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Book Urges a 'minds-On' Approach to Teaching Science

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SUNY Binghamton University's Thomas O'Brien

Thomas O'Brien's latest book shows that science teachers can use the element of surprise to engage students and challenge their preconceptions about the nature of science.

Credit: SUNY Binghamton

Thomas O'Brien, director of Binghamton University's Center for Science, Mathematics and Technology Education, is hoping that his new book will change the way students and teachers think about learning and teaching science.

Written for science teachers and the educators who train them, Brain-Powered Science: Teaching and Learning with Discrepant Events, shows that by engaging minds-on demonstrations and hands-on explorations, educators can use the element of surprise to challenge students to pause and ponder their preconceptions about specific "FUNomena" and the nature of science itself.

For instance, lay a wooden ruler on a table with one end hanging off, and cover the other end with two sheets of newspaper. Now smack the hanging end of the ruler. What happened? If you did it correctly, the stick broke apart without so much as lifting or tearing the newspaper. How could this be possible? By using this counter-intuitive event, O'Brien illustrates that air has weight and exerts pressure, even if we aren't normally aware of it. Just because we can't directly sense something, doesn't mean it isn't there or doesn't matter.

"The power of the motivated learner is something that K-16 education has not fully unleashed," says O'Brien, a former science teacher who is now an associate professor in Binghamton's School of Education. "What if students came to class with anticipation and left with regret, rather than the reverse?"

In order to get students "hooked," O'Brien says that we also need to rethink what it means to teach, and what it means to learn.

"Knowledge is not a fluid that can be transferred from the teacher to the student," O'Brien says. "Learning that lasts is much more active and teaching needs to be much more interactive."

Every inquiry-based activity in his book, designed with fifth through 12th grades in mind, doubles as a visual participatory analogy that encourages teachers to explore the "unanswered questions" of their teaching philosophy and psychological assumptions about learning.

Understanding how the human brain works is an important aspect of good teaching, O'Brien writes. Activities that use novelty and changing stimuli, have puzzling or counter-intuitive outcomes, require the use of multiple senses, meaningfully connect to what students already know and/or engage them emotionally will capture and hold their attention longer. Armed with this knowledge, teachers can take advantage of these natural tendencies to activate students' attention, catalyze cognitive processing and thereby make learning more effective.

The activities—and nearly 200 Internet links—suggested in the book don't have to cause additional strain to teachers or school budgets, either. They are inexpensive and easy to use, O'Brien says.

O'Brien points out that they can save time in the school year because they are more effective ways of teaching that result in increased student effort and efficiency in learning.

"Most teachers spend a lot of time reviewing at the end of the year," he says. "And why do they need to review? Students' seeming forgetfulness is a sign that they never really learned it well in the first place."

O'Brien says that although he commonly employs these dual-purpose activities in the context of teaching science teachers, the learning principles he uses as models apply to all disciplines.

The National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) recommends Brain-Powered Science as being "among the best available supplements for science teaching." It has ranked on NSTA's bestsellers list since its release in mid-March, and a second volume is under review.

While the individual activities are certainly effective, O'Brien says his primary goal is to spread the research-based pedagogical principles and practices the book supports. "Many conventional science teaching practices are mis-educative," he says. "So the real discrepancy is, why are we still teaching in ways that fail to engage students with the wonders of science?"

Brain-Powered Science: Teaching and Learning with Discrepant Events (National Science Teachers Association, 2010) is available through NSTA and The introduction, table of contents and previously mentioned "Air Mass Matters" activity are available at


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