Exploring complex concepts through simple activities

As we continue to be under lock-down, I believe it is even more essential to engage ourselves and our families in healthy pursuits. This is necessary so that we are in the right frame of mind to forge ahead into our altered lives once the lock-down gradually recedes.

Children especially need constant stimulation and excitement now that they are confined in their homes with no scope of meeting friends and playing outdoors. Following from my previous article, I will share with you a fascinating experience I had with my students in the recent past.

Learning through teaching:

A pair of home-schooled siblings come to NumberNagar® for Science classes. I have an enhanced degree of freedom in the design of their sessions. A few weeks ago, as I sat designing their session on sense organs, I was inspired to explore new dimensions.

The synergy between 5 sense organs of the human body and 5 elements of the world from ancient wisdom struck me. Early ancestors from different civilisations around the world believed that everything in the world was made of 5 basic elements – Earth, Water, Air, Fire, and Space. Now, my mind experienced a roller coaster ride to combine these two ideas and make it interesting to my students.  

So, I went in with an open mind and explained my exploration idea to them. What ensued was a session filled with a lively discussion on how these two ideas are connected and how we experience them. At the end of the session, we summarised our discussion in the form of a table, shown below. The examples are for your reference. You can create your own table with your own examples.

Senses ->  Elements Touch Sight Sound Taste Smell
Texture of solids Coloured materials Sonorous metals Favourite food Fruits
Water (Liquid) Viscosity Dyes Flowing river Milk/Juice Coffee/Tea
Feeling breeze and wind Density / Cloud Musical instruments   Cooking gas
Temperature Colourful flames Lighting a matchstick All cooked food Burnt food
    Bell experiment    

The empty boxes fascinated my students. They were eager and curious to know why there were some empty boxes and what they could fill into them. The most heartening experience in this session was that the kids carried this thought with them everywhere – in class, at home, at the playground. They were determined to complete the table with at least one activity in each box.

The surprise:

A few sessions later, we were experimenting with light and shadows. I used the torchlight in my smartphone as the light source. To my utter surprise and delight, not only did a crisp shadow emerge, but also it turned out to be a colour shadow.

Colour shadow

My first experience with the colour shadow was when I saw it in the Visvesvaraya Industrial and Technological Museum, more than a decade ago. Some 8 years ago, when high-end smartphones were not as common as they are now, I had experimented with colour shadows as part of a project I was working on. I remember having used a combination of red, blue, and green LED light sources to create the shadow. It was an elaborate set up with specific distances between the light source, the object, and the wall. Also, the angle of the light source made a huge difference in the clarity of the shadow.

So, it turned out to be a revelation that I could recreate this experiment with my ubiquitous smartphone. Not only that, but the kids could also play around with it repeatedly with different objects. It is a fascinating experiment; you should try it out. All you need is a slightly dark room and your smartphone. You can use your hand or any other object at home.

The torchlight of smartphones is not a white light source and therefore generates shadows of red and blue streaks around the dark shadow of the object.

Making connections:

My students were absolutely thrilled with the experiment. What they suggested next was the icing on the cake for me. They wanted to include the concept of light into the matrix we had generated before, of the 5 senses and 5 elements. It was exhilarating to watch the expressions on their faces when they tried with all their might to categorise light.

I had not entertained this thought earlier and this was a true wow moment for me. Why in all my years of teaching Physics and Science hadn’t I tried this experiment before? After 20 years of teaching, this kind of incisive insight is rare, and I have learned to cherish them. These instances were more regular in the initial years of teaching. The rarity of them in recent years is a wake-up call to me that Science never ceases to fascinate, and there is no end to learning. I can proudly endorse hands-down that the humblest way to learn is to teach complex concepts to young children.

This experiment fired my neural networks intensely, and since then I have been trying to categorise all my experiments into the senses-elements matrix. Perhaps our ancestors used a similar classification method to conclude that the entire world was made of five elements.

I think that it is time to make it at least 6 elements. The sixth being the state of light as it is not part of the five elements but is an integral part of our existence. When I say light, I mean electromagnetic radiation, not the colours and ‘lights’ we see around us. On a similar note, read this interesting article on the multi-sensory capabilities of human beings. While this is an expanded understanding, school children start their learning with the 5 basic senses.

Experimenting at home:

Now that I have regaled you with the story of my fascination, here is a short list of activities for you to try at home, one for each sense organ.

Sight – Eyes:

  • Generate colour shadows with different objects – as described in the section earlier

Hearing – Ears:

  • Use similar sized cups of different materials – steel, brass, copper, glass, porcelain, plastic (whatever you can find at home)
  • Tap each with a spoon and observe the sounds they make

Taste – Tongue:

  • Grind some sugar and salt to make fine powder – they should look almost identical
  • Now take a pinch of each in each of your hands and place them on your tongue at the same time – Experience the combination of tastes

Touch – Skin:

  • Place two glasses of water on a table – one filled with warm water, one filled with ice-cold water
  • Place the index finger of your right hand in the warm water and middle finger of your right hand in the cold water – observe the sensation
  • Next place the index finger of your right hand in warm water and the index finger of your left hand in cold water – observe the sensation

Smell – Nose:

  • Place slices of different kinds of fruit in small cups on a table
  • Close your eyes and guess the fruit by its smell – test whether you were right
  • Close your eyes and guess the fruit by its taste – test whether you were right
  • With your eyes closed, close your nose and eat the slices of fruit – Can you identify different tastes?

Unleash your creativity and try more experiments at your home and explore the mysteries of Science.

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Sriraghavan S M

Sriraghavan (Raghu) is an Astronomer by qualification (MSc, Astronomy, Bangalore University) and a teacher by passion. He is a trained counsellor and psychotherapist. His firm belief and conviction to transform the education system in India led him to be an entrepreneur through NumberNagar®. His core work at NumberNagar® revolves around product presentations, academic content, and training. He teaches Maths and Science to young students, rubbing off his passion to them. He trains teachers as well, inspiring them to better themselves. He has taught Physics in educational institutes, during his early career days. He has travelled extensively all over Karnataka, training teachers and popularising Astronomy. He advocates multiple intelligence and is constantly on the lookout for new things to learn. He is ambidextrous and enjoys sketching. He was an avid cricket player in his younger days. He is an enthusiastic biker and uses long solo motorcycle rides as means of reflection and rejuvenation.

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