Science in the Classroom: Experiments versus Demonstrations

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.

11 replies on “Science in the Classroom: Experiments versus Demonstrations”

I knew that we were supposed to be doing experiments, so when I was in the 6th grade (the only science project I remember) I had a terrible time coming up with an idea for a project.  I wanted something easy enough to do, but still find a question with an answer I didn’t already know. (I think that I was actually thinking along the lines of finding a project that had never been done before, and that’s why I was so paralyzed.) I ended up having to get an idea from my teacher.  And I hated it.  It’s really a wonder I went into science at all, if you go by that experience.  Anyway, my project was to monitor erosion patterns in different types of soil, by setting up small habitats and exposing them to different conditions; finally determining which type of soil was most resistant to erosion.  It doesn’t sound that bad to me now, but when I was 10?  HATED IT.

By the way – my result was the good old Georgia red clay.  Which kills everything you I plant in it.


My 4th grade science project involved testing which combination of metals in lemon juice made the best battery.  I got a B and didn’t get to go to the science fair because my display board wasn’t pretty enough.  Fuckin’ bullshit, right there.

Also, my brother’s 4th grade science project?  Testing the breaking strength of linguine bridges to see which design was most efficient.  He got to go to the science fair, even though his display board looked pretty similar to mine.


I sometimes feel like I am the only kid who never did the baking soda volcano. I did do cornstarch and water for non-newtonian fluids though. And I remember making these things with coffee cans, rubber bands, and fishing wights in middle school when we were learning about Newton’s laws of motion. When you would roll them away, they would come right back. But there wasn’t a lot of proper experiments outside of the science fair until high school. I remember doing one about what packing materials worked best because my mom had a set of dishes she wanted to get rid of. Dishes apparently made of adamantium, because I had work really hard to get the dishes to break at all.

That said, I think there is a difference between a demonstration that the teacher does in front of the class, and a project to demonstrate a principal that each kid does for themselves. In middle school, aside from the coffee can rollback machines, we also made electrical circuits that turned on light-bulbs, electromagnets from wire wrapped around a nail, and grew Wisconsin Fast Plants to learn about how pollination works. None of these were experiments in the sense that we didn’t know what the outcome would be, but they were hands on learning, because instead of being shown how these things worked we were doing these things for ourselves. Not quite as exciting as an experiment where the results are unknown, but still more engaging than a teacher standing in the front of the room showing the class something.

I love this point- exercises that allow kids kids to learn hands-on might not be true experiments but they’re definitely a better way to learn than demonstrations. When I read this article I thought back on all my favorite “experiments,” but I realized when I read your post that in almost every case I knew the outcome. But still, doing it myself made all the difference in understanding and taking ownership of the concept we were demonstrating.

I was always confused about this while growing up, because I read a ton of educational books, so was always way ahead on science. Any “experiments” we did in class, I already knew the answer to, or were SO teacher-guided that there was no room for “new information.” So when it came to science fair, I had no idea how to actually set up an experiment.

Huzzah for labs! I’m a biological anthropologist, and this semester I’ve been teaching a lab for the first time at a local community college. It’s fantastic that they offer it; the institute where I’m getting my Phd, although a prestigious university, doesn’t even offer a such a class. Not only is it incredibly fun to teach, but the feedback from the students is excellent. Many of them are concurrently enrolled in the bioanthro 101 course and they are always telling me how the lab helps them understand the principles they are learning. It makes sense; if you’re learning about a discipline that is highly research-oriented, you should be familiar with all of the data collection procedures, as well.

:D A group of bioanthropologists at a cafe or whatever sound like total creeps. One time I was at a lab dinner (I’m an evolutionary neuroanatomist) and one of my labmates said, “it would be just great if we could get some baboon brains,” and the people the table next to us gave us such looks!


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