Getting Hands-On Science Into the Classroom

The Exploratorium Science Snackbook: what it is and how you can use it.

by Paul Doherty

Paul DohertyPaul Doherty, co-director of the Snackbook project, is the Acting Director of the Exploratorium's Center for Teaching and Learning. He has been working with high school and middle school teachers at the Exploratorium for six years. Before coming to the Exploratorium, Paul was a physics professor at Oakland University in Michigan, where he learned the importance of using hands-on science in high school classrooms from the Detroit Metropolitan Area Physics Teachers. He is now gathering teachers to start work on Son of Snackbook.

Who we are and what we do

The Exploratorium is a hands-on museum of science, art, and human perception. It's been called a scientific funhouse, a giant experimental laboratory, even a mad scientist's penny arcade. Each year, more than half a million visitors come to the Exploratorium; 60,000 of them are students on field trips. Once inside, visitors of every age have the opportunity to use interactive exhibits to discover for themselves the wonder and joy of science. We often see our visitors become science teachers: they discover things for themselves, then show their discoveries to someone else. Kids turn to their parents and say, "Look at this!" More than 600 hands-on exhibits allow visitors to discover that science is fun.

How the Snackbook began

Ever since its opening in 1969, teachers from around the San Francisco Bay Area have brought their classes to the Exploratorium to get their kids excited about science. From the very beginning, these teachers asked us to help them learn the science behind the exhibits. In response, the Exploratorium created two teacher-training programs: the School in the Exploratorium, for elementary school teachers, and the Teacher Institute, for middle and high school teachers. These programs teach science to teachers using hands-on discovery�the same method we encourage them to use in teaching science to their students.

The teachers in both programs often asked, "How can I bring these exhibits home to my classroom?" That was a challenge the Exploratorium couldn't ignore. We already had three Cookbooks, which were written to help other museums create duplicates of Exploratorium exhibits. But these instructions were complex and demanding, and relied on materials and skills well beyond those available to the average teacher. The Teacher Institute helped a group of teachers to write the book they wanted�a book telling how to build simple, inexpensive, classroom-sized versions of Exploratorium exhibits. For three years, nearly one hundred teachers and Exploratorium staff members created and tested recipes for classroom science exhibits. With assistance from the Exploratorium's own science, writing, and graphics staff, these recipes were turned into the Exploratorium Science Snackbook�or the Snackbook, for short. The Snackbook contains 107 recipes for "Snack-sized" versions of Exploratorium exhibits.

Each Snack was developed by one or more teachers trying to create a classroom-sized version of a full-sized Exploratorium exhibit. Often, a teacher's first attempt to duplicate an Exploratorium exhibit would fail, but everyone on the Snackbook team worked together to solve problems, come up with new ideas, and find creative ways to bring these experiments into the classroom. Time after time, the teachers experienced the joy of discovering new ways to do science. Sometimes their innovations even improved on the original museum exhibit. The rubber-glove-in-the-bottle version of the "Fog Chamber" Snack, for instance (see page 7), allows students to feel the pressure changes that create the fog in the jar. The full-sized Exploratorium version does not. The excitement of the Snackbook brainstorming sessions was contagious. Teachers told us that they felt a rejuvenated interest in teaching science.

What's in a Snack?

The design of the Snackbook reflects the needs and requests of the teachers who created it. The Snacks are divided into easy-to-follow sections that include instructions, advice, and helpful hints. Each Snack begins with drawings and photographs of both the original, full-sized exhibit, and the teacher-created, classroom-sized version. A short paragraph introduces the science behind the exhibit. There's a list of the materials needed, and suggestions on how to find them. Other sections give complete assembly instructions and contain descriptions of how to use the completed experiments.

Since the teachers insisted that correct scientific explanations accompany the hands-on activities, each Snack explains the science behind the phenomenon being demonstrated. A section called "Etc." contains interesting bits of additional historical and scientific information. You can see a sample Snack and all its parts on the inside front cover of this publication. Seven other Snacks are provided for you throughout the booklet.

How to use the Snackbook

After its publication in August of 1991, the Snackbook rapidly found its way far beyond the San Francisco Bay Area. Within a week, for example, the Exploratorium had received a request from the Outback of Australia asking us to help teachers there find a supplier of plastic mirrors for their Snackbook experiments.

We also discovered that a wider range of teachers were using the Snackbook than we had originally expected. Though the Snackbook was written primarily for high school teachers, we began to hear of successful applications in elementary schools, middle schools, and colleges and universities. We also heard from local science teachers who had special education classes or were working with students learning English as a second language. While these students had great trouble learning science from their textbooks, many excelled at building Snacks and investigating science. We found that the Snackbook was particularly useful in school districts where science department funding was tiny. With its emphasis on inexpensive or scrounged parts, the Snackbook gave teachers in less well-funded districts a way to do hands-on science activities on a tight budget. Teachers who had never been to the Exploratorium asked us how to weave the hands-on activities described in the Snackbook into their classrooms. The need for a guide like this one became obvious. There are many ways to incorporate interactive science activities into your classroom. In the articles that follow, we will show you how several of our local teachers use the Snackbook to help their students create science exhibits of their own. We hope that this magazine will give you a few new ideas.

The Soap Film Painting exhibit Soap Film Painting is an excellent example of an Exploratorium exhibit. Visitors pull a long rod up out of a tray of soap solution to create a wall of soap film. They can poke the soap film and break it, blow into it to make it bulge, or wiggle it to make standing waves. With patient observation, the visitor can watch the wall of pastel colors change with time as the soap film thins to the thickness of a wavelength of light and less. As children and adults explore the exhibit, they are exposed to a tremendous range of scientific concepts�from the nature of surface tension to the interference of light.

©1993,1994,1995,1996 The Exploratorium 3601 Lyon Street San Francisco, Ca 94123