Viral Experiments (not in a Biology sense)

20 02 2007

I’ve always loved science. All through my education, “Mad Scientist” was up there in my preferred 10 occupations after leaving school. I was a Gold Member of the Double Helix Science Club at the age of 12, and had numerous letters, photos, and competition entries published in the club’s magazine, The Helix. I was lucky – for me, science was made a lot of fun.

The E-Learning Queen blog points out this potential to make learning fun and engaging through video, and in particular, looks at pop-science serials such as Numb3rs and Bones, in which maths and anthropology (respectively) feature extensively in the deeds of derring do. The spate of “Diet Coke and Mentos” videos on YouTube was also highlighted as a potential learning tool; the videos of Bellagio-like fountains and rockets of soft drink were virally shared by tens of millions around the world.

Who would have thought that this kind of viral media could actually be used as a means of teaching science? For, as stated on the E-Learning Queen blog,

And yet, if one watches the videos alone, it’s somehow unsatisfying.What’s missing? It’s the explanation. They never say HOW or WHY the reactions happen.

The answers came one night in an unexpected way. The boxed set of DVDs I had ordered had arrived. I was watching Season Two of Numb3rs when the characters in the series re-enacted the Mentos and Diet Coke experiment for an Applied Math course, and accompanied the explosions with an explanation. The answer involves surface tension. It’s about surface tension. There is extreme change upon the sudden introduction of a gum Arabic and gelatin disc into a liquid under pressure (due tothe carbonation), where the only way for gas to escape is through a narrow neck creates a rapid phase change. The way the surface tension changes is explained here.

This experiment, a catalyst for a physical reaction, provides a model for learning content, too. Sites like YouTube become repositories of viral video content that could be used by educators as catalysts for learning. Introducing a topic (such as “Surface Tension”) with a Mentos fountain is one way to engage students in online and mobile learning, and make them keen to understand the why and how.

These little chunks of sweetness can bring about big reactions – from our students. 🙂

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