Physics in kindergarten and primary school
Submitted by rau on 30 April 2010
A number of projects have emerged in recent years to foster the curiosity of children in kindergarten and primary school. In 2001, we started one such initiativew1 in Winnweiler, which has since been extended throughout Germany with the help of several sponsors. Together with Werner’s secondary-school students from the Wilhelm Erb Gymnasiumw2 in Winnweiler, we developed physics teaching activities for children aged 4-10. With the secondary-school students as mentors, we went into kindergartens and primary schools and successfully ran experiments with the children on topics such as air, electricity, magnets, light, shadows, hearing, flotation and lightning.
A collection of teaching activities, experiences and background information has been published in a German-language brochure (THINK ING, 2007). Most of the experiments, as well as a general introduction to the project, are also available to be downloaded as English-language PDFs from the website of Science on Stage Germanyw3. Below are step-by-step instructions for a set of experiments on hearing, suitable for both kindergarten and primary-school children. The online PDFs also contain further experiments from this section.
Attack on the eardrums
The aim is for the pupils to understand the function and importance of the ear, so that they will turn their MP3 players down to prevent damage to their auditory systems. On a journey from a sound source to the inner ear, sound production and the anatomy of the ear are explained.
Auditory walking tour
Get the pupils to take a walk through the grounds of the school or kindergarten, once with and once without earplugs, to experience the loss of environmental impressions when they partially ‘switch off’ their hearing. They will also learn about the dangers that (partially) deaf people are exposed to.
Do we really hear everything?
The human ear can perceive sounds with 20 to 20 000 oscillations per second. The number of oscillations per second is called the frequency. As we get older, we lose the ability to hear very high frequencies. Dogs can hear sounds with up to 35 000 oscillations per second (35 kHz), bats even higher-frequency sounds. Use a normal whistle and a dog whistle for the children to compare. Typically, a dog whistle is within the range of 16-22 kHz, with only the frequencies below 20 kHz audible to the human ear (and depending on the individual state of your hearing, you may not even hear these).
Adjust the volume of a signal generator with amplifier and loudspeaker to a medium level at an audible frequency. Then turn up the frequency to 50 kHz, and slowly tune it down from there. Ask the first child who can hear something to describe the sound (a high-pitched whistle).
Do our ears have favourite sounds? An individual auditory diagram
By testing our own hearing range, we can estimate the state of our hearing. Connect a signal generator with an oscilloscope and loudspeaker as indicated (see image).
To make it easier, start with 16 000 Hz and do pairwise comparisons between neighbouring frequencies to be measured, i.e. ‘How do you perceive the sound at 16 000 Hz? Now listen to the sound at 8000 Hz – how do you perceive it in comparison?’ And so on. Typically, the human ear is most sensitive to the frequencies at which we usually speak (about 200–3500 Hz).
With the help of a secondary-school mentor (or teacher), each child should plot the perceived volume (e.g. loud = 8) against the frequency of the sound.
How does sound reach the ear? The swinging candle
Because sounds are transported by variations in air pressure, sound moves air particles. The movement of a candle flame is used to illustrate this. Sound with a low frequency can even blow out a candle flame.
What happens in the ear?
The outer ear: the auricle and eardrum
The middle ear: the ossicles
The inner ear: the cochlea
There are auditory nerves in the hair cells of the cochlea. Sound (changes in air pressure) makes them move, which triggers information to be transmitted to the brain. The louder the sound, the more the hairs move. Very loud noises can even damage the hair cells.
A glass tube is used as a model for an uncoiled cochlea. Cork dust or talcum powder inside the tube represents the hair cells.
Setting up a similar project with your students
Secondary-school students have a different perspective from teachers and educators, which can be very helpful when dealing with small children, as they can be easily accepted as ‘big brothers or sisters’. The secondary-school students involved in our project benefited a great deal from the experience: they learned to give presentations, became more self-confident and improved their organisational skills – all without the pressure of a standard classroom situation. Additionally, they got a first-hand insight into the work of teachers, educators, scientists and engineers.
A team should consist of 4-5 secondary-school students and a supervising teacher. In an initial brainstorming session, let the students come up with their own ideas; this will motivate them to be very creative. They may find it helpful to consult books and websites of teaching activities. By letting each student work on a separate topic, students of different abilities can be involved. The teacher should moderate the meetings, provide the experimental materials and help to set up the experiments.
To inspire fun and curiosity, experiments should be easy to set up and, ideally, should involve several senses at once. When the younger children are able to experiment by themselves, they often express and test their own ideas.
It is important to contact potential project partners (kindergartens or primary schools) early on in the project. Whereas kindergartens tend to be open to many scientific subjects, the experiments for primary schools may need to fit the curriculum topics taught in science or nature lessons, if the subject exists.
Ask the secondary-school students to present their projects to each other, to get suggestions for improvements from the whole team. Remember to test the experiments with children of the target age beforehand, to estimate the required time. Up to seven younger children is a good group size. In our experience, each activity takes about 25-60 minutes, although we did not set a time limit.
The activities might take more time than expected, since children sometimes ask to repeat a section they particularly enjoyed. Keep in mind that young children enjoy being able to take small experiments home, or taking part in a small competition in which they can win prizes such as a jelly baby in an inflated balloon.
And don’t forget, if this is a new experience for everyone involved, there may be reservations on both sides (the kindergarten or primary school, and the secondary-school team). However, if you discuss potential issues during the preparatory phase, this should be easily overcome.
w1 – To learn more about the Germany-wide Physik in Kindergarten und Grundschule project, see: www.think-ing.de/index.php?node=1218
w2 – For more information about the Wilhelm-Erb-Gymnasium Winnweiler, see: www.weg-winnweiler.de
w3 – To download the materials in English, see: www.science-on-stage.de/index.php?p=3_15&l=en
w4 – Table 1 can be downloaded as a Word document here
w5 – Science on Stage brings together science teachers from across Europe to share best practice in science teaching. Originating in 2000 as Physics on Stage, it was broadened in 2003 to cover all sciences. Science on Stage Germany organises many activities for teachers both in and outside Germany, and currently hosts the Science on Stage Europe office. For more information, see: www.science-on-stage.de
‘Promenade ‘round the Cochlea’ is a regularly updated website providing background information and teaching suggestions on the auditory system. See: www.cochlea.org
Skidmore University, NY, USA, provides a useful collection of links for teaching the ear and the auditory system: www.skidmore.edu/~hfoley/Perc9.htm#teach
You can find a nice animation of the flow of sound waves through the ear here: www.sensory-systems.ethz.ch/Lectures/Auditory/Auditory_Animations_1.htm
The Howard Hughes Medical Institute website offers a report on recent research into our senses, including the quivering bundles that let us hear and how to locate a mouse by its sound. See: www.hhmi.org/senses
The Neuroscience for Kids website explains how our sense of hearing works, and includes some experiments and teaching materials: http://faculty.washington.edu/chudler/bigear.html
The ‘How the Body Works’ section of the About Kids Health (Trusted Answers from the Hospital for Sick Children) website has an explanation of the ear, including an interactive diagram of the auditory system. See: www.aboutkidshealth.ca or use the direct link http://tinyurl.com/yzzt5bv
The website of the US education research organisation SEDL offers online lesson plans for teaching the five senses. See: www.sedl.org/scimath/pasopartners
If you enjoyed this article, you might like to look at other teaching activities and articles suitable for primary school on the Science in School website. See: www.scienceinschool.org/primary
Werner Stetzenbach has a physics degree and for the last 33 years has taught physics at secondary school. At the Wilhelm Erb Gymnasium, he is the head of sixth form (Studiendirektor) and the school specialist on didactic questions. He is part of the ‘Physics in kindergarten and primary school’ working group of Science on Stage Germanyw5 and has organised more than 25 training courses for educators and grammar-school teachers. He has also organised more than 50 workshops and training courses for physics teachers at secondary schools on the topic ‘Physics in daily life: low-cost, high-tech hands-on experiments’.
Gabriele Stetzenbach is a medical assistant (Arzthelferin). Her role in the project was to make sure the experiments were appropriate for the target age and to help the secondary-school students with the practical setup. She also co-ordinated the collection of feedback on the project and played a major role in making sure the project would be expanded nationwide.
This is an innovative and stimulating way of introducing science to young children. The experiments are simple, yet effective enough to explain how the ear works. At a time when the use of earphones is increasing, one could use the project to highlight how the ear can easily be damaged and what happens in such cases.
The article can be used by two separate audiences: the first are kindergarten and primary-school teachers. They can use the experiments detailed in this article and the additional activities developed by the project (available online) in their classroom. Some kindergarten and primary-school teachers may find it difficult because they do not have the necessary science background; this problem may be overcome through prior preparation, the help of a science specialist or the assistance of prepared secondary-school students, as in the presented project. Suggested background reading material can also be found in the ‘Resources’ section.
For secondary-school science teachers, the article provides details of how to set up a similar project with their students. If secondary-school students are involved, then such a project can be very motivating for them and should also help them to grow into more responsible adults.
The experiments are ideal to use for primary/kindergarten science, but may also be used in integrated/coordinated science. They are helpful for biology lessons to teach about the ear and hearing, and for physics lessons, to teach about the transmission of sound, the ear as a real-life application for the transmission of sound, or cleaning using ultrasound (jostling of dirt particles instead of the jelly babies).
Paul Xuereb, Malta