Chemistry Demonstrations DO NOT Help Kids Learn Science: Unless….

Wait, did I read that title correctly?  Everyone loves demos. Look at those faces. Younger students and their teachers love demos!

Yeah, look at those kids! Unless there's some sort of research, we don't believe you!

First, the Research

Dr. Eric Mazur, physics professor at Harvard University, and colleagues found that undergraduate students who see a demonstration as part of a lecture do not learn the underlying concept any better than students who do not see the demonstration at all. Interestingly, they found that the simple act of having students make a prediction significantly improved students’ understanding. Increasing student engagement further by adding a discussion improved their understanding even more.  So the issue at hand is that demonstrations alone can’t increase chemistry knowledge, but as part of a structured lesson, they combine the wizz-bang of a neat demonstration with something better: actual chemistry understanding!

Anecdotal evidence from a 5th grade teacher

While this study focused on undergraduate students learning physics, I think that these findings are important for anyone to consider. The key is increasing student engagement. As a former 5th grade teacher I know that the simple act giving students a question or challenge which they need to solve with a hands-on activity helped them remember the science concepts so much better than hearing it from me or reading it on their own.  While this works beautifully in classroom setting, I also know that this will not work with a large group of say 100 fifth graders.

If it makes you feel better, this doesn't seem to work for 100 fifth graders, either. Other ideas?

Don’t scrap the demo show


Demo shows work on some levels. You know that students enjoy and are inspired by them. So what we need to do is find a way to get students to learn from them too. Fusion Science Theater founder, Holly Walter Kerby, has devised a clever method that combines chemistry demos and techniques from the world of theater that educate without sacrificing fun and inspiration.

Here are four proven strategies from FST:

1. Start with a question. When there’s a question, people are driven to know the answer.

2. Model the process of scientific investigation. Pretend you don’t know the answer to the question or what will happen in the demonstration. Show students how to think like a scientist by thinking out loud.

3. Ask students to make a prediction before the demonstration. However, be sure to give students a little background first so that they have something reasonable to base their prediction on. If you don’t, students will always predict, “It’s gonna blow!”

4. Come full circle and answer the question. You know you’ve done a good job if (1) students are practically jumping out of their skin to tell you the answer and (2) they know the right answer!

Fusion Science Theater has developed scripts for shows and activities which you can access for free! Sometimes demos are used to provide evidence and other times they used as a grand finale. FST will present their newest invention at the upcoming National Meeting—mini-shows called Science Concept Investigation Demos.  SCI Demos are just the right length to plug into a standard demonstration show.

Now with 75% more tie-dye labcoats

During the Making Demos Matter workshop (Monday in the San Diego Convention Center, Room 6F, 3:30-5:30) a group of outreach enthusiasts will show you how to turn a demo on its head so that kids walk away impressed, can explain the science concept you presented, and are eager to learn more. Attendees will walk away from the workshop with information on two demonstrations and experience performing a section of a SCI Demo. Prizes will be awarded to those brave enough to share a little bit of their demo banter with the entire group!

Those who cannot attend the workshop and those who want to learn more about these strategies should go to


Believe it or not, FST relies on more than smiling faces and comments from happy audience members. They use ballots given to all students before and after the shows. The data shows that the number of students who actually understand the science concept is significantly increased. Fun, inspiration, and education—that’s what demo shows really are all about!

Patti Galvan taught all subjects in elementary school but she and her students had the most fun learning science. Before that she performed a science show for large groups of schoolchildren all over the state of Ohio. These days she develops teaching resources for teachers and helps scientists share their expertise and enthusiasm for science with students.


One thought on “Chemistry Demonstrations DO NOT Help Kids Learn Science: Unless….

  1. Pingback: Chemistry Demonstrations DO NOT Help Kids Learn Science ... Study Channels of Pakistan : Study Channels of Pakistan

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s