Is the Hands-on Approach Really the Best Way to Learn Science?

Our focus at Steve Spangler Science is teaching hands-on science – don’t read just about it in a text book, touch it, see it and live it. That’s where discoveries are made and real learning begins.

Should elementary students perform hands-on science experiments or focus on learning science concepts first? | Steve Spangler Science

Some are challenging that focus on teaching science and pushing for more of a foundation in content before going into the lab.  Daniel Willingham (Why Don’t Students Like School?) believes elementary students in particular are novices and are therefore unable to think like a scientist. The only people able to think like scientists are the expert scientists themselves, believes Willingham.

Willingham argues that the only way to become an expert is to have a strong foundation in the field coupled with years of practice and experience. He believes students should write poetry and perform science experiments, but they will not have meaningful and memorable lab experiences until they become a real scientist.

Katherine Beals (Raising a Left-Brain Child in a Right-Brain World) explains that labs are essential for the advancement of science, but questions if they are needed to learn what has already been discovered. In other words, is it better for students to study, hypothesize and question about a specific lab topic and then instead of performing it themselves, read about the experts’ findings? She questions if there is a purpose in re-enacting experiments that have been done over and over. The results have already been discovered, so why have students go through the same motions?

We now teach in a world with science videos, science apps and a plethora of scientific knowledge at our fingertips. There are even programs that will step students through complete labs without the students ever having to touch a pea seed, smell formaldahyde or measure a chemical. Virtual labs calculate the results based on past experiments and give students the data they need while saving money on materials and time spent in the lab.

Steve Spangler demonstrates Elephant's Toothpaste on the Ellen DeGeneres Show

There are the students out there that will jump up and down about this type of learning. They will step through the exciting parts of the lab without actually having to do it. But what about those who love putting on the lab glasses and gloves and diving into smelly, messy science to watch their results come alive in front of them? Even if a result has been proven again and again, isn’t there something in letting novice students make their own discoveries?

A picture of Elephant’s Toothpaste is cool, but observing it shoot into the air and then smelling the reaction is something you can’t get out of a book.

Science is explosive, olfactory and incredibly visual. It’s also tedious, boring at times, full of research and writing and results don’t always come out as expected. Shouldn’t students of all ages get the opportunity to experience a slice of what the expert scientists live everyday? Just like reading the real Declaration of Independence with the actual signatures of our founding fathers while standing in the National Archives makes a deeper impression than looking at a copy in a book.

What are your thoughts about hands-on vs. building a deeper foundation before reaching for that lab coat? What creates memorable experiences for students?



Back to School Blog Hop with Kid Blogger Network and We Teach

We are honored to be a part of the Kid Blogger Network’s Back to School blog hop. It may not be all about science, but it is time to celebrate the return to the classroom and learning for the next nine months. This blog hop includes some of the top parenting bloggers sharing their tips and activities to get everyone back to school.
The Educators' Spin On It
All of this month, we are sharing our tips and a few blogger tips for returning to school. This week, we began with sharing some Back to School activities for teachers to engage and excite their new class about learning and shared Tips for Parents to Ease back into school.
We encourage you to take some time and visit the blogs and their posts listed below while you prep for getting your own kids back to school.


Easing Back to School Stress – Tips for Parents

By Blog Editor Susan Wells

The stress of back to school usually starts in our house as the end of July nears, and school supply lists arrive with registration packets. My kids start worrying about losing the later bedtimes, non-stop play dates and extra free time. Over the next three weeks, we will be sharing some tips and advice for easing the anxiety surrounding returning to the classroom.

Tips for parents to ease back to school stress & anxiety | Steve Spangler Science

  • Shop for school supplies early. In my children’s early school years, I’d procrastinate and wait until the first day of school started creeping up on us before I’d shop. I thought this would ease mine and my children’s anxiety by not acknowledging its inevitability until summer was almost over. Simple supplies like pencils, erasers, etc. were still available, but harder to find items like primary composition books were non-existant. I ended up running all over town and searching the Internet for those last few supplies. This caused more stress for all of us, as we spent additional time on search missions. Now, we shop in mid-to-late July and then stack it up in a corner until it’s needed in late August.

Back to School Parent Tips | Steve Spangler Science

  • Get the teacher contact information early and utilize it. Don’t wait until school starts or even those first conferences to express your concerns and challenges to the teacher. Send the teacher an email before school starts. Teachers must jump in with both feet and learn 20-30 kids’ names, learning styles, strengths, weaknesses and skill levels. When meeting with my school’s principal last year, she encouraged me to reach out to my child’s new teacher right away and share my concerns with her. Talking with the teacher before the insanity begins, gives the teacher a head start getting to know their students. Kristen Mason from Busy Kids = Happy Mom also agrees and shares her tips for connecting early…Easing back to school fears & anxiety - write to your child's teacher. | Steve Spangler Science
  • Set all family/homework rules and plans a week before school starts. Charts or posters that list when homework will be focused on, how much time screen time is allowed on school days, bedtimes, wake times and chores. Give your children the expectations in advance so they know what is expected during the week.

Tips for Parents in Easing Back to School Stress | Steve Spangler Science

  • Use a family calendar. Use whatever works best for you – wipe boards, planners, or apps like Cozi are all great ways to display a family calendar and keep everyone notified of the week by week schedule. Again, it is all about setting expectations and keeping everyone organized.Back to School Parent Tips | Steve Spangler Science
  • Take a practice run. If your child rides the bus, walk with your child to the bus stop and talk about what is acceptable and against the rules while waiting for and riding the bus. If your child will walk or ride a bike, take the route on a day before school. Discuss which routes are good to take and which ones aren’t. If you have friends’ homes along the way or “safe” houses, point them out so you child knows where to go if they need help along the way. Go over rules for getting to and from school – can they stop at a friend’s house or go straight home?
    Back to School Parent Tips | Steve Spangler Science
  • Visit the school. Many preschools, elementary schools, middle and high schools all offer visit days before the first day of school. Walk around, meet the teachers and get familiar with the new school to eliminate as many unknowns as possible. Blogger Laura Hutchinson also adds, “If a face-to-face visit with the teacher or school isn’t possible, photos of the school and/or teacher, a Skype interview, phone call, or even just an email or letter can be helpful.”

Tips for Parents in Easing Back to School Stress | Steve Spangler Science

  • Create a worry board. Kim Vij from The Educator’s Spin On It has her children write out their worries on a wipe board and categorize them by big worries and little worries. She also has them list their fears by Likely to Happen and Less Likely to Happen. After the fears are written down, she discusses them and helps the kids find strategies for working through them.
    Big Worries vs. Little Worries - Tips for Easing Back to School Fears from Educators' Spin On ItBig Worries vs. Little Worries - Tips for Easing Back to School Fears from Educators' Spin On It
  • Read books that take your child through the new grade and experience. Here’s a grade-specific reading list from Nyla’s Crafty Teaching. When my girls were in the younger grades, we always read “The Night Before…” books during the week before school started.

The Night Before First Grade - Books to read to ease Back to School fears

  • A visit from the Back to School Fairy. Twas the night before the first day of school and all through the house everyone is sleeping…..or maybe not!  If your child is is a little anxious or dreading the return of school, have the fairy visit them over night. Busy Kids = Happy Mom has a fun printable and explains this activity on her blog. What a great idea. I needed this a few years ago.

Easing back to school fears & anxiety - the Back to School Fairy from Busy Kids = Happy Mom

What are your family traditions or tips to help get your kids back to school while easing the stress?

Easing the Fears and Anxieties Through Team Building Activities During the First Days of School

By Blog Editor Susan Wells

As the back to school season starts, what types of feelings are stirred up? For me, it was always a mixture of excitement and joy over new clothes and school supplies and a knot in my stomach knowing I was headed into a new class with a new teacher. There were so many unknowns and stresses placed in that first day of school.

Activities to make the first day of school go smoothly. | Steve Spangler Science

While some kids are ready and eager to return to school, many face a plethora of fears and aren’t ready to say goodbye to the freedom of summer.

Our Steve Spangler Science First Days of School Kit not only contains activities to turn students into friends, but also engages the kids and gets them excited about learning.

If you are a teacher, you know how difficult it is to enthrall a new classroom of students who have spent long lazy days dulling their minds in the sunshine. How do you grab their minds, shake some oohs, ahhs and laughter out of them, and become the coolest teacher in the school?

The First Days of School kit is packed with several Steve Spangler experiments and science toys.

First Days of School Kit - Activities to Team Build, Ease Anxiety and Welcome Them Back to School | Steve Spangler Science

If it makes it to the dinner table, you win!

Windbag Wonders Team Building Activity
Give each student a Windbag and ask them to blow it up as fast as they can. How many breaths will it take to inflate the 8-foot-long bag? The kids will blow and blow and blow and swear that it’s impossible. It may seem that way, until you share a little secret called Bernoulli’s Principle. Inflate the bag in front of them with one breath. Now divide the students into groups of three to five and have them inflate the Windbags. Ask the students to create a free standing structure. The highest structure wins the challenge. As a chorus of laughter and chatter erupts, the students will be so engaged, they will forget all about missing mom or dad. They may even meet a new friend or two.


Team building and engaging activities for back to school and throughout the year with Wind Bags | Steve Spangler Science

Do You Trust Me? 
Before the students arrive in the classroom, set up by adding 1/2 a teaspoon of Water Gel in a styrofoam cup. Fill a pitcher of water and set it aside. When the students come into the classroom, choose a volunteer. Have the volunteer hold the cup above eye level while you fill it. Don’t let them see inside. The Water Gel is a special powder that is similar to the polymer found in baby diapers. When you pour the water in the cup, the powder will absorb it.

Do you trust me? Water Gel trick to build connections and teach the science of polymers. | Steve Spangler Science

Talk about the idea of trust and say “If you give me your trust this year, I promise to teach you things that will change your life forever!”

Now hold the cup over the student’s head and poke pencils through the cup. Have the student promise not to runaway, and warn, “you may get wet, but I really need my pencils back.”

Pull the pencils out of the cup. The water will appear to have vanished and the room will fill with shouts of “how did you DO that??”

Before you give yourself away, have the students make guesses as to what happened to the water. Get them asking questions and making predictions. Now that’s the science of leadership!

Rainbow Friendship Bead Bracelets
Give each student five or so Color Changing UV Beads and a pipe cleaner. Ask them to string the white beads and make a bracelet with the pipe cleaner around their wrist. The beads will remain white until exposed to ultra-violet light, like sunlight. The secret is a pigment in the beads that responds to UV light waves. Remove them from sunlight, and they return to their white color. You may want to “forget” to tell them that the beads have this special power and instead send them home or out to recess with the bracelets to discover on their own. Fuel their curiosity by asking the students how and why they change color.

UV Color Changing Beads - A Metaphor for a Person's True Colors. Give Students on first day of school to engage learning | Steve Spangler Science

Then use the beads for one or more of these great metaphors and life lessons -

  • B.E.A.D.S = Becoming Enthusiastic and Dedicated Students
  • The beads are a celebration of diversity – diversity is often hidden in the brightest source of light.
  • The beads are a metaphor for a person’s true colors. True colors are a person’s inner strengths, willingness to help out, a giving heart, compassion for others or being truthful. A person’s true colors may not be visible at first, but character traits may come out in life situations.

The First Days of School Kit comes complete with an Activity Guide packed with science experiments, connections to life lessons and scientific principles. The kit is aimed at making those first days of school energetic and unforgettable by using teamwork, sharing, goal setting, reasoning and creative thinking.

  • 30 Windbags
  • Approximately 250 Energy Beads (Assorted Colors)
  • 100g jar of Water Gel™
  • 50g jar of Jelly Marbles
  • 3 styrofoam cups
  • 30 pipe cleaners
  • First Days of School Activity Guide



Squishy, Squeezy, Messy, Color Mixing Kitchen Science

By Blog Editor Susan Wells

Some of our most popular kitchen science experiments at Steve Spangler Science involve color mixing and oil and water blobs in Lava Lamps. We came across this fun twist that involves color mixing and oil and water blobs, so I had to try it with my kids…

Color Mixing with Colored Water & Oil - A Rainbow of Color | Steve Spangler Science


Color Mixing with Colored Water & Oil - A Rainbow of Color | Steve Spangler Science

We started with Giant Test Tubes filled 3/4 full with vegetable oil. I filled small cups with water and let my daughter drop Color Fizzer Tablets into the water to mix her original colors. She then used Pipettes to transfer the water from the cups into the Test Tubes. We watched different color blobs of water fall from the top of the oil down to the bottom. It was a rainbow of colors. As they reached the bottom, some combined with others, while some sat on top of the big blobs.

Color Mixing with Colored Water & Oil - A Rainbow of Color | Steve Spangler Science

When the tube was full, we capped it off and she shook it. We watched as the colors mixed and the blob grew. It was fascinating to watch the different colors form a wave inside the tube.

My daughter wasn’t done yet, so I filled some pie pans with enough oil to cover the bottom. She dropped blobs of colored water into the pans and watched them mix. She was busy for a long time pushing the water blobs around the pan with her finger. When the water blobs meet, they combine and create new and different colors.

Color Mixing with Colored Water & Oil - A Rainbow of Color | Steve Spangler Science


Thank you to Growing a Jeweled Rose for sharing this great idea.