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A trick for teens: Generating interest among the apathetic

Getting kids interested and engaged in science can be a difficult task. Getting them interested for the duration of a full school year is near impossible. This task is potentially more difficult for middle school teachers than any other educator I have had the pleasure to work with. Here is a tale of how the teacher and I managed to get her class interested in physics.

Me, demonstrating how to play a review game

A year or so ago I enrolled in a program called GK- 12 PFF Program. This program was run through our university and a single local middle school. While I’m not sure what the PFF stands for, I know that the G stands for graduate, and the K – 12 stands for K – 12 school grades. What the program does is take graduate students, and pair them with a teacher in the K – 12 system. Our graduate school has paired with the middle school 7th and 8th grades at Tecumseh Middle School. In our pairs the grad students are to bring their knowledge and research into the classroom, while the teacher is to teach us pedagogy and teach us how to teach.

As I grew up in the British boarding school system, I had no idea how I should prepare for my first classes and lectures at the middle school. I was assured that it was a “standard” inner city American middle school. I quickly found out that “standard” meant underfunded. The teachers did a good job of working with it, though. They had a decent amount of shared equipment for the science labs, they worked together to discuss and refine curriculum materials, and they worked on their labs together.

The kids, too, were also “average.” There were smart kids, there were not so smart kids, and there were every level between. They were at the ripe age where attitude takes over, and they start trying to become adults and define themselves as individuals. Needless to say, they were beginning to become teenagers. I found that the ones that were interested in science didn’t want to show it for fear of being labelled a geek, or worse, a loser. Apparently, it was unacceptable to be smart.

However, it is acceptable, to a teenager, to be apathetic and lazy. Armed with this knowledge, I challenged them to build Rube Goldberg machines to do various tasks around their house. It was a sly trick, I admit, but it worked. To successfully make a machine to do something, they had to know basic physics, and thus basic science. To get full credit for the assignment, they had to bring in a machine that they built to pop a balloon, and explain the science of the steps. And, despite me tricking them, the students actually broke the apathetic lazy game to be excited about science. I even had one thank me for showing him that science could be fun, not boring and just something for those “geeks.”

This is but one way to trick teens into engaging with sciences. And it’s not just for teens, either. I often found that challenging students in university settings in such a way was just as effective. What methods have you come across that worked for motivating students (or the public) to sit up and show some interest?