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Book urges new approach to teaching science

Lay a wooden ruler on a table with one end hanging off, and cover the other end with two sheets of newspaper. Now smack the hanging end of the ruler. What happened? If you did it correctly, the stick broke apart without so much as lifting or tearing the newspaper. How could this be possible?

In his book Brain-Powered Science: Teaching and Learning with Discrepant Events, Thomas O’Brien, director of Binghamton’s Center for Science, Mathematics and Technology Education [1], uses this counter-intuitive event to illustrate that air has weight and exerts pressure, even if we don’t normally feel it.

The book, written for science teachers and the educators who train them, contains many demonstrations that shock students into pausing and pondering.  By engaging students and encouraging them to explore their misconceptions about the world, O’Brien intends his book to change the way students and teachers think about science.

“The power of the motivated learner is something that K-16 education has not fully unleashed,” said O’Brien, a former science teacher who is now an associate professor in Binghamton’s School of Education. “What if students came to class, whether it’s kindergarten or freshman biology, anticipating that they were going to experience and discuss surprising stuff and be challenged in their own thinking?”

Janice Crowley, a high school chemistry teacher and former secondary science methods instructor at Wichita State University, is enthusiastic about the book. “What makes it exceptional,” she said, “is that it breaks away from the typical text and uses lab activities that get our kids hooked on science.”

In order to get students “hooked,” O’Brien said, we also need to rethink what it means to teach, and what it means to learn.

“Knowledge is not a fluid that can be transferred from the teacher to the student,” O’Brien said. “Learning that lasts is much more active and teaching needs to be much more interactive.”

Every science activity in his book, designed with fifth through 12th grades in mind, doubles as an analogy that encourages teachers to explore the “unanswered questions” of their teaching philosophy and psychological assumptions.

Understanding how the human brain works is an important aspect of good teaching, O’Brien writes. Activities that use novelty and changing stimuli, require the use of multiple senses, connect to what students already know or engage them emotionally will capture and hold their attention longer. Armed with this knowledge, teachers can take advantage of these natural tendencies to make learning more effective.

The demonstrations and considerations suggested in the book don’t have to cause additional strain to teachers or school budgets, either. They are inexpensive and easy to use, Crowley said.

O’Brien points out that they can save time in the school year because they are more effective ways of teaching and learning. “Most teachers spend a lot of time reviewing at the end of the year,” he said. “And why do they need to review? Because the students forgot so much of the content. They forgot it because they never learned it well in the first place.”

O’Brien said that although he commonly employs these “minds-on” approaches in the context of science teaching, their underlying principles apply to all disciplines.

Brain-Powered Science is O’Brien’s second book. As a doctoral student, he was part of a team that wrote Chemistry in the Community for the American Chemical Society. The high school textbook emphasized chemistry in students’ daily lives and the broader community, and was the first edition of a series that continues to be widely used.

The National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) recommends Brain-Powered Science as being “among the best available supplements for science teaching.” It has ranked in the top five of NSTA’s bestsellers list since its release in mid-March, and a second volume is under review.

O’Brien said his main concern is that the ideas the book supports spread. “Many conventional science teaching practices are mis-educative,” he said. “So the real discrepancy is, why are we still teaching in ways that fail to engage students with the wonders of science?”

For More Information

Brain-Powered Science: Teaching and Learning with Discrepant Events [2] (National Science Teachers Association, 2010) is available through NSTA and retailers such as Amazon.com. Download a PDF of the “Air Mass Matters” activity at http://bit.ly/b26t57.

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