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What makes a good science demo?

What makes a good science demo?

Science presenter Fran Scott shares some top tips for finding ideas for inspiring but feasible science demonstrations.

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Hello, I'm Fran; a science translator, demo developer and presenter. I'm a qualified scientist who can describe the subject to everyone and anyone who's interested, and even those that think they're not! I play with the subject, stripping it down to its exciting and curious bare bones.

Over the past decade I've designed science demonstrations for various venues and shows including the Science Museum, BBC live stage shows and numerous television productions. I have even exploded hydrogen in a Nobel-prize winner’s hands (those belonging to Sir Paul Nurse, in case you were wondering).

Fran Scott

I got into demonstrations, through being annoyed by the constant over-complication of science. Science is easy; it’s just sometimes not shown that way.   So I set to, drawing on my knowledge (1st Class MSci Neuroscience) to convert science for the masses, making it not only jargon-free, accessible and accurate, but also bringing entertainment and excitement to the subject. Over the years, I’ve found the best way to do this is through designing demonstrations and stunts that prove my scientific point.

Now I spend my days designing novel science demonstrations. I can often be found knee high in cornflour, fighting with pyrotechnics or surrounded by my infamous orange goo. And I love it! Below are my tips on what to look for when seeking out ideas for science demonstrations.

What makes a good demo?

I look for different characteristics depending on what the demo is going to be used for. Here, I have concentrated on what I look for in the demos I design for television/stage shows as these two areas have substantial crossover. I think my tips are applicable to demos for any audience though, so I hope they are useful to teachers and technicians who are seeking out new classroom demo ideas.

Fran shows her science demo skills for the Head Squeeze Youtube channel

If you see any cool demo ideas on YouTube or similar video platforms, don’t forget to nominate them for Get set demonstrate – who knows, they may even be selected to be made into a new video resource being produced for schools later this year.

Here are my top three tips:

1. The demo must be repeatable. Or at least if it does go wrong, then the result must be funny.

When designing demos for television, you are usually working to a brief, so as a Freelancer you have to deliver. So there’s just no point in coming up with a great demonstration that may take hours to get right; the crew just won’t wait, and your demo will look rubbish.

However, sometimes you can have more flexibility. For example, in my own stage show, I always try and include some demonstrations that aren’t ‘sure workers’.  I do this, because although you may feel a bit silly when the demonstration doesn’t work, it also shows that failures can happen, and I think this is an important aspect of science to highlight.  Also, any audience loves it when stuff goes ‘wrong’, as it shows you are genuine.  What I try to ensure, though, is that the demo is just as entertaining when it doesn’t work as when it does.

2. The demo must do one of the following:

  • Show something unexpected or unusual
  • Be generally impressive
  • Explain something everyday that people will be able to relate to.

My general rule here is that the demo must either make the audience scream, clap, or say “Ahhhh, that’s why X happens!” If a demo does more than one, brilliant. But, don’t mistake being ‘impressive’, for being large or loud; some small, intricate demos can have just as much impact.

3. The demo must have good, age-appropriate science behind it.

For example, I wouldn’t go explaining the double-slit experiment to Year 2s. I also wouldn’t use the nappy bag-filling demo to explain the Bernoulli principle, as that is not actually the science behind that particular demo (or so I have reliably informed by a Cambridge University Bernoulli Expert).  The thing I dread most is getting my science wrong. So research, research, research. Make sure the words you are using to explain what is happening, is exactly why the objects are acting the way they are.

I love science demos and I really support the British Science Association’s “Get set demonstrate” campaign in its aim to generate a wave of inspiring practical demonstrations in UK classrooms. It’s a great chance to collect up the best ideas that are out there that can be made into video resources to bring exciting science to younger audiences.  There are already some brilliant demo ideas on the Get set YouTube channel and I hope my tips motivate teachers and technicians to help collect as many new ideas as possible by nominating their favourite classroom demonstrations. To nominate a demo idea you simply need to email a video link to nsew@britishscienceassociation.org before 1st April 2013.

For some more cool science experiments, check out the Head Squeeze Youtube channel or follow them on Twitter.

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