It is apt that I start the first entry in my blog with my experiment during the orientation week. AU has recently started an activity where all the incoming AU students meet in classes with mixed disciplinary background and get a first hand experience of PBL. Since I enjoy experiments, I always volunteer to teach these classes. I had a fun experience this year which I share here.
I believe that ability to observe and analyze events plays an important role in any discipline and my aim for the class was to foster these aspects in students. Now the best learning happens through self- realization and surprise, so I did not want to preach, I wanted them to experience that fact for themselves.
In preparation for the class I down- loaded the Yuri Gellar spoon bending videos. Since Geller is now quite old news and my students were going to be mostly from non-stem fields, I was reassured that they did not know about it. I anyway tested it out on my student TA to make sure that Geller is not well-known.
I started my class with some junk talk about how mind is all so powerful, how positive thoughts can change anything in the world (don’t get me wrong, I am all for positive thoughts, I am only against mis-guided positivity), that there are realities in the world beyond human comprehension and blah-blah-blah. I also discussed how observations and critical thinking play an important role in all fields. Once the students were properly primed, I showed them, as a proof of power of mind over matter the Yuri Geller videos. After that I divided them in groups and asked them to discuss what they saw and what they think about it and write short notes. I told them I am not interested in who said what, I just want to collect different views. I had very optimistically expected almost half of them to contradict my nonsense (The exercise was open internet, they were allowed to access material online, but there was a tight time bound). Sadly only one group came up with somewhat neutral view (as I remember, I did not keep a log), all others more or less agreed with my nonsense. I suspect there probably was also an elements of “appease the authority”, so some of them even if they thought I was being an idiot would not say it out aloud. I don’t blame them, self-preservation has its value. I guess the reader can see the pit-falls of such an approach but all the same point it out. If the leader is committing a foolish mistake and is surrounded by such self-preserving lot, both the parties are heading towards doom.
I read their views one after the other without comments and then showed them what actually was possibly happening in the Geller videos. I re-iterated the importance of critical thinking and observations and then showed them two more experiments, the experiments were
- Jumping flames
- A magic trick with water flow.
The first experiment was an easy one and it is easy to find demos on the internet (as Ben Linder says, and I agree, give them some success). Light two candles, extinguish one and immediately hold it under the burning candle, the candle below lights up. I took the discussion towards inflammable gases, safety guidelines (did I talk about the “Grey’s anatomy” incident where a guy on oxygen lights up a cigarette ?, I don’t think so, I should have), petrol tanker and cooking accidents.
The water flow experiment is a fun one and not so easy to figure out. Take a plastic bottle and make multiple holes in the bottom, make a single hole somewhere near the neck too. Fill in the bottle with water, shut it up tight, let the water flow and chant some hocus-pocus ordering the water to stop flowing, while surreptitiously moving one finger on the hole at the neck to close it. Again chant another hocus-pocus (I went for “abra-ca-dabra” and then “dabra-ca-abra”, as James Veitch says “one must be consistent”, I add “logical” to it) inviting students to join in the chant, move the finger away from the hole and the water flows. Luckily no one had seen the trick before, so there was a lot of interest. I invited them to observe and analyse several performances and then handed over the bottle to them to play with. Again they were free to look for online resources, analyse and write a note. The discussion that followed was great. I discussed the physics behind it and the reason for the glucose bottle drips that is often used in hospitals to have an injection at the top to let the air in.
Thanks Paragi Shah for discussion on whacky things one does in the class and many more gossips. Many thanks to Lynn Stein, one of her sessions taught me quite a lot about myself. Many thanks to Ben Linder, his AU workshop with multidisciplinary students made me realize that an introductory lab can be made so much more humane and so much more fun.