Wonder through Science


Science is the exploration of a world “charged with the grandeur of God.” If the natural world is the work of a loving Creator, we should expect it to be “charged with the grandeur of God,” as the Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins asserted. In this presentation, Steven Brubaker offers eight ways to help our students loosen the scales on their eyes and really see the presence and wonder of God in the world that he made.

Our interest here is thinking, how can in science class, can we help to maybe loosen the scales that are on our eyes and really see, really see the presence of God, the wonder of God in the world that he’s made. So how can we teach science? How can we explore the created world that keeps that wonder, keeps that sense of awe, that sense that I’m small and this world is amazing that God is made. So, I asked the question, how can we, in our classes, take off our shoes? How can we cultivate this ability to see to where our jaws drop? And we say, “Wow. Yes. This is amazing!” And I’m going to suggest that, while the best jaw dropping is done in the context of seeing God behind it all, just dropping the jaw is in the right direction.

So here are eight ways to take off our shoes.

One: Look until Breathless

Let’s look and keep looking until I am breathless. So, this first one is about what we do as teachers. And I’m suggesting if we’re going to inspire wonder, we have to feel wonder. And that means we’re going to have to prepare. We’re going to have to look. We’re going to have to dig into our subject matter to the point where we come alive to it. If you want them to come alive to the wonder of the creative world, you have to really be alive to it.

Marlene Lefever said this, “Becoming an effective teacher is simple. You just prepare and prepare until drops of blood appear on your forehead.” You see, it’s that kind of work that we need to do. You might say, “Oh, that’s going to kill me if I do that.”  No. No. No. You have to push through the complexity before the simplicity comes. You have to push through some of the work before you really the scales drop off your eyes and you say, “Woah, this really is amazing!”

We should not expect to inspire wonder if we don’t thrill ourselves to what we’re teaching and learning together. Second, we need to identify a wonderful, a full of wonder, a wonder full focus or demonstration that can be do, that we can use. So here we’re going to be talking about demonstrations. Some demonstrations have wonder built into them.

I taught electricity and magnetism for many years. I’ve used Van de Graaff generators, which they can be, wonderful. I’ve made use of Tesla coils. I’ve used a variety of things, made little, small generators, or had the students make motors, a variety of things. But you know, I still, after years of doing that, the old (which I know many of you have seen this), but the old magnet in two is just a wonderful way of talking about electricity and magnetism. And in fact, it’s part of the reason what makes it so wonderful is that it’s counterintuitive. Everybody knows that cardboard, there’s no attraction between a magnet and cardboard.

And now, this on the other hand is a what kind of tube? Looks like copper. It’s a copper tube. Is a magnet attracted to copper? No. It is not. No attraction there. And we all know that when objects drop, they drop at 9.81 meters per second squared. That’s the rate of acceleration. And if we drop that through this tube, it drops at that rate, 9.81 meters per second squared. And so, when we drop it through this, which is no different than the cardboard tube in terms of neither, subtracted to neither. When we drop it through this, it should also drop through at nine point eight one meters per second squared. But this time, I have plenty of time to catch it. See, that’s a wonderful demonstration. And then we can go and talk about all kinds of things related to electricity and magnetism and so on.

Two: Modify Ordinary Demonstrations

And, you know, there there’s lots of demonstrations that you can do. Just take common ordinary demonstrations, and by changing them up, adding features or whatever, you could turn them into something wonderful. Every child has grown up pouring vinegar into baking soda. I mean, that’s just that’s a right of growth or something for us. And so, you, but you can take that, and if you just did that, it would be, oh, what’s the big deal? If you put it in a test tube, put a cork on it, and the cork spout it out, that would add some wonder to it.

But you could also do things like… Let’s just take a candle. So, what we’re going to do is mix up some, you know, after we’re talking after we’ve talked about the gas, carbon dioxide that’s produced when we have baking soda and vinegar, we’ll just mix them up into a container. Then we’ll talk about how carbon dioxide is heavier than air and that it’s a fluid, and you can pour it. And so, in order to demonstrate that we can pour it, we’ll create some carbon dioxide, and then we will see if we can pour it down the trough and put out the candle. Since flames need oxygen, carbon dioxide covers it. So, I’d prefer to use a, a container like a I generally use a big gallon jar, but I didn’t have one this time. So, I’m just doing it in a bucket. The bad thing about this is you can’t see, the fizziness and everything. But it’s producing some carbon dioxide in there. And now we will try to pour it down the trough, and boom. It’s gone. Thank you.

So again, you can just take some ordinary that they’re used to and add some pieces to it to increase the wonder value.

Three: Surprise after Content

Third, content first, then the surprise. Once you have a reputation of giving discrepant events or wonderful dim full of wonder demonstrations, then you actually have some capital in the bank that you can spend by teaching content.

So, if this is sitting there in front of your class, again, you can teach for an hour, and they’re going to still be watching because they wonder, when are we going to get to the gun? And, but so what you do is you take, you know, your kind of maybe motion toward that a little bit, “What we’re going to do today is we’re going to talk about…” Maybe it’s single displacement, double displacement reactions. Maybe you’re just talking about balancing equations. But you can talk about, say, “Today we want to look and consider this equation and, see what’s going on.” We might label all of the different components. We might come along and say, well, “Is this a solid, liquid, or gas?” And so on. And so, we get in other words, we’re just talking about a lot of things, maybe reinforcing, reviewing, or maybe I would take an equation like that and use it to teach a whole bunch of stuff, kind of build it around the one equation. We’ll explore different parts of that. And so, calcium carbon, oh, we have some of that here. It’s a rock-like chemical. And so, what are we doing? We’re just putting it with water, and that’s producing calcium hydroxide to form a lime. Of course, it’s a base that we’re producing. And then what is this thing? Has anyone ever seen it? Well, eventually, you can tell them that’s acetylene, and someone will start to say, oh, we have that in tanks at our shop, and it burns. And it’s okay. Well, let’s see. Let’s go ahead and take that gas that’s produced, and this is a gas. So, acetylene we’re going to take acetylene, and we’re going to add oxygen to it. And what is that going to produce? It’s going to produce carbon dioxide plus water, but also in the process there is heat. And we also know that, if we add a match and a fire to that, there’s the potential for an explosion. So that’s what this is for. So, you see the idea though is to be content rich. Talk about a lot of things, teach a lot of things, all hinting that something’s coming.

And what’s the something? Well, we need some water. I have some water here. What we’re going to do is put the water into the well. So that’s going down here in this portion. And then we’re going to get some of our calcium carbide. I don’t want to introduce it to water too quickly. And so, we put some calcium carbide here in the… This is just a piece of PVC. Stick it in here. Now, when I turn that, that’s going to dump the calcium carbide into the water. And that first equation will be descriptive of what happens, and it will be producing acetylene. So, I’m going to put… You’ll notice this this cap has a little hole in it. That’s where we can introduce the fire. And then, I’m going to… You may want to hold your ears when I put the fire here. It can be loud at times. So, if you’re also a music teacher, you may want to hold your ears. Okay. So, we will, at this point, go ahead and turn that. Turn it a couple times and get it in. Hopefully, it’s making some acetylene there for us. And then we’ll see where it’s pointed to.  [loud noise] And there we go. There was the second equation.

Now, if we wanted a little bit more excitement at this point, somebody would say, “Hey! Could we put some ammunition in this thing?”

“Oh, we could try it again with that.”

There is enough explosive potential that you want to be sure whatever you put in here can get out or else other things will blow up and it won’t be fine. So, the way it is, I generally just do not put something in just to make sure that it is reasonably safe in an indoor type of setting. Okay. So that was, content first.

Four: Mystery, Discover, and Wonder

Then the surprise number four. Surround your presentation with the language of mystery, discovery, and wonder. Part of being a science teacher is choosing language that that actually cultivates wonder. Back when I taught chemistry, with time I began to realize that the story of how we figured out that there are atoms and then something of what is in an atom, the protons, electrons, and neutrons, that that is a mystery story. And I started teaching it that way, and started thinking of it as a black box, and so on. And after a year or two of kind of playing around with that concept, probably the best compliment I ever got and as a teacher is when someone just came up and they said, you know, “This this is so fascinating. What we’re learning about chemistry and the atom and so on. It’s just like a great mystery story.” And I hadn’t said that that’s what I was trying to do, but for them to feel that and recognize that was great.

So, let’s say that you are maybe you’re working with titration, or, again, maybe a double displacement reaction or it’s just kind of a hybrid. But, talking about this one and so we have an acid plus a base produce, in this case, sodium chloride and water. And you could do so the traditional way is to say, “It’s an acid plus a base produces salt and water.” And that’s accurate. That’s good. But see, you can also surround that with a bit more mystery, a bit more excitement if you’ve talked about how hydrochloric acid is the stuff that’s used to clean bricks off. And if you ingest hydrochloric acid, you will cease to exist as a normal human being. And I mean, hydrochloric acid is nasty stuff. And then we talked about sodium hydroxide, and I could talk about the person that I knew that had swallowed some of that and how it ate through their esophagus before I mean, they were they survived it, but they had to put in an artificial…  So, what we have here is a killer plus a killer produces believe it or not. What? Table salt! Salt water! I mean, you technically could technically you could do this equation in exactly the right proportions and drink the result, and it would be fine. See, that kind of interpretation of what we’re doing helps to cultivate a sense of, of the significance of what is going on.

When you can, when it is justified, make outlandish statements. Now be careful here. I’ve made some outlandish statements that I have had to retract because they weren’t correct. And so, you want to be sure. But here’s one that almost always will get high school students going, and that is, you say, you know, I have a toy gun or something. But you say, “If I have this bullet and I drop this bullet, it will take x amount of time to get from here to the ground. Now if at the same time I drop that bullet, I fire this gun. Or at the same time that the bullet leaves the end of the gun, I drop this bullet, and they’re both at the same height, they will hit the ground at the same time.” See, now that’s an outlandish statement. That is not intuitive, and very few people… They’ll say, “I’m telling my dad.”

But there’s when we find those things, and they’re often there in science class, we can use those to kind of get the get the wonder bubbling.

Five: Combine Demonstrations

Fifth, we combine. Combine our demonstrations. Combine our studies with story. Include story. And these don’t have to be elaborate necessarily. So, this particular… This is just a piece of glass that’s been made into a mirror, but there’s nothing special about it really. It’s slightly concave to keep this disc toward the center of it. This is just a piece of metal.

Here’s the story. Quite a few years ago, there was an engineer out in California, and he did not have quite enough work to do. So, he was sitting at his desk sometimes just kind of existing. And one day he got a quarter out and he was spinning it. Quarter was spinning there on his desk. And then he started to say, “I wonder how another, a heavier coin would spin.”

Then began to realize that when you spin something like this, it’s actually not just spinning. It’s rolling and spinning. And so, we begin to say, “Oh, well, that’s actually scrolling.” And that is a term. It’s scrolling. It’s not rolling or spinning. It’s scrolling. And he got on the search for how, “I’d really like to find the optimal scroll.” The way that the scrolling can happen that would maybe go the longest. And so, he tried different metals, different angles on his disc, different weights, different surfaces, and he found that this particular weight, size, and metal composition with a certain machining at the corner is one of the best. And so, we will scroll. You’ll notice I didn’t even really try to really spin it hard. [prolonged spinning] At this point, you would expect it to have been stopped. [ more spinning] So simple little novelty combined with story maybe can inspire things like, “Oh, what studies could I do? What could I experiment with?”

Here’s another one. This is a Tantalus cup. Also sometimes known as a temperance cup. Let’s say, you can see it looks kind of like a wine chalice, perhaps. And if you look at it, you’ll see there’s some, it looks like the Parthenon, pictured on it some Greek imagery and so on. The Greeks, some say it was Pythagoras that developed this cup. And he did it in order to encourage temperance in your wine drinking. And so, the way this works is that for the person who was temperate in their wine drinking, say, you know, had a modest amount of wine, they could pour that into their cup, drink it, and everything was great. On the other hand, the person who was in temperate and they had a lot of wine in their cup, it would all drain out. I see all a little bit left there perhaps. Okay. So, you see, I couched that demonstration in just a little bit of a story about the Greeks and wine tasting and so on. But at this point, what I would actually, I might say, “Okay. Your test today is to draw what that cup looks like on the inside.” And then we use that after we have discussed, air pressure. We’ve talked about siphons. We’ve talked about, yeah, basically in that arena. Use that as a test.

Six: End with “Why?”

Six. Sometimes ends with “Why?” See, teachers I have found, at least I know this is true about myself, is that when I have a good demonstration, I want to explain. And probably a big shift in my teaching over the last thirty years is to move from quick explanations to having the class explain what’s going on.

So, for example, if we have just been and we’ve been talking about density, I’ll use this density bottle, and we observe that there’s some kind of fluid, and there’s white beads and blue beads, and then all we get there is shake it up and observe. [observing] Why? Describe it. I don’t have to explain it if we have been talking about densities and so on and how that works. Again, I may just say, ” Okay. I’m asking you now in the next five minutes to write a paragraph explaining why.”

Or maybe we’re doing a unit on light and index of refraction. And then I bring this to the class [and] ask, “What do you see?” It’s canola oil. But in addition to that, There’s another beaker in there. Why does it disappear?

Seven: Go Big. Get Dangerous.

Number seven. Go big. Get dangerous.

Another one of my favorite quotes is that “a good demonstration is one with the possibility that the teacher may die.” That has a way of increasing wonder.

So, for a long time, I did a little something with a ping pong ball and used a straw to blow past it and show that when you have high velocity in a liquid or a gas, that there’s actually a lower pressure there. High velocity, low pressure. Low velocity in a fluid is higher pressure. And so, I might blow from a straw over a ping pong ball, and you’ll see the ping pong ball rise to meet the air.

Or go over to a faucet, you have water flowing. It’s high velocity, but it’s low pressure. So, if you take a ping pong ball on a string and bring it over close, the ping pong ball will be drawn over to the water. You can do it that way. Or you can go bigger.

You can use this for your high velocity generator. And fortunately, it produces a ball for us, so we will see what we can do here. [leaf blower noise] Instead of blowing it away, it actually keeps the ball there. And we can move it a little bit because out here it’s high pressure, and it’s just pushing it into the low-pressure area, keeping it clear. Can you go higher with it? [leaf blower noise] Of course, we can go to the point where it won’t stay in.

You’ve probably taken, say, soda cans, put a little water in them and then heated them up so that things would expand inside, turn them upside down in water, they implode. Well, that’s great.

But then you think, “Oh, you know what? We could go big. We could get a gallon metal paint can and do the same thing with that.”

But you can say, “Oh, we could go big.” And then you get a fifty-five-gallon drum and do that. So just be thinking bigger,

Have you seen those air blaster? Forget what they’re called exactly, where you can do smoke rings with them and so on. Those are great. But you can also get a big trash and create a mammoth one that will produce these humongous smoke rings.

Go big. That has a way of increasing wonder, not just for high school students, but for teachers as well.

I was at the garden sale here a couple years ago and found this. It’s a martini glass, if you know it. A big one. You know, what a great way to do, color change demonstrations. So, in this case, I have potassium iodide solution in there, reasonably clear. In the cup, I have lead nitrate. So, this will be double displacement. We’re going to produce potassium iodide. The potassium’s going to mix with the nitrate, potassium nitrate, and we’re going to have lead iodide. Lead iodide is coal.

So, let’s mix this together and see what we got. Now you could do that in a little beaker or something, and that’s really cool, but there’s something would you agree? It’s a little bit more wonderful by having it larger, bigger, and so on.

Eight: Point to God in Authentic Ways

Finally, point to God in authentic, fresh, unique, creative ways.

Now, I want to say again that the students having an experience is saying, “Wow. That’s pretty neat. That’s amazing! That’s incredible! Wonder how that works? You know, that’s really interesting!”

That is in the right direction. You don’t it doesn’t always have to be directly connected to God. A posture of wonder is a very Christ like posture. It’s a humble posture. It’s the kind of posture that we need to be seeking to cultivate. But I find that there are ways in which, in those moments, you can point to God that’s not tacky and it’s not cliched, and it caps things off.

So, I offered some questions. And where you get them thinking about, you know, what all is behind. So, ask good questions. Sometimes quotes can help you here. I’m going to give an example in just a moment. But there are some scriptures. But be careful here, folks, because we have this tendency to just tack a scripture on to something that really does not connect with hardly anybody. I remember seeing an I remember seeing an egg separator you buy at a Christian bookstore, remember seeing an egg separator you buy at a Christian bookstore, and it was, yeah, it was a real egg opener, you know, to kind of put the egg in, you put the thing down and puts in a whole bunch of pieces. And then she had a bible verse on it. Nothing can separate us from the love of God. Okay. Let’s avoid that. But say, like, the passage there in Deuteronomy 6, the Shema, “The Lord is one.” I have found that passage to be so helpful in actually making connections. “The Lord is one.”

The heavens declare the glory of God. Psalm 19 And we could go on. And then, you know, I find that that songwriters often get this right. So, we’ve already mentioned, “This is My Father’s World.” “I Sing the Mighty Power of God.” Some of the songwriters really have brought together the creative world and the creator in ways that I think we can use sometimes in our classes that might feel fresh. But above all, I would just say, to stay tuned to your students. What are the ways that authentically connect them to God? That that don’t feel tacky to them, that feel genuine. And you’re going to have to learn it. You might even have to change. I have to use a different language now than I did twenty-five years ago in order to do some of those things.  We can look for ways to even sometimes obliquely turn the attention of our students toward not just the wonderful thing that we’ve done, but a recognition of the one who’s behind it.

If I were to do this in a classroom setting, I would lead a discussion on what are the five most important numbers in mathematics. And those numbers are zero, one, π, e, and i. And these numbers are the numbers that you could say are behind the major mathematical disciplines. [I] won’t get into that, but I would talk about each one and how each one is absolutely phenomenal. It’s an incredible number. And how numbers like π, you know, 3.1415927 ad infinitum forever number, amen, non repeating, non terminating. And then e, a similar kind of number, and I talked about, and and I can’t. I want to. I wanna talk about e because e is so amazing. All of these numbers are amazing. And then after we talk about those four, then we talk about how i is even in kind of in a different league. It’s in a different world. And and so we have these really strange numbers, and yet we can put all five of them together like this: e raised. We’re using not multiplication, division. We’re using we’re using powers here.


Now, I need to build that up in order for us to feel the wonder of that. But that’s amazing. And then you see, after we’d explored kind of some of that, then I would end with this quote. And this is a quote from an MIT professor, an atheist. He said, “There is no God, but if there were, this formula would be proof of his existence.” That’s an oblique way, and I think compelling way, a non cliched way to point our students to the God behind, not just science in the creative world, but mathematics as well

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