The drama of science
Submitted by sis on 08 December 2009
This article offers a selection of drama-based activities to act or re-enact science in the chemistry and physics classroom.
This is a method to visualise the exchange of oxygen between different metal atoms within the redox series (after Lavoisier). Each student wears a top in one of three colours, representing atoms of oxygen and two different metals (there should be equal numbers of each colour). In groups of about 8-10, the students enact simple redox reactions with 1:1 stoichiometry, such as CuO + Fe → Cu + FeO, and afterwards present them to the entire class. Students often find creative ways to represent both the activation energy and the release of energy in these reactions.
Chemical bonding: conductivity of water (Grotthuss mechanism)
The spacing and velocity of water molecules differs between solid, liquid and gaseous states. In this exercise, students act as water molecules. In my experience, it is best done outside, where there is more space, and it helps to separate the class into male and female teenagers – one group acts, the other watches. The teacher tells the students how to move around: beginning with winter (0 °C), the students should stand still and in a grid formation. As the year goes on, it becomes spring and summer, and the molecules move faster (up to 40 °C), but still stay in contact. Finally, the molecules end up in a kettle, heat up and evaporate (100 °C).
In each phase, the teacher takes a snapshot of the state by shouting “Stop!”. Actors (e.g. the girls) and spectators (e.g. the boys) describe what was happening before and what they can see around themselves now.
This activity can be modified to demonstrate the thermal expansion of benzene, with eight students surrounding about 20 ‘benzene’ students with a slack rope, until the pressure through ‘heating’ becomes too strong and the surrounding students are forced to let go of the rope.
The painting An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pumpw1 by Joseph Wright of Derby (1768) can be used to teach the history of vacuum.
After the discussion, the whole scene can be re-enacted by the students using a vacuum pump, with a ‘Schokokuss’ (a small chocolate-covered cream cake) to replace the bird.
This activity is useful for introducing the idea of electrons as moving charges that transport energy. One student represents the source of energy (a battery): he or she stands at one end of the classroom and hands out small bags of jelly babies (energy). At the other end of the classroom, another student represents the ‘consumer’ of energy: he or she collects the bags. You can put some tables in the centre of the room to mark out a circuit.
The remaining students represent the electrons: they queue at the energy source and, one by one, are given a bag of jelly babies, then enter the ‘electric circuit’ and walk/run to the ‘consumer’ to hand over the sweets (energy). They then go back to the source to queue again. The ‘electricity’ keeps flowing until the source student runs out of bags (the battery is flat). This activity can be extended to represent parallel and series circuits.
This activity is a useful way to demonstrate that the conductivity of metals decreases with increasing temperature, something that can otherwise only be determined experimentally. Outdoors, use chalk to draw a rectangle of 2 x 5 m to represent the cross-section of a conducting cable. Ask about 20 students to stand inside the rectangle; they represent metal atoms. The remaining 10 students (electrons) try to run through the cable while the atoms either stand still (low temperature) or oscillate by moving their bodies (high temperature). The time it takes for the ‘electrons’ to pass through the ‘cable’ is measured with a stopwatch.
The ball is allowed to roll down the inclined plane from different heights. Student 4 records:
In just one lesson, this method yields excellent material to illustrate the idea of half-life, without any complicated or dangerous experimental apparatus.
A game board of 6 x 6 fields is filled with 36 red gaming pieces. Two easily distinguishable dice are thrown and their numbers are used as the X value (die 1) and the Y value (die 2). The red gaming piece on the field that corresponds to the coordinates (X, Y) on the dice disintegrates into (is replaced by) a blue piece. If a pair of numbers is thrown a second time, nothing happens to the pieces, but the double throw is counted. After each set of 10 double throws, the total number of times that the two dice have been thrown (t) and the number of remaining red gaming pieces (N) are recorded. A graph of t against N is used to determine the half-life.
To illustrate different half-lives, you could use 8-sided dice and a game board with 8 x 8 fields, or change the rules so that each field has to be hit twice before the red pieces disintegrate.
Some of the activities in this article were inspired by the work of others. The author, therefore, would like to acknowledge his debt to Pöpping (2003; Radical polymerisation of ethene to polyethylene), Schreiber (2004; Physical states of water), Fallscheer (2006; Electric circuit), Bührke (2003), Drake (1975), Hepp (2004) and Riess et al. (2005; Galileo’s law of free fall), and Barke & Harsch (2001; Nuclear disintegration and half-life).
Riess F, Heering P, Nawrath D (2005) Reconstructing Galileo’s Inclined Plane Experiments for Teaching Purposes. www.ihpst2005.leeds.ac.uk/papers/Riess_Heering_Nawrath.pdf
w1 – An electronic version of the painting with a zoom function can be found on the website of the National Gallery in London, UK (www.nationalgallery.org.uk) or through this direct link: www.tinyurl.com/2bqhvx
w2 – The silhouette of the vacuum painting can be downloaded here.
w3 – For the story of Galileo’s inclined plane and detailed suggestions for introducing it in the classroom, see: www.ihpst2005.leeds.ac.uk/papers/Riess_Heering_Nawrath.pdf
If you enjoyed this and other teaching activities in this issue of Science in School, you might like to browse our collection of previously published teaching activities. See: www.scienceinschool.org/teaching
Bernhard Sturm obtained his PhD in chemistry at the GKSS Research Centre Geesthacht, Germany. He now teaches chemistry and physics at the Neues Gymnasium, a secondary school in Oldenburg, Germany. Over the past few years, his students have won a number of science competitions, especially on geoanalytical and climate topics. One of his main interests is interdisciplinary work linking science, art, language and sports.
This article gives specific and clear ideas about how teachers can use drama to facilitate students’ learning of abstract concepts in physics and chemistry. The activities can be used mainly while tackling standard topics in the curriculum.
The fact that the suggested activities do not need complicated or expensive resources makes them easy to use in the classroom. Teachers are given clear and concise guidelines about how to include creative writing and role playing in their lessons. This not only makes science lessons more interesting and fun for the students, but also means they will feel more involved and responsible for their own learning experience. This will also attract students who are more oriented towards languages and the arts because it stimulates their imagination and creativity. Additionally, it can help teachers to start applying small changes to their teaching, as well as provide new ideas for teachers who have already started implementing similar activities in class.Catherine Cutajar, Malta