Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

Lab Sciences without Lab

on July 27, 2014

Not the least of my struggles was with Sciences.

I did not know then that I would pursue a career in the sciences, or I probably would have paid more attention at the time. I never was bad at sciences before then, since it mainly consisted of biology.  I certainly had loved vertebrates and flowering plants much better than invertebrates and non-flowering plants. But I did not realize that in Taiwan, Physics and Chemistry were taught in 8th and 9th grades, or in other words, everyone had had a year of them before I got there.

So, here I was, in second year Physics and Chemistry, totally baffled by capital letters mixed with numbers in various combinations, with arrows thrown in, and absolutely no idea what it all meant. Eventually, my friend explained that all I had to do was take the first half of a formula and switch it with the first half of the formula it was added to, then write the resulting new combinations on the head end of the arrow. That helped, for now, instead of having every equation wrong, I only got half of them wrong. Balancing equations was an easier affair since the answers for chemical formulas on the right side of the equation were already filled in, and so no switching was involved; it was just a simple matter of addition and multiplication. 

Balancing chemical equations

Balancing chemical equations

I decided that the magical kingdom I had imagined Chemistry to be — alchemists working mysteriously among fumes and glass apparatus in a dark dungeon — was not for me.  The reality of the class was nothing mysterious or magical. That is, until the day the teacher took us to the lab. It happened only once throughout the entire year, and she only did just one demonstration, but that was enough to change my mind completely about Chemistry.

In my imagination, Chemistry was the grandchild of good old alchemy...

In my imagination, Chemistry was the grandchild of good old alchemy…

First, she showed us a white powder and told us that was copper sulfate in its solid form. OK, if you say so. Then she put water in a glass beaker and added the white powder to it. As the powder touched the water and dissolved in it, the entire water changed gradually to an astoundingly beautiful turquoise blue shimmeringly transparent liquid. Wow. Magic. This, she said, was copper sulfate in its liquid (aqueous) form. I believe you, Ma’am. This is certainly not the Mediterranean, though it could be a sample of it…

Electroplating a coin with copper

Electroplating a coin with copper

Then, she proceeded to explain the process of electrolysis. She pulled out a coin — I cannot remember its color but I think it was silver colored, so probably made of nickel… —  and she promised to coat it with copper. Really! I thought. Got to see this to believe it. She ran electricity between the two graphite sticks, and lo and behold! The coin really started getting covered with copper and finally looked totally like a copper coin.  I was flabbergasted. I fought through the mass of classmates to hold that copper coin and turn it in back and forth between my fingers. And just like that, my faith in the magic kingdom was restored. There was such a thing as alchemy after all…! It was not just a boring pile of worksheets. The real magic, however,  was that after this session, my grades in Chemistry improved overnight.

The lesson to be drawn from this is that teachers too often forget the true aim of learning and get addicted to, OK, not addicted;  bogged down in the mire of worksheets, tests, quizzes, homework, grading, and so on. These are really only the by-products of mass education. Real learning transcends these trivial matters. Show your students what the subject matter really is, show them your enthusiasm for it, and they will be hooked for life!

I had an easier time with Physics, because we took electrical circuits, levers, gears, lenses and such down to earth, easily understood topics.  Actually, I instantly fell in love with Physics. I think by now my readers are thinking, wow, she changes her favorite subject every single year.  Well, as a much more mature educator now, I realize that the topic/subject of course has to do with liking or not liking it, but the teacher needs to be passionate about her subject matter. Passion is a highly infectious emotion.

These are what I had to work with back in 1964. I had to remove the grey rubber tires then use elastic bands to connect them together.

These are what I had to work with back in 1964. I had to remove the grey rubber tires then use elastic bands to connect them together.

Today's lego blocks have evolved tremendously. These were designed specifically for such purposes as being levers and gears.

Today’s lego blocks have evolved tremendously. These are designed specifically for such purposes as being levers and gears.

All of a sudden, memory flashes of the gears and levers I had built out of Lego pieces back in Jeddah came back to me. Now, I understood why they worked, and figured out how I could improve them. Unfortunately, the teachers did not provide labs or hands-on manipulatives of any kind at all. Our Lego sets had long disappeared so I could not test my new theories.  But my imagination coupled with my memories managed to sustain me through the classes. Occasionally, I’d be playing with my eraser or pencil as a fulcrum and my ruler as a lever and try balancing various objects on it.  There was too much homework to allow time for more complicated play.

And here comes Lesson Number Two. What if playing with miniature gears and levers, or wires, bulbs and batteries took the majority of our time in class, instead of listening to lectures, taking notes, and filling worksheets?  What result would we get with students? The answer did come, but many many years later, in my own experimental school. Readers, you will have to bear with me for a good number of  more posts to find out what happened to students thus taught.


One Response to “Lab Sciences without Lab”

  1. Saadia Mai says:

    I remember studying hard on Chemistry lessons and algebra but not at all about Physics. Fawzia, I recently observed a high school junior-senior level class called Principles of Engineering: it was first a review of the simple machines and the various relevant calculations; then the class broke into teams, each working with boxed sets of mechanical parts. This is part of a hands-on curriculum called Project-Lead-The-Way. I loved it! I agree that the teacher must spark enthusiasm and use hands-on activities to impart the knowledge.

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