“Truth!” Mr. Sohmer declaimed. Laughter and a buzz of speculation ensued about the other air pressure demonstrations the class had done.
“Okay all, so that’s the Air Puppies story,” Mr. Sohmer said. “With that story, you can see into a ton of interesting phenomena, explain to your parents how vacuum cleaners really work! But in order to know that you really understand the story, you have to be able to explain it to someone else. So I’d like you all to go home and explain it to someone there—a brother, a sister, a parent, a grandparent whoever is at home. And also explain one of the demos we did in class.”
Mr. Sohmer reminded the class that the Air Puppies story was a new tool, and that it was often difficult at first to use any new tool. He had his students each choose one of the air pressure demonstrations they had done and explain it to the group. The goal, Mr. Sohmer said, was to explain things clearly enough so that even a person who could only hear and not see them presenting could still understand what they were saying. The students in the audience listened to the explanations and made suggestions for how they could be explained more clearly or completely. Each presenter had as many chances as needed to revise their presentation, until everyone in the group was satisfied.
After a few weeks of practice in small groups using the Air Puppies model in many different situations, each group selected a demonstration and worked hard to develop a thorough, compelling, and cogent explanation of all the causal forces at work. These were eventually put on posters and presented in a schoolwide after-school celebration. The I-Club students also published a bimonthly Investigators Club newsletter, detailing their work and describing interesting physics demonstrations that could be done at home. Discussions of the demonstrations were written up in an issue. I-Club students developed teaching texts that were used to teach younger students and archived in the school library. They presented their work to adults in the community and participated in science fairs.
Many of the I-Club students were reluctant, struggling writers in school, and most read far below grade level. Nonetheless, every one of them decided that they wanted to prepare teaching texts. Of the 25 students, 23 voluntarily entered their school science fair, most of them doing physics projects that revolved around the power of air pressure. And 13 students were among their school winners and went on to the citywide competition.
In spite of the fact that they said they “hated to write in school,” the I-Club kids put an enormous effort into preparing science fair or teaching texts, writing as “experts” rather than as students. They worked in teams of four, adding elaborate photographs and diagrams, formatting their texts on the computer, soliciting comments from other groups, and drafting and revising.
These tasks motivated the students to take their thinking and their presentation of their ideas (in writing and orally) to a higher level. Sandra, one of the I-Club students, put it well when she said, “In school, they just give you a book. It’s boring. But in the I-Club, we really get to explain things, down to the very core of the problem. That’s why we did so well in the science fair.”