Classroom Demonstrations for the Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences: Don’t Let Physicists Have all the Fun! — Dylon McChesney

chemistry demonstrationIf you have a background in science or engineering, there is a good chance that you took part in a classroom demonstration at some point.  Perhaps in high school you helped your chemistry teacher explode or set something on fire (this is the type of teaching that tends to produce audible gasps).  Or, perhaps, in an introductory level university physics course, you did something riskier, like students who volunteer to lay on a bed of nails while their professor smashes a brick on their chest with a sledge hammer as in this example from Harvard). By the way, don’t try anything like this at home, folks!

When you witness somebody survive the force of a brick-smashing sledgehammer while lying on a bed of nails, something abstract like force suddenly becomes concrete.  Nobody will appreciate this more than the volunteers who find themselves indebted to their professors’ lifesaving knowledge of physical laws.  Such demonstrations clearly promote interactivity in the classroom: rather than passively soak in formula after formula, students become active and engaged with the material.  This is good pedagogy because active learning has many benefits, including increased memory retention. For an extensive review of the benefits, see Prince (2004).

Science and engineering make it natural for teachers to incorporate demonstrations because demonstrations are not that different from experiments.  And while an element of risk might ramp up entertainment value, it is fortunately not essential for promoting active learning.  Most demonstrations don’t require students to sign waivers in case they are harmed.  Regardless of risk factors, physicists (as a paradigmatic example) seem to have an advantage with respect to integrating demonstrations into their classrooms that are both inherently interesting and able to concretize otherwise theoretical material in immediately obvious ways.  In the arts, humanities, and some social sciences, the objects of study are typically more abstract.  Rather than looking at the physical world, students in these fields examine ideas and cultural forces—to the chagrin of some, this subject matter can be difficult to connect to the “real world” and, even more disappointingly for others, does not involve burning, smashing, or blowing anything up.  Demonstrations in the arts are perhaps less natural because the elegant but mindless operations of the natural world are not always directly considered.

The above might look like an excuse, but it’s not.  No matter what you teach, there is going to be some way to involve students in demonstrations, as long as some creative interpretation of the word “demonstration” is allowed.  Teaching economics?  Have some of your students volunteer to make trades (with, say, different pieces of fruit) in order to help them understand Pareto efficiency.  Teaching political science?  Split students into two groups that have to accomplish a co-operative task: one in Hobbes’ state of nature, and the other a sovereign state.  Teaching poetry?  Print out poems you have covered and cut them into pieces, then have volunteers race to reconstruct them based on memory.  Teaching game theory?  Have volunteers play a prisoner’s dilemma involving cookies instead of jail time, and see if player strategies veer away from Nash equilibria over time when outcome information is accessible to each successive set of players.

The possibilities for using demonstrations outside of science and engineering might not be endless, but they are plentiful.  It is to our students’ benefit to incorporate demonstrations and promote active learning, so if you are teaching in the arts, remember that you have access to a wide range of pedagogical tools.  After all, a demonstration is just a way of translating a concept into an experience, which is a central aim of teaching.  So don’t let physicists have all the fun!


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Dylon McChesney is a Graduate Instructional Developer in the Centre for Teaching Excellence.

Image courtesy of Penn State News

Seeing is Believing: Using Visuals and Demonstrations – Katherine Lithgow

I had the opportunity to attend Richard Wells’  Kin 160 Ergonomics in Industry class this past week and was treated to a variety of demonstrations which gave me a flavour of what ergonomics is all about.

During the last week of class, the students were able to apply what they had learned about factors ranging from furniture to noise and lighting, by using that knowledge to promote well being and system performance in the design of a call centre.  In class, we had a chance to ’feel’ what the various recommendations were like. We tried reading at various light levels; we measured the light level in the classroom to see how it compared to the recommended value; we noted the classroom temperature and compared it to the recommended value. We also got a sense of what it was like to carry on conversations in a number of work place settings by talking at a normal level with our neighbours while various recordings of different noise levels were played ranging from factory noise to household noise. We also ‘heard’ how pink noise could improve the noise levels in work environments.

Demonstrations during the lectures are not new for this class. I looked at the Kin 160 UW-ACE site and

This scene illustrates some of the worst outcomes of poor job design and work organization
This scene illustrates some of the worst outcomes of poor job design and work organization

read some of the weekly blogs that Richard posts for his class and found that the Candy Factory clip from the ‘I LOVE LUCY’ show had been used to ‘sum up some of the worst outcomes of poor job design and work organization.’

The students then participated in their own assembly line process of ‘writing a letter to Santa’ exercise which illustrated how one person could become overloaded while others had plenty of rest time. The Demand/Control Model was used to assess this situation and demonstrate ‘how important job design is to create system performance and human well being.’

Students also are given the opportunity to provide examples which reinforce what they are learning in the class by submitting photos of good and bad ergonomics design.

Throughout the term, Richard has used demonstrations to show how ergonomics concepts are applicable to most work and leisure activities. When you can actually experience to some extent the impacts of good and bad ergonomics design, you’re better able to describe the impact of ergonomic design on people’s health and performance, and from experience can describe how and why this can occur which, it so happens, is one of the course objectives!

One of Richard’s final blogs for the course encourages students to pay attention to ergonomics in their everyday life, ‘Make sure you use the ideas to improve your own well being and performance… there is now good evidence that university age people are developing chronic musculoskeletal problems from their academic computer use and setting themselves up for reoccurrences of these problems; remember, primary prevention is the way to go.’ Learning a lot easier when you can see how you benefit directly from the knowledge.