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Does science always have to go bang?

Written by Holly Kershaw on July 26th, 2011.      0 comments

flour fireball

Most of the time when I walk into a job, whether it be a school workshop, an event, or a birthday party, I get asked if I’m going to make something explode – and I’m not sure that this is a good thing. As a science student at uni, I was often asked what I was planning to do once I finished studying. I would often (only half-jokingly) reply that I hoped one day to be paid to blow things up. If I use this as criteria to rate my role as an educator with Fizzics, it seems as though I’ve found a perfect career – many of our workshops involve something going up in flames, or a bang of some description. But while making things explode is fun, I think that sometimes there is a little too much emphasis on explosions in science.

Many of the students I encounter seem to think that science is all about explosions and if there is no explosion, there is no way that you can possibly have fun. It is the unfortunate reality that unless you’re designing explosives, a bang in science means that something has gone seriously wrong. Danger and explosions may initially attract you to science, but you generally spend the rest of your career trying your hardest to avoid them. So if explosions are generally bad, how did they become the first thing that kids think of when they think about science?

I’m fairly certain that we have TV to thank for some of these perceptions. Shows like Mythbusters and The Big Experiment use large scale science experiments to get ratings – this makes sense – they won’t get phenomenal ratings doing experiments that can easily be done at home. Mythbusters even did a series of experiments to establish whether it is actually better to end in a bang. The Big Experiment’s advertising was full of slogans such as “Science Just Got Explosive.” While packing a cement truck with explosives and blowing it up looks awesome, I’m not sure what they’re trying to show other than that you can blow up a cement truck using explosives.*

Explosions are a sure-fire way to get attention. It is really hard to ignore a big bang. The thing that always appealed to me about explosions was the element of danger. Danger probably attracts a lot of young people to science, but there is far more to science than making things go up in flames. Science is all about understanding how things work, and I think the element of danger sometimes overshadows this. The risk of using a really big experiment to illustrate a point is that the lesson will be lost in the size of the experiment – all that will be remembered is that something went bang, not necessarily what caused it. Science education can’t rely on large scale experiments all the time so we have to constantly work on ways to get kids to see the beauty and wonder in simple experiments such as growing bacteria, studying a pendulum, or even observing the conservation of momentum and energy in a Newton’s Cradle.

*Disclaimer: Don’t get me wrong – I love Mythbusters. Kids can learn a lot from Mythbusters – they do an excellent job following the scientific method, they revisit resuts when new evidence comes to light and they do a very good job of highlighting the inherent dangers in trying many of their experiments at home. It is just that sometimes those explosions don’t really need to be there.

Bye for now!


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