• Anita Demitroff

All about Experiments: 7 factors to consider

Updated: Jan 24

With their fizzes, bangs and pops, experiments are universally popular. The surprising results of mixing together everyday materials can make even the most disengaged student wake up. However, in order to make sure that hands-on science activities help build competences and boost knowledge over the course of their learning, here are seven factors we have to consider.

1. Experiments are just as great for soft CLIL language learning as they are for hard CLIL sciences.

Children will need to master technical language over time, but the real challenge is putting processes and phenomena into their own words in any language, a different process in itself through which learners start to notice linguistic trends as they get older. This task is often linguistically simple but cognitively challenging. For instance, English has many two- or three-word verbs like ‘go up’ or ‘break down’. Technical language often has Greek or Latin spellings. And signposting words, like ‘then’, ‘next’ and ‘after that’, are needed to help in describing processes.

2. We call most hands-on science activities ‘experiments’, but we need to be more aware of activity types and where they fit in a curricular program.

Some, like the fizzy drink and raisins described below in point 3, are classic experiments. Others involve producing models to help learners understand a phenomenon or process. Examples of these are holding a ball in front of a torch to show how the Sun and Earth interact or making a mini water cycle in a bowl. A third type of practical science activity is a STEM challenge in which Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths come into play. Students can try to make a stand for a museum piece from a sheet of paper or create a vessel to protect an egg that is thrown out of a window! Finally, there are comparative studies: which material is the most waterproof or which toothpaste is the best and why?

3. A classic experiment may not fit into the Science syllabus, but it may be a good starting point for learning how to work practically and reflect on the experience.

A case in point is the raisin and fizzy lemonade experiment. What happens when you put raisins into a tall glass of lemonade? Will they sink or float? It is a way to inform learners about what is involved in all experiments (and other processes): assembling the equipment and materials, following steps, making predictions and providing an explanation of why something happens.

We can introduce the scientific process to children as young as three. However, by the time they finish Primary, we need to help children become more proficient and autonomous as scientists. In this way, they can design and carry out their own experiments. By the way, the raisins in the lemonade both sink AND float, whizzing up and down until there is no more carbonisation in the liquid.

4. Each type of hands-on science activity has its own skill set.

We do the classic type of experiment to become better at working systematically, formulating questions, following instructions, making predictions and using equipment. STEM activities allow learners to think out of the box, work in a team and to build resilience when we have to try and try again. Models and analogies reinforce communication; they illustrate concepts and help us explain. Comparative studies force learners to define the criteria needed to evaluate something.

5. We have to focus on what learners can already do and challenge them to move on to the next step.

Even Pre-primary learners can predict because they rely on instinct, but a five- to six-year-old may not be ready to explain why something happens. When they get to a more rational age, like seven or eight, they will need scaffolding to help them clarify their ideas and begin to express them. For example, in order to explain why the raisins sink and float in the lemonade experiment, the teacher can mime the actions of the fruit sinking; the bubbles sticking to the fruit and pushing it up; the bubbles going up and popping and then the fruit sinking back down.

Lots of oral reinforcement is needed before a written text is introduced. Furthermore, there are science skills that learners develop over time: using more sophisticated measuring equipment, becoming more proficient at linking the concept and the phenomenon, or using more technical and precise language.

6. Remember to re-visit certain activities.

It is precisely because topics like buoyancy start to make sense in later Primary that it is worth re-doing certain experiments. The familiarity gives learners linguistic confidence and helps them for the next step: linking what they demonstrate with what they have learnt in Science. Indeed, in a service-learning project, a Physics lecturer at our local university has her first-year students do and explain simple experiments in their own words to younger learners in order to demonstrate the importance of this skill. It proved to be a challenging task for them.

7. There is a place for showy experiments, to get their attention and display the beauty of science, but balance them with activities that are within your learners’ capabilities.

It’s a question of thinking about their needs when choosing an activity.

If we consider the entire time children are in Pre-primary and Primary, there is always a place for hands-on scientific activities to boost communication, thinking skills and science competences. We must ask ourselves, what will learners do or understand better as a result of carrying out this experiment or STEM activity?

What are your favourite science activities?

We’d love to hear from you.

By Ana Demitroff

Ana has been in the classroom longer than she cares to admit, but she still gets a kick from the experience and continues to learn from her colleagues and students at the You First Language Centre.