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“We did experiments!”(Part 1)

03 May 2019
Over the course of the development of science, theory and experimentation are intertwined together like a double helix. Throughout the years, unexpected experimental phenomena have provided abundant research topics for theoretical scientists; at the end of the 19th century, the two “dark clouds” of the physics field led to the development of the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics, which brought us tremendous theoretical reform and radically changed people’s world view. Any scientific theory, even if it is impeccable in terms of mathematical reasoning, needs to be proved through numerous experiments (the Dirac Equation predicted the existence of the positron, which was then verified through experiments years later). Over the 100 years history of Nobel Prizes in physics, chemistry, physiology and medicine, scientists in theoretical and experimental areas have won almost the same number of prizes.
Similarly, at Huili, we put equal emphasis on learning theories and doing experiments in our science lessons, while striving to integrate these two fundamental elements, hoping that pupils can attain a solid command of both. The word ‘experiment’ has rich connotations. What kind of information does it really convey when pupils come back home and exclaim to their families: ”Today, we did experiments!”?   Demonstrations Around the year 2010, physics courses of MIT recorded in 1999 were introduced to Chinese pupils by NetEase Open Online Courses, which caused something of a sensation at that time. Among more than 1500 commenters, one learner wrote: “I am a physics teacher, and these are the best basic physics lessons that I have ever seen. They are so different from our so-called courses delivered by famous teachers. I want to say that, to my mind, this is how physics should ideally be taught.” The instructor of those courses was professor Walter Lewin from MIT, who became an internet sensation at the age of 71 because his courses ranked top of the most downloaded lists at iTunes U. Supported by MIT, prof. Lewin created various novelty objects for his experiments. He made his method of demonstration as engaging as possible and revealed all kinds of physical principles in an extremely spectacular manner.

Physics works!Walter Lewin demonstrates that the period of a pendulum is independent of the mass hanging from the pendulum


Lewin rides a tricycle powered by a fire extinguisher

  Demonstration is the first aspect of any experiment. For pupils’ safety, some experiments are simply not suitable for them to try their hand at unaided. In such cases, teachers or pupils in upper grades will demonstrate the experiment for them. For example, inhaling helium gas alters the human voice, which indicates that the frequency of vocal cords is related to mediums. Helium is a kind of inert gas without toxicity, but it will dilute the oxygen content in the body of anyone who inhales it. Under such circumstances, it is preferable for the science teacher to assume this (extremely moderate) risk and provide a risk-free demonstration for their pupils. A Van de Graaff generator makes your hair stand on end and can scatter tinsels, which shows how electrostatic phenomena of two objects of like charge will repel each other. Demonstrators in this experiment have to obey strict instructions  to avoid getting an electric shock. A steam engine model can be used to as a power plant to demonstrate energy transformation and its efficiency. In order to generate steam, the little boiler is heated to high temperature. Demonstrators need to be very cautious to avoid being scalded. Such dramatic experimental demonstrations are invariably successful in attracting pupils’ attention and motivating them to learn more. They are also conducive to explaining scientific principles and deepening pupils’ understanding and retention of relevant theories. Such experiments have high safety requirements, and all are demonstrated by our experienced teachers, particularly for pupils in lower grades.  


However, it is not particularly satisfying to merely watch demonstrations. If possible, it is better to let everyone try it for themselves. This principle introduces the second aspect of experiments at Huili — manipulating. During Huili science lessons, we will make the best use of every opportunity to create hands-on activities for pupils while ensuring that they remain entirely safe. For example, pupils recently made a colourful ‘volcano’ by combining materials such as vinegar, sodium bicarbonate and pigment. When bubbly ‘magma’ erupted from it, pupils could observe that solid sodium bicarbonate mixed with liquid vinegar created a new state of matter — gas, a sign of chemical changes (compared to physical changes). Pupils also put out candles with carbon dioxide. Through this experiment, they obtained a deeper understanding of the density and conditions that burning requires. Heavier carbon dioxide sinks to displace oxygen and isolate it from the flame. Thus, the flame finally goes out. Pupils wove a vivid and stereoscopic food web with ribbons. After intense discussion and trying various means to connect them altogether, pupils definitely acquired a better understanding of feeding relationships and interdependent relationships of different species. In a (staged) murder mystery experiment, pupils used powder to collect fingerprints from a murder weapon and compared them to that of the suspects’, allowing them to find out the identity of the murderer. This experiment trained pupils’ discernment and insight, helping them to understand the importance of evidence. Pupils discovered how to put a egg that is larger than the diameter of a bottleneck through the bottle and take it out again, whole and unbroken. In this experiment, they observed how the pressure of the contained gas changed with the temperature and the amount of gas molecules.

All of these experiments have strengthened pupils’ safety awareness and manipulative abilities while familiarising them with the correct usage of laboratory apparatus. Hands-on processes like these can stimulate thought and discussion, contributing to developing their problem-solving abilities. For example, pupils were encouraged to consider the following:
  • How do we achieve a more violent eruption in the ‘volcano experiment’?
  • How do we ensure that enough carbon dioxide gas is provided in the flame smothering experiment?
  • How do we judge whether two species have a feeding relationship?
  • How should we correctly collect and identify fingerprints without compromising the evidence?
  • How can we get an egg inside a bottle? How do we tackle the more difficult task of taking the egg out of the bottle again?
In the first instalment of this science series, we shared two aspects of experiments — demonstrations and manipulating. Demonstrations attract pupils’ attention and motivate their learning interest. They also help to explain scientific principles and deepen pupils’ understanding and memory of the theoretical knowledges. Hands-on experiments strengthen pupils’ safety awareness and manipulative abilities while familiarising them with the use of laboratory apparatus. Our pupils might have their uniforms contaminated while concentrating on their projects during the class. Your understanding would be highly appreciated as a kind of your encouragement on their interest to pursue the science study.

Where Next

The Huili School Shanghai Community is committed to safeguarding and promoting the welfare of its pupils.