Learn Science by Doing Science

"What we do is Jazz" Modesto Tamez

Paul Doherty, Exploratorium Teacher Institute

Lecture slides here

The Exploratorium Teacher Institute seeks to inspire learners by showing them how science is interesting, relevant and fun. We begin by having participants experience the real phenomena of science. Encountering science phenomena in person naturally leads to questions created by each individual, they ask their own question and they truly want to know the answer, we then provide resources where they can do the work, sometimes hard work necessary to understand the phenomena. Along the way we can guide them to resources with correct science or at least science that is not wrong.

We provide participants with materials, often simple materials, then give them sparse instructions, and turn them loose to explore. Turning the participants loose to explore and report on what they see means that a class will not progress according to a rigid plan. As a presenter you have to know how to deal with the resulting flow of ideas, it is like being a jazz performer in education, you have to be a superb musician/educator and go with the flow, all the while keeping track of where you want to take your audience.

Some ideas:

When designing a science exploration:

Begin with the phenomena.Make it as real as possible.

Then ask, "What do you see?"

There is no wrong answer. The answer helps the presenter understand where the observer is in their understanding of what they are seeing.

Modesto Tamez suggests that the phenomena include a touch of the unexpected. That way it becomes a "provocacione" a stimulus to question and explore.

Think about going one step further.

Do the classic blind spot activity. This involves an object to focus on and and object that disappears.Do this with the right eye and then the left eye. Then do it with both eyes at the same time blinking back and forth between eyes, the object that you focus on with one eye is the object that disappears in the other eye.

When you provide participants with materials pay attention to what they discover.

Look through a black film can at a pinhole in the bottom. Do it in a bright room and open and close the opposite eye. The pinhole seems to grow and contract. This was discovered by a participant in a workshop.

Make explorations social activities.

Head Harp Wrap a string around your head, pluck the string and make music. Then wrap the string around 2 people.

Keep it simple

Model the black drop effect by squeezing your fingers together

Make it human

Tell about the discoverer as a person.

H.G. Wells, as a science teacher did the disappearing glass roods demo, then wrote the Invisible Man.

Hans Christian Oersted, discovered the connection between electric current and magnetism during a public demonstration.

He did what any presenter would do when something unexpected happened, hoped the audience didn't notice, then go home to research it.

Consider Perception

Look at a string

Use the tools of classic storytelling

Repeat things 3 times

Play with scale, start with the normal, go to the small, then go giant

Corrugated tube singing

Bell on a straw oboe

Reduce the number of parts to a ridiculously small number

Moshe Rishpon: Reduces the bed of nails to one single giant nail and invites participants to sit on it. They get the point.

Use humor


Allow the participants to be creative by providing them a tool rich environment.

In our workshops we provide many simple materials, these are stored in rolling carts.


Combine the above ideas two or 3 at a time

Perception and make it human

Newton was seen wiggling one eye ball with a knitting-needle-like-rod inserted beside his eye to see how it altered his perception.


Scientists teachers and students

A scientist looks at something that everyone has looked at
and sees something that no one has seen.

A teacher helps students to see things
they have never noticed before.

Students ask questions that will help teachers
see things they have never noticed before.


Some explorations:

Almost all my explorations will be found here Exploration Index

Images of some of these explorations are here.

Here are some of the ones you might be most interested in.


Spinning Cylinder What cuases the patterns to appear when you soin a cylinder.


String crossing Stretch a string in front of you, what do you see.

Find the Rays Look at a bright point of light do experiments to find the location of the rays radiating from the light.

3D afterimage Move a bright point of light in front of you in a 3D pattern, observe the afterimage.

Gray step, print your own gray step exploration

Laser Speckle Observe how it moves and learn about yourself.

Laser Speckle Explanation use ray tracing to understand laser speckle.

Pinhole images Explore inversion by your eye and brain


Blinky Light Explorations Inova microlights can be made to blink 100 times a second and used to document motion.

Ball Bounce  Drop a tennis ball on top of a basketball, observe how the gravitational slingshot is used by spacecraft.

Gravity Well Explorations Many museums have gravity wells, how can they be used?


Compact disk light explorations, reflect sunlight from a CD onto a white shady wall.

Project a spectrum, use a holographic diffraction grating and an overhead projector to project a spectrum.

Project an anti spectrum, observe a spectrum made from cyan,magenta and yellow.

Interference colors in a soap film, soap film in a can, soap film interference model, origin of soap film color

Mirror pairs explore your image and its rotation in two mirrors.

Left right reversal in a mirror and in multiple mirrors


Whirlies, singing corrugated tubes.

Ringing aluminum rod, explore the sound patterns in a 1.4 m long aluminum rod using your fingers.

Head Harp  wrap a string around your head and pluck it.

Sound reflection from an open ended tube

Adding a bell to a straw oboe


Magnet lesson series, using ceramic disk magnets

Repel a grape using a neodymium magnet


Hot Hands Arrange people by hand temperature

Phase change

Boil water at room temperature in a syringe


Lava lamp  salt powered


Tape Electroscope Use Scotch tape as an electric charge detector

Multimeter electroscope Use an FET input VOM to measure electrostatic charge

Earth Science

Rectified Globe place a globe in the sun with your location at top dead center and the polar axis aligned with the earth to see the light on the earth.

Measure the brightness of the sun, Use a grease spot photometer.

Science topics

Some common science errors, polar bear fur,airplane flight, lightning safety,glass is a liquid, water rise in a jar with a burning candle.

The MR diagram, plotting everything in the universe on a graph of mass versus radius.

Aerodynamics, how to airplanes fly, Newton Bernoulli and circulation theory.

Did you want to do any construction , soldering, PVC?

Energy versus color, find the voltage necessary to light  LED's of different color.

Downhill Racer Measure slow acceleration.

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Scientific Explorations with Paul Doherty


7 July 2012