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Fooled by a pumpkin!

Last updated: 31 August, 2011
Sonali Bhatia 16:57 IST

Seven teachers – passing a pumpkin around, weighing it in their hands and trying to guess whether it will float or sink when they put it into a bucketful of water.

HANDS-ON Participants at Sutradhar’s workshop try out an experiment. PHOTO BY THE AUTHORThe unanimous vote – “It’ll sink!”Of course, the pumpkin fooled all of them by floating!

This, then, is a key element of Sutradhar’s Little Science, or hands-on science for preschoolers. The attempt to predict what is going to happen in a given situation, observing what actually happens, experiencing a sense of wonder, asking a hundred further questions and exploring innumerable possibilities.

Little Science differs from regular science in that the teachers do not tell the students ‘why’ something happens. Students are given everyday material (things that can easily be found around the home or the school) and encouraged to conduct simple experiments with these. Did the pumpkin float or sink? What about the capsicum? The guava? The sweet lime? Does the sweet lime behave differently if it is peeled before being put into the bucket? Says Sheelu Rao, who conducted a workshop for Sutradhar on this subject, “The approach that schools are currently adopting is the ‘closed’ approach. The teacher tells the students – see, there is air in the pumpkin, so it floats though it feels heavy. That’s it – students don’t want to think anymore. They believe they know the answer.”

Children weigh the vegetable, they put it into the water, try to predict what will happen and watch what does happen. (Incidentally, the guava hoodwinked everyone, too, by sinking!) They then make their own connections and draw their own conclusions. If it’s not the weight and size of the vegetable, what is it that determines whether it floats or sinks? Often, they think of further experiments of their own — what if we put salt in the water? What if we put the vegetable in slanting? What if ... key words that have led to the world’s greatest inventions and discoveries.

“Naming a concept is not important at this young age,” Sheelu emphasises. For instance, the concept of osmosis is taught to senior students in the school laboratory using a funnel and sugar water. Well, preschoolers can be taught the same concept with grated cucumber and salt! The droplets of water that appear when the cucumber is salted appear due to osmosis! The concept of ‘transparent’ and ‘opaque’ are learnt through simple shadow play. A flashlight, a tissue paper, a dupatta, an office file and a paper doll — the paper doll held behind a screen made by each material in turn. The flashlight is lit behind the doll, the child is the audience on the other side of the screen. Through which material was the shadow of the doll visible most? Of course, children will ask for the angle of the flashlight to be altered, or for it to be brought closer to or taken farther away from the doll — to try and understand the behaviour of light. Thus, children learn to classify, compare, contrast, investigate — and ask, ask, ask. But — it’s important that the teacher not provide the answer too quickly. In fact, it is best if the children are given the time and space to discover answers for themselves.

As far as possible, children should perform activities independently, but sometimes they need an adult’s help. For example, an adult can help the child make a simple wind-vane using a pencil with an eraser attached to one end, a straw, construction paper, scissors and pins. Two triangles, one larger and wider than the other, are made with the construction paper and inserted into the slit straw. The straw is attached to the soft end of the eraser with the pin. The wind-vane is ready and can be tried outdoors.

Little Science activities are greatly enhanced by pre-activities. As a precursor to making and using the wind-vane, children can be encouraged to blow on their palms, to sit in a room first without and then with the fan on, and so on. Then, they make and use the wind-vane. How is the wind moving? Can I recognise the direction of the wind?

Some Little Science activities are deceptively uncomplicated. In ‘guess where sound comes from’, one child is blindfolded and made to sit in the middle of a circle of classmates. The classmates then make sounds, one at a time, in no particular order. The child in the middle has to guess where the sound came from. Variations include closing one or both ears and trying to guess where the sound came from.

It’s called Little Science, but Sutradhar believes it’s very big. If our schools create an environment in which children explore independently, we could produce a Nobel Prize winner!

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