oh, twist the arm of a chemistry teacher to use fire…) I don’t have the advantages that Dr. Tyson has innately (in that I am neither 6-foot-2, nor baritone) that might keep my students engaged in a verbal fashion. I also don’t quite have his storytelling abilities (but am working on it).

But there’s something more. What can fire do help my students to understand about how chemistry and the world works? I think the reason chemistry is considered the hard science class is that molecules aren’t visible, whereas balls have always rolled down hills and critters have crept across the sidewalks for a long time and it’s visually somewhere in your head.

Chemistry needs some analogies for visual learners. How do you put analogies into the classroom without them being small, token stories or dominating the year with an entire course-worth of not-exactly-chemistry? Is it bad that limiting reagents are like assembling BLTs, balancing equations is a teeter-totter, and chiral molecules are like hands? Should every chemical calculation have a visual procedure to go with it? And where’s the limit?


2 responses »

  1. I like the analogies, but I also like letting kids manipulate simulations and get a visual picture of atoms and molecules. Have you used any of the pHET simulations or Molecular Workbench activities?

    • I have, but mostly the one modeling atomic theories, which I can’t adequately explain/draw. With my current school set up (individual students, 2 half-hours per week), I don’t think it’s usually enough bang-for-buck.


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