The best way to teach Science

by Vidhu Narayanan

"Ma'am, but the water is still not safe for drinking. It may have germs in it that we can't see." That was Snigdha after she, along with her group, had tried to clean the dirty water given to them.

The class was provided with a sample of dirty water to clean. It was from a pond, their only source of water. They were not given any material and were asked to use whatever they could find. Some tried to use their own handkerchief or dried leaves from the garden or paper as filter.

The class six science textbooks list the different processes used to clean water with their definitions. Here students learnt all that on their own. They made their own linkages.

Numerous arguments and discussions followed among the students and I was amazed watching all this unfold from a distance. One concern was whether they should have allowed the dirt to settle before filtering the water or not.

It was Snigdha's group that decided to boil the water and collect the distillate. But someone in the group then pointed out that boiling will make the water lose all the minerals in the water. This gave another dimension to the entire process.

Experiential learning is what I have practiced in my career as a science teacher for a long time now. There have been many times when I had an urge to interfere and tell my students the right answer. But I realized early on that then I would be closing their minds. I learnt not to give in and let them discover for themselves. I also realized that it's not the successful completion of activities but the failure that leads to greater enrichment.

Experiential learning for science

One of the activities we often did was to make the scale model for Jupiter, the largest planet in the solar system. Each year, students would struggle to make a large circle. "But our compasses don't open up that much!", they would say.

One year, one quiet student designed his own compass with cardboard and the entire class used it to create their Jupiter. I wish I had saved the picture of him holding his compass.

From creating a scale model of the solar system to measuring the thickness of a coin and a thin wire, when students think about the method to be used and processes to be followed on their own, it’s a different kind of learning that takes place. That which stays with them and that empowers them to think beyond and more importantly question. Students are actively engaged and they are putting theoretical knowledge to practice.

The delight and wonder writ large on their faces when they hold their spiral snake over a candle flame and notice it swirl to understand convection in air or to be able to heat water in a paper pan to learn about ignition temperature is difficult to ignore. It surprises and maybe disappoints some that they could make hydrogen and oxygen on their own from water with just two pencils, tap water and a 9V battery!!

Over so many years, I have found that the best way to teach science is to let them see it in action.

Vidhu Narayanan teaches Science at Sardar Patel Vidyalaya in New Delhi to middle school classes.