Kinds of Hands-on Science
Setting the Context
explores three different hands-on ways of approaching learning
and science. It provides teachers with experiences which
can be used as a starting point for discussions about inquiry
and learning. At a Guided Activity Station, groups are given
a worksheet to complete. At a Challenge Activity Station,
groups are asked to build a tower of a certain minimum height
out of foam. At an Inquiry Activity Station, groups explore soap
foam and associated materials. Together, these activities
can get your teachers to start to think about the different
aspects and attributes of various hands-on approaches to
2 1/2 hours minimum
Background and Rationale
For many years the
Exploratorium has been creating inquiry learning experiences
and environments for our visitors, students, and classroom teachers.
Twenty-five years ago, the type of learning espoused by the museum
and our programs was called hands-on science, because it promoted
active physical investigations which emulated what real science
experimentation looks and feels like. The central experience
in all of these investigations was one of inquiry--observing,
hypothesizing, testing, rethinking, questioning, searching, creating
meaning and understanding through a personal process of learning.
Recently, hands-on learning
has become something of a buzz-word in education circles. Under
the moniker of "hands-on,"
countless kits and lesson plans have put materials into the hands
of students, but many of them have proven just as restrictive
and proscriptive in their use of and inquiry into the materials
as were the textbooks that they set about to replace.
Because we realized that there
was a continuum of interpretations of the term hands-on science,
from tightly guided activities to open ended inquiry, we developed
the foam activity to help both us and our teacher colleagues
make finer distinctions between the different types of hands-on
science learning on this continuum. The foam activity allows
people to experience three different hands-on approaches to
the same subject so that they can compare and contrast their
immediate, direct experience and use that as a stimulus for
analysis and discussion in a workshop setting. Through this
discussion, the sketchy profile of inquiry which most of us
have can begin to be filled in.
In devising this activity,
we chose to work with soap foam for a number of reasons, including
that it is a fun material to work with. The fact that foam
is not part of anyone's curriculum is also important. Teachers
at workshops are used to getting activities to take back to
their classrooms. Using a topic that is not part of their curriculum
helps to get across to them that the activity is designed for
helping them analyze different teaching strategies and not
for classroom use.
Introducing the Activity
The key to introducing
this activity is to emphasize its purpose and design. Give teachers
some of the background described above and tell them that the
purpose of this activity is to let them experience three types
of hands-on science. To prepare their thinking, let them know
that after everybody has rotated through all three centers you
will hold a discussion about the strengths and weaknesses of
each type of activity and about where and why you might want
to use each type.
Logistics of the Activity
Divide the group in half.
One-half will go first to the Inquiry Station where they will
spend 40-60 minutes; the other half will divide itself between
the Challenge and Guided Stations, spending 20-30 minutes at
each station. At the end of the hour, give teachers a short
break before reversing groups: the teachers who had participated
in Challenge and Guided activities move on to Inquiry, and
the Inquiry group splits itself between the other two activities.
You need one facilitator for
the Inquiry Station. It is useful to have one facilitator for
each of the other stations but if necessary, one person can
Just before the end of each
activity remind teachers about the need for clean-up before
going on to their next station. We use 5 gallon buckets for
cleaning up between groups. Teachers can dump all their foam
into the buckets and wipe out their bowls with paper towels.
If the buckets get too full of foam to hold any more, you can
cut the foam by pouring a little vinegar into the buckets.
After the second hour, when
everyone has worked at each station, "jigsaw" them
into discussion groups of 8 to 12, mixing people from groups
that experienced activities in different orders.
After spending 45 or so minutes
in small discussion groups, you may want to
convene as a large group to share general observations. Each
discussion group needs a facilitator.
(for 25 people)
- about 15 bowls for beating foam (it may be useful
to have more on hand)
- 6 to 8 hand beaters, 1 per person for the guided
activity. You may want additional beaters for the challenge
and inquiry activities.
- 8 to 10 electric beaters
- 50 plastic coated plates - 11" or 12" size
- 50 plastic coated plates - 6" dessert size
- 8 pint bottles of Joy and/or Dawn detergent
(it's nice to have some of both)
- 4-6 cans of shaving cream
- plastic covering for tables - or newspapers
- 12, 1/4" dowels - cut to 5", 7",
9" and 12" and sharpened to a point (can be done
in an electric pencil sharpener)
- 4 yardsticks and 4 rulers
- plastic spoons
- tongue depressors
- several magnifying glasses
- 6 measuring spoons (teaspoons)
- water containers (like pitchers) for each activity
- 12 eight-oz paper cups
- 2-4 qt. bottles of root beer
- 1 dozen eggs
- cream of tartar
- 3 pints of vinegar for clean-up
- binocular dissecting microscope (optional)
- three 5-gallon buckets for clean-up
Spoons and tongue depressors
are used to contour the foam, but you can ask people to use
their hands. The root beer, shaving cream, eggs and cream of
tartar are used at the inquiry center. In the text below, the
above list is broken out into three materials lists for the
three activity centers.
We've found that asking participants
to bring in materials (like egg beaters and bowls) from home
This activity uses the attached
self explanatory worksheet. Materials for each group are listed
on the worksheet.
Tell the group that
the activity directions are on the worksheet, including which
materials each group should get from the materials table. Ask
teachers to work in groups of two.
Give them the following helpful
- teachers need to turn the eggbeaters fairly
rapidly, otherwise foam may not form.
- when teachers put the dowels in the foam, they
need to be pointed side down. Some will try to balance them
on the flat ends.
- ask people to read the instructions carefully.
It is easy to miss things like the "4 inches high" instruction
before question 3.
Remind people that they need
to stop a little early to clean up for the next group. Dump
all the foam into the five gallon buckets and wipe out all
the bowls with paper towels.
Because the instructions
are all on the worksheet, the facilitation of this activity can
be very lighthanded--but you need to make sure that people follow
directions. Since the Guided Activity can be a little constraining,
especially for people doing it as their third station, they tend
not to read the instructions carefully. For example, we have
found that they often miss the "4 inches high"
instruction before question 3.
One of the issues that arises
at this station concerns time. Sometimes one or more groups
finish early and do not know what to do while other groups
others are still working. Alternatively, some groups run out
of time and are rushed or do not finish when clean-up time
is called. In that case, you deal with the anxiety and feelings
of failure that arise. These time issues are valid replication
of what happens in classrooms with worksheets and should be
part of the discussion.
People who have an inclination
toward exploration may stray off task on this
activity. There are several options for dealing with this. You
can try to keep people on task to replicate classroom work--joking
with them about straying off-task often works to bring them back
on task. This behavior is another point to bring to the discussion.
This activity asks people,
in groups of two or three, to build a foam tower at least 12
(per group of 2-3)
- 1 11" plastic coated plate
- 1 or 2 bowls
- 1 hand mixers and/or 1 electric mixer
- 1 yardstick
- dish soap
- optional: spoons or tongue depressors
for this activity are quite basic. Like most challenge activities,
one needs only to set the challenge and the parameters.
Tell the teachers (or write
on a chalkboard) that the challenge of this activity is to
build a foam tower at least 12 inches high. The activity's
parameters are that:
- the tower must be completely contained on an
11" plastic plate and
- there may not be any supports other than foam
itself (we have had people put cups inside the foam pile
When a group has met the challenge,
ask them to continue building the tower as high as possible.
If a group is doing this station first, you can give the participants
a starting point by telling them that 1 tsp. of detergent to
1 cup of water is the foam recipe for the Guided Investigation.
Although this may not be the best recipe, it provides an idea
of workable proportions for soap and water. They can use either
hand or electric beaters or both at this station.
The challenge in
this activity is difficult but can be met. It often proves especially
difficult for people who have not yet had experience with foam
at the other stations. However, some people have found that their
conclusions reached at other stations actually were misleading
at this station. In general, you need dense strong foam at the
base and lighter, fluffier foam as you go higher.
The facilitator at this station
should be the judge of the tower height. To measure, hold a
yardstick vertically on the table and sight across to the top
of the tower. Keep telling teachers how much time they have left to meet the challenge.
As they get closer to the time limit without meeting the challenge,
frustration often grows. For groups that don't meet the challenge,
there is a feeling of failure and "not being good at science." These
are important points to bring to the discussion. Often, in
groups who are doing this activity as the second or third activity,
someone will notice that the old foam in the 5 gallon buckets
from a prior group has dried out and become very light and
fluffy. They will take some of this to use on the top layer
of their tower. The facilitator needs to decide ahead of time
if they want to allow this. Sometimes, participants will "cheat" by
piling the foam onto other objects
despite knowing that they were instructed not to use supports.
In this case, you don't have to force them to stop, but assure
them that it really can be done without supports.
Participants can become quite
competitive at this station. Challenges, and especially the
instruction to go as high as you can after meeting the challenge,
can easily lead to competition. With competition, everyone
except the top group is a loser. The issues of competition
are also important to bring to the discussion.
Cooperation is also possible
at this station. In one session, the groups shared information
with each other so that they could all meet the challenge.
This is another important point to bring up in discussion.
With all of the possible pitfalls
of challenges, it is important that the positive aspects are
brought out in discussion. First, challenges can be very engaging
for both adults and children. They provide a clear goal and
give people the opportunity to experiment and find a way to
meet that goal. Challenges can also push people to do things
that they never would have suspected that they were capable
of doing. In that way they can enhance the learner's confidence.
At this station, participants
are asked to work in groups of two or three to explore soap
foam and to learn what they can about its physical properties,
including what makes it strong. In addition to the materials
that are available at the other stations, provide participants
with shaving cream, root beer, eggs, cream of tartar and whipping
cream. Set aside these materials aside from the others, so
that at some point in the activity you can let people know
that they are available for extensions. If possible, you can
also include a binocular, dissecting microscope so that teachers
can look more closely at the soap foam.
It is important to emphasize
for teachers that this station provides them the
opportunity to experience the "first-phase" or "exploration
phase" of the inquiry process--it does not represent all
that there is to inquiry. People often believe that this exploring
or playing-around stage (also sometimes referred to as the "messing
about" stage) is all that there is to inquiry, leaving off
the other important parts of hypothesizing, testing, analyzing,
drawing conclusions, and developing theories that fit with existing
understanding and knowledge. It is important not to allow
this activity, which focuses much of its time on "playing," to
contribute to the belief that inquiry is about play and not a
process of making real and valuable discoveries and progress. If
people get beyond the exploratory phase, and do find a question
that they can pursue in an intentional way within the time provided,
encourage them to pursue those questions, even if it is in a
direction that they are not sure will be fruitful.
(for 6 groups of 2-3)
- 6 bowls for beating foam
- 2-4 hand beaters
- 4-6 electric beaters
- plastic coated plates
- 2-4 pints of Joy or Dawn detergent (preferably
some of each)
- 3-4 cans of shaving cream
- covering for tables
- one set of 1/4" dowels, as in the guided
- several yardsticks and/or rulers
- plastic spoons
- tongue depressors
- magnifying glasses and or/ dissecting scope
- measuring spoons
- 8-oz paper cups
- 2-4 qt. bottles of root beer
- 1 dozen eggs
These materials should be
enough for both rotations of participants.
to take a couple of minutes to come up with all of the examples
of foam that they can and write this list on the chalkboard.
This process will engage the teachers' previous experience and
connect their exploration to the outside world. After this, if
this is not the group's first station, introduce people to the
materials that they have to work with--then let them loose.
If this is their first station,
you might need to help people find a way to get started by
offering a "recipe"
for foam, or by actually demonstrating how to make foam out of
dish soap and water. You can also recommend that they look closely
at the foam, add new ingredients to it, build with it, experiment
with the other materials, etc. You may also want to ask the group
to suggest two or three ways to explore some of the physical
properties of foam, including its strength. This introduction
is meant to give people without experiences from the other stations
some ideas of how to get started and to show them that their
ideas are valid--but be careful not to have the suggestions misinterpreted
as instructions. The point is for people to lead themselves through
a process of inquiry and discovery.
can constantly interact with the group, asking questions, suggesting
things to try, and helping people figure out what to do next
if they get stuck. Sometimes, groups that have already passed
through the more structured stations have a hard time being creative
and thinking of things to do during the free exploration. They
may even quit before their time is up. This provides an important
discussion point on how an expectation of structure can stifle
creativity and interest.
Sometimes people ask if they
can use materials that were not set out at the start. If people
ask for items that are available, like food coloring or a microwave,
you might want to provide them.
For the last five or ten minutes
of this station, bring the group together to share their observations
and discoveries. This process will illustrate for them the
importance of the group interaction for building understanding
about inquiry. During this time, emphasize again that this
station is only the "first-phase" of the inquiry
process and that it does not represent all that there is to
Processing the Experience
The point of doing these foam
activities is to provide first-hand experiences with three
sorts of hands-on activities, and to generate thoughtful discussions
about the differences noted and experienced among the three.
The facilitation of the discussions and other processing of
the experience is therefore the most critical element of the
A good way to get people started
is to ask the participants to write briefly about each station
using the following questions as prompts.
- How did you feel about working at each station?
- What are the strengths of each approach?
- What are the weaknesses and issues raised by
Discussion can follow this
writing period, or you can start the discussions right after
the end of the last activity.
Teachers should meet in groups
of no more than 12 people plus a facilitator. Jigsaw the groups
mixing people who experienced the activities in different orders
and who worked in different groups.
An easy way to jigsaw the
groups is to approach each of the Guided Activity groups, while
they are still doing their activity, and ask them to count
off 1-2-3 (that's if you are planning to have 3 discussion
groups, if you are planning on four have them count off 1-2-3-4).
Ask them to remember their number because that will be their
discussion group which will meet at the end of all the activities.
This is only one possibility--there are other ways to distribute
people into discussion groups that you may find more useful.
Discussion Group Prompts
Your choice of discussion
prompts depends on the make-up of your group and what you are
trying to emphasize with this activity. The following discussion
prompts have proven useful in stimulating productive dialogue:
- How did it feel to work in each area--what was
your personal reaction?
- What kinds of questions came up in the three
areas? How did they differ?
- How does the timing or order affect the experience?
- What happens if you can't meet the challenge?
What happens to the science- shy kid (or adult)? What happens
if the challenge becomes a competition? What are the positive
aspects of challenges and competitions?
- When would you use these different approaches
in the classroom?
- What were the advantages and disadvantages of
Facilitation of discussions and some typical things
that come up:
· How did it feel to work
in each area--what was your personal reaction?
People will have different
reactions to each area. Some will love the freedom of the inquiry
station. Others will feel insecure there, not knowing what
to do or what the objective is. Some will like the guidance
provided by the worksheet. Others will find it limiting. Some
love a challenge. Others hate the pressure of the challenge.
Discussion often turns to how to appeal to kids with different
learning styles. Many teachers will say things like Now
I know how my students feel when I make them do ___.
· What kinds of questions
came up in the three areas? How did they differ?
Some people find they have
more questions in one activity or another, or that the types
of questions they have are different in different activities.
For instance, the challenge or the inquiry activity might bring
up questions like "I wonder what would happen if...?" While
the guided activity might bring up questions like "I wonder
if this is why ____ happens?" Looking at the kinds of
questions that came up can be a good lead into a discussion
about when you would want to employ one or another of the activity
· How does the timing or
order affect the experience?
Order makes a difference for
many people. Sometimes, people who start with the more structured
activities have a hard time in the inquiry station. Their curiosity
and creativity seems to be stifled.
Sometimes this question turns
to "Which order is the right order to teach in?"
This is a tricky one. Examining why people believe one order
is better than
another helps them examine their teaching beliefs. However, there
is no one
best order and it's good to try to incorporate this discussion
into the questions of strengths and weaknesses of each method
and under what circumstances it is most appropriate to use each.
· What were the advantages
and disadvantages of each approach?
You might want to
elicit or contribute the following specific points:
- Challenges and competitions can be very engaging
for many students.
- Challenges can also encourage people to attempt
things and solve problems that they otherwise would think
they could not do.
- Challenges can create unhealthy anxiety.
- Not meeting the challenge can make people feel
like failures and like they are not capable of doing science.
- Competitions can make everyone but the winner
feel like a failure. They discourage sharing of information
- If you want to get to a very particular conclusion
or illustrate a particular fact, this is a more certain way
to get there.
- Can be useful for building a particular skill
that may be applied to another situation later (in this instance,
learning how to make "good" foam in a short time).
- It has a clear beginning and closure. What you
are supposed to do is clear.
- Worksheets can be very boring for some people.
- The question is not the learner's question and
the experimental design is not the learner's design and may
not make sense to the learner.
- The instructions never quite cover all of the
variables. You may get
- The structure can be limiting, actually discouraging
further action or
- Sometimes, people will rebel and subvert the
instructions are not fully read or followed.
- People pursue their own questions. They have
more control over their work.
- People invent their own paths of investigation.
- People share information and discoveries, learning
from each others' work.
- People have a greater opportunity to develop
the skills of raising questions
and designing investigations here.
- The outcome is not necessarily pre-determined.
- Requires more facilitation than the other activities.
- The facilitator has less control over what is
learned. Important ideas can be
- Inquiry takes more time. After the
"messing about" stage, additional time is
needed for more purposeful investigation.
- Not having specific instructions creates anxiety
for some people.
- What is the learning going on in the
"messing about" period, before focusing on a particular
-Exploring pertinent variables (e.g., getting a feel for the
materials) is an important aspect of this period.
-The sharing of observations and discoveries at the end of
the inquiry session helps people recognize the learning going
Foam is a material made up of gas bubbles separated from one
another by a liquid film. Foam has physical properties which
can serve as a model for may other phenomena. It also serves
as a vehicle for learning about the complexities of surface
area. In the following investigation, you will explore some
of the physical properties of foam.
(for each group)
- Two 6" desert size plastic coated plates
- 2 bowls
- 1 teaspoon
- 1 cup (about 8 oz.)
- 1 or preferably 2 hand mixers
- One set of pointed dowels
- 1 ruler
- 1 magnifying glass
- Optional: spoons or tongue depressors
Put 1 tsp. of Joy
or Dawn detergent and 1 cup (8 oz.) of water in each of two bowls.
Beat each mixture with an eggbeater counting the strokes.
Bowl A 200 strokes
Bowl B 600 strokes
1) Which foam has bigger bubbles,
A or B?
On the small plastic plates,
build piles of foam as high as you can.
2) How high a pile can you build with A?
How high a pile can you build with B?
On small plastic plates, build
mounds of foam 4 inches high; one with foam A and one with
foam B. Try to make a dowel stand vertically in the foam, with
the pointed end of the dowel down.
3) Which is the longest dowel that will stand in foam A?
Which is the longest dowel that will stand in foam B?
4) Which foam is the strongest, A or B?
5) In the experiments above, what other differences did you notice
between foam A and B?