Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Bell jar

No, nothing metaphorical. The real thing.

I cleared out some space from one of our hallway exhibits to make room for our horseshoe crab art exhibit--a wonderful art teacher is integrating art and science, and the results have been lovely.

I took out an old microscope, a shark jaw (and the log-dead critter drew blood yet one more time), and a big glass bell jar.

Bell jars command attention, sometimes the wrong kind ("yes, Ralph, I realize it looks like a giant condom, let's get back to the lesson...").

I wiled away a lunch period with two other science teachers, trying to see how long we could keep a candle burning inside the bell jar, using various plants and light sources, ostensibly to create a nice demo for the kids, but the three of us were, well, having fun.

We "failed," or rather, ran out of time before we got a workable demo, and I'm sure we'll play with the bell jar again.

It dawned on me that there is little science in the demo.

"Look kids, no plants, candle goes out...." Kids stare for a minute as the flame dies.
"Look kids, lots of plants, candle stays lit..." Kids stare out the windows.

I would ask the obvious questions, then, waiting for the magical words, another science class liturgy, the teacher leading a communal response, another ritual without much thought.


For a few students, the demo could be brain-popping amazing, I suppose. For most, it cannot compete with the electronic looking glass resting in their pocket, a dopamine injecting machine, pure jolts of pleasure that does not diminish with dose after dose after dose.

Playing with a candle, a bell jar, and a couple of plants through lunch soaked my limbic system with dopamine. I would like my students to get stoked, too, but the joy comes from the discovery, not the finished product.

Because we lack time, because we have a state end-of-course exam, I rush through science as a bad history lesson ("We know this and this and this and this...."). Teaching science this way would be like an English teacher asking children to enjoy literature through SparkNotes.

It cannot be done.
We try to do it anyway.

The longer I teach, the messier it becomes, again not metaphorical.

Biology is messy and wet. At the end of each day my classroom screams entropy. Yesterday I picked up a remnant of fat left from sheep's heart on a lab table, rescued a couple of red worms abandoned in a Petri dish, and wiped off the Vaseline used to seal the bell jar on my desk. I put away the microscope used to show the soldier fly's compound eyes via the class projector. I tossed two peat pots left with dead seedlings--not all children care for their plants, and they die.

While my classroom gets plenty messy, my lessons may not be messy enough. I can show the bell jar demo in 5 minutes, or I can let go and let the kids figure it out themselves at the risk of broken glass, burned fingers, and Vaseline smeared all over the room.

So far I've taken the ostensibly low-risk, high efficiency  route, cradling "science" with demos that hold science in a bell jar, a few students watching the show, many just amused by any diversion in rooms of cinder block and white boards.

It's long past time to take the bell jar off of the lessons.

The doll heads in the bell jars photo was lifted from Eliot Glazer's post on urlesque here, permission pending.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I read this link and I wept. Teacher DISMISSED for allowing kids to use a sled (translating for US) to go sledding on snow after school. No, he was supposed to protect them from such a risky pursuit. Just show the sled, explain what it does, move on.
I live 30 minutes from one of 2 (in the country) public luge tracks. From experience, I know that the friction on the ice can melt your polyester jacket if you don't tuck your arms in. So look at all the science - they have timer gates, curves, banks, ice that can melt plastic, muscle groups you never even knew you had a team of people with experience to teach a winter sport. If you go on field trip for $10 a kid you also get cross-country skiing and ice skating.
No, we can't go, the risk is too great you know. If anyone thinks for one moment that a textbook or a video game simulation comes close to the Luge, you have no idea of the depths of your deprivation.