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The art of physics demonstrations

By James Dacey

Never underestimate the power of a good science demonstration. Some of the most celebrated science communicators like Richard Feynman and Carl Sagan, and more recently Brian Cox, are incredibly good at explaining academic research using simple, everyday concepts. But while a few lucky people seem to be naturally good at coming up with nifty demonstrations, most educators could always pick up some tips from the professionals.

I recently went along to the conference of the Association for Science Education to make a couple of short films about how practical demonstrations can breathe new life into physics education. The ASE is a UK-based organization that has been supporting teachers and science educators since 1900, and it now attracts around 3000 delegates to its annual conference, which was hosted this year by the University of Reading.

In the first video I present an overview of the conference, focusing on the best physics demonstrations delivered by a number of specialist educators. Some of the demos are very flashy, but they are all designed to be simple enough for teachers to recreate in their classrooms without forking out heaps of cash on specialist gear. My personal favourite was the helical flames that seemed to lick the classroom ceiling, drawing gasps from the audience.

In the second of these videos you can see me take part in a special workshop for teachers where we were taught how to make mini dragster cars and how we can use these vehicles to communicate physics principles like aerodynamics and friction. The session turned out to be a really good laugh and it was useful to brush up on my basic physics. Though, needless to say, I left most of the serious mechanics to the real experts – the teachers.

For me, the take-home message of the conference is summed up very eloquently by one of the demonstrators, Gary Williams, who is editor of the journal Physics Education Youtube channel.

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