Unfortunately, a lot of people think that physics is all about making measurements, solving equations, and figuring out numbers. This does NOT appeal to elementary students. (It probably doesn’t appeal to most college students, either.) When you’re trying to teach physics to young kids, there are a few things that I think are very important to remember:
(1) If what you say doesn’t make sense to your audience, they will go away with the feeling that physics is a subject that is too hard for them and should be left to the ’rocket scientists.’ But it’s not! Anyone can do physics! Don’t use textbook phrases like ’for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.’ Instead, you can say ’if I’m pushing on something, something has to be pushing back on me.’
On the same line, don’t get into equations and math. For a typical second grader who’s just learning how to subtract, F=ma is a bit too much. Instead, you can say that ’how hard you have to push on something to make it start moving has to do with how heavy it is and how much you want it speed up.’ This is saying /exactly/ the same thing as F=ma, except that it’s in language that they can understand.
(2) The Physics Van is based on the idea of ’demonstration based learning.’ We teach ideas about physics by using real experiments that kids can see. This is also very important. If kids can see an example of what you’re saying, it will be much more real. Think of your own experiences... which made more sense: when your science teacher explained that you need a closed circuit for electricity to flow, or when he showed you that a light bulb will only light up if all the wires are connected?
There are literally hundreds of websites out there with ideas on classroom demonstrations and experiments. (Check out the ’links’ page in our website to find some.) Many of these require no more equipment than what you can find around your house. Try to incorporate these into what you’re teaching. Even better is to let the kids try the activities themselves. Allowing kids to ’get their hands dirty,’ so to speak, is a surefire way to keep them interested in what you’re saying.
(3) Make it fun! Elementary students have much shorter attention spans than high schoolers or college students do. If you just stand up and talk, they’re not going to pay attention. Be excited about what you’re saying. If they see that you’re interested, than they’re more likely to get interested themselves.
Choose experiments and activities that appeal to kids’ interests. For example, in one demonstration I’ve used, you place a small balloon inside a bell jar and use a vacuum pump to pull all the air out of the jar. As the air leaves the jar, the difference in pressure makes the balloon get bigger, so it looks like it’s blowing itself up. Most kids actually think that this demo is pretty exciting... but it’s much /more/ exciting if you replace the balloon with a marshmallow. Sure, you're showing the exact same thing, but expanding marshmallows are much more fun than expanding balloons.
(4) Physics is something with which all children are very familiar (although they may not realize it). Every time they play on a swingset, bounce a ball, or ride in a car, they’re seeing physics. Try to make what you’re saying relevant to your audience. Not only will this help them to see what you’re saying better, but it will help to decrease the distance between them and what they’re learning.
(5) Last but not least, be creative and get involved! Elementary students are so eager to learn that lots of different approaches will work. Come up with something that works for you and with your resources. Make sure that you understand what you’re talking about and get interested yourself. Like I said, if you’re not interested, your students won’t be either. So good luck, and have some fun with it!
(republished on 07/17/06)