Demonstrations in science teaching

I love a good science demo but they can be a challenge! You have to manage behaviour, keep students safe, manipulate apparatus and at the same time give a clear, seamless commentary. But demonstrations have the power to engage and capture students’ curiosity unlike anything else, and they are unique to science lessons so that makes them even more special and worth mastering. It’s important to remember that whilst any demonstration can engage – this can be a momentary thrill and what we really want is for students to use their background knowledge to experience the pleasure of problem solving.

Watch the video below on emulsions and note down what you think the intended learning outcome of the demonstration is and identify the specific things Walt is doing to make the demonstration successful. Now check the list below – how many did you get?

How to make your science demos effective

  1. Be clear on your intended learning outcome(s)
  2. Love the equipment and handle it with care. Watch how Walt puts on his goggles – with two hands and with real precision
  3. Use big items of apparatus to create a sense of wonder and direct attention
  4. Say things clearly, and once only – script your explanations
  5. Don’t always reveal what is going to happen – it will create intrigue and students will focus
  6. Save questions until the end (or at the start) – questioning can kill pace and interrupt explanations
  7. Assemble the class in a horse shoe configuration around the bench. Do not have anyone behind you. It doesn’t have to be the front bench
  8. Create a sense of mystery like Walt does with the egg – it will excite the students
  9. Use a narrative to tell a story
  10. Be passionate
Demonstrations in science teaching

Download the WOW factors

Science demonstrations to make your students go WOW!

Science demonstrations to make your students go Wow! This fantastic resource, created by the students and tutors from the University of Worcester, is a collection of science demonstrations to amaze. I first saw these experiments showcased by training teachers at the ASE conference in Birmingham – they were brilliant!

The silent demo

A great twist on the traditional science demo is to carry out the demonstration in silence. It’s a strange idea but by not talking, and using exaggerated actions, students become more focused on watching the apparatus/techniques as they can’t rely on spoken instructions. You can develop the idea further by asking students to write a method as they watch the demo, or perhaps just list items of apparatus that they will need if they are going to carry out the practical. Give it a try.

Predict, observe and explain

The predict, observe, explain (POE) strategy is an incredibly useful framework to help structure a demonstration. It is designed to foster student inquiry and challenge existing conceptions that students bring to the classroom.  You start by setting the scene, showing the students the various chemicals and apparatus. You then pose a question, e.g. what will happen when I place a can of coke in water? Students then have a minute or so to discuss the question and come up with their prediction of what is going to happen. They can write this down or you can assemble class ideas on the board. The teacher then carries out the experiment. Students then need to reflect on their prediction and explain the observation. To spice things up a little you can then do another POE, but this time modify one variable e.g. what will happen when I place a can of diet coke in water? As discussed above, it’s important students have sufficient background knowledge to be able to solve the problem, or at least come close.

Further watching

Here is a great film by science teacher Alom Shaha as he goes on a journey to explore the use of demonstrations in science teaching.

  1. Demonstrations in practical science
  2. Whole class practical work
  3. Scientific inquiry
  4. Troubleshooting practical lessons