For years, the standard science class “experiment” was a papier mache volcano demonstrating the reaction that occurs when baking soda and vinegar are mixed together. Recently, scientists and science teachers have been arguing for a movement away from that “experiment” and with good reason – it is not actually an experiment and there are much better ways to teach science.
Allow me to give a little of potentially superfluous back-story before I continue. An experiment tests a hypothesis and looks to produced new information and/or provide support for existing theories and knowledge. A baking soda-vinegar volcano does not test anything. That does not mean that it is useless – it is an cheap and easy way to make chemical reactions tangible – but it does mean that it is not the best way to teach about the scientific process, and it should certainly not be seen in science fairs designed to showcase scientific experiments.
Oh boy, that last sentence is a doozy. Scientific experiments always sound so formal and daunting. They really do not have to be. Testing a plant species’ response to different pesticides can be a scientific experiment. Testing which chocolate chip cookie recipe tastes best can be a scientific experiment. A scientific experiment does not have to be ground-breaking, but it does have to answer a question whose answer is not known.
Recent pedagogical discoveries suggest that active learning, where the students play a real role in creating their own knowledge, works best in any field. Many science educators are already applying this principle. That is fantastic. Young women especially lose interest in science in middle school, and a more engaged and empowering exploration of science and the scientific process could help curb some of that loss of interest.
It is hard to be passionate about something that seems insurmountably difficult. By changing from a more demonstration-focused scientific curriculum to one that encourages student engagement and exploration, science could cease to be this weird, hard, bizarre series of random facts. So next time you’re in a position to suggest science activities, I suggest staying away from baking soda and vinegar.