Racing tracks and marble runs in the classroom: Testing the electricity unit

As a researcher in the MisstoHit project I collected a lot of toys. Friends and family offered their race tracks and marble runs for me so that I could bring playful material to the classroom for hands-on experimentation on the topic of electricity.  The marble run and race cars on a track served as an analogy for electric current. During our first pilot kids played. Of course they engaged in the activities that where designed by the project members, but they also played. Cars raced through the class, kids checked the cars and marble runs of other students and trial and error behavior was used to answer the questions on their worksheets.

Learning by doing for researchers and developers

In MisstoHit students learn by doing, by experimentation. During the pilot researchers and developers also learned by doing. We actually learned a lot from those first experiences. In order to prevent students from engaging only in playful activities it is important to be specific about the activities. This can be done by providing teachers with activating questions that can be asked to activate the students and worksheets that specify the questions students work on.

Most important lesson learned: discuss with the students!

We also learned that it is very important as a teacher to talk with students about their findings and experiences in the conclusion and discussion phase. When students experiment with hands-on materials through methods of inquiry, they are invited to conduct their own experiments and draw their own conclusions. This may results in a wide variety of experimental set-ups and measurement errors might occur. Classroom discussions provide teachers the opportunity to compare the outcomes of different groups, discuss the differences with the students and search for explanations.

In our pilot we discussed for example differences caused by the material. The tracks that we used in our activity were borrowed and had been previously used by kids to play with. Some of the materials were a little bit rugged and this might have caused friction on the track. Not all mills ran smoothly and therefore some students found it difficult to create a marble run that made a mill spin constantly. Was this a problem? On the one hand, it would have easier to use perfect smooth materials, on the other hand materials that are used frequently in schools will not always stay perfect shape. According the participating teachers the discussion added to the learning experience, because students learned to critically reflect on their findings and search for alternative explanations. And this is an important aspect of scientific practice.

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