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Do Science Demonstrations in the Planetarium Enhance Learning?
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Do Science Demonstrations in the Planetarium Enhance Learning?

James Rusk, Russell Planetarium
2501 Memorial Mesquite, Texas 75149 USA
jrusk@mesquiteisd.org

Published in Planetarian, Vol. 32, No. 1, March 2003. Pages 5-8

 

 

Abstract

Science demonstrations can make a planetarium program more effective. In a test involving about 1,900 fifth graders, the students who saw both the planetarium program and the science demonstration scored over 19% better than the control group. Furthermore, students from low socio-economic backgrounds benefited more from the science demonstration than other students.

Russell Planetarium is a school planetarium located in the Dallas, Texas suburb of Mesquite. The district served has a school population of nearly 34,000 students (50% white, 26% Hispanic, 20% African-American, 4% Other). Thirty-eight percent of the elementary schools in the district are Title 1 schools. Title 1 is a federal program for schools that have 40% or more students receiving free or reduced-price lunches.

For many years, the planetarium staff has been supplementing the programs with live science demonstrations. The staff presents “gee-wiz” programs as well as hands-on activities. Our common assumption is that besides teaching students that science is fun and interesting, the extra effort reinforces what students learn in the planetarium program as well as concepts they learn in science class. However, until recently the value of science demonstrations in the planetarium has never been tested.

The planetarium is the ideal place in the public school system to present science demonstrations. Many experiments, such as spectra activities, require good lighting control, and some classrooms are almost impossible to make truly dark. A demonstration of lunar phases requires not only a dark room, but also a strong light source. Other demonstrations, such as laser light experiments, require expensive equipment that a classroom teacher cannot afford.

Finally, since elementary teachers are required to have background knowledge in so many areas, many feel that their science training is inadequate. Many teachers are fearful of doing science demonstrations because “something might go wrong.”

An ideal candidate to help judge the effect of hands-on demonstrations is the program Moonwitch, which was written by Phil Groce and produced by Bowen Productions (Note: No longer available.) In the Mesquite school district, “Moonwitch” is shown to all 5th graders, since one of the required Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) deals with an understanding of the lunar cycle.

“Moonwich” tells the story of Diana and her brother Billy who go trick-or-treating one Halloween night. They notice that the moon seems extra large when it rises (the moon illusion), and have questions about why the moon changes shape from night to night. The program does a good job explaining lunar phases, the moon illusion, and other facts about the moon.


Methodology

Each set of two classes of 5th grade students saw the planetarium program together. Then a randomly selected class moved to another room and took a brief quiz about the moon and moon phases. The class that stayed under the dome used moonballs on sticks to discover exactly why the moon goes through phases and how lunar and solar eclipses occur.

At the conclusion of the moonball demonstration, the two groups reversed roles. The class that had the moonball demonstration took the test, while the test takers participated in the moonball demonstration.

Image 1: class holds moonballs
 

Image 1: A class holds their moonballs with the "sun" to their right, simulating a first quarter moon.

Image 2: showing how the moonballs look counterclockwise  

Image 2: A class practices holding moonballs at the correct height and orientation. The walls of the planetarium have diagrams showing how the moonballs will look as the students rotate counter-clockwise.

 

The experiment was arranged as a nonequivalent group design; that is, classes were assigned to either the experimental group or the control group randomly. Generally the last class seated became the “A” group that took the quiz before doing the moonball activity, and the first class seated became the “B” group that took the quiz after doing the moonball activity. It was expected that some groups would receive more instruction in the classroom, and be better prepared than others, and therefore, some sets would show a decline rather than an increase in average scores.

The test itself consisted of 14 questions, including both multiple choice and matching questions, designed so that there would be few perfect scores. Some questions only tested basic recall of facts, such as “How long does it take the moon to go through one full cycle?” Other questions required higher order thinking skills, such as matching a set of moon diagrams to the names of the phases. Still other questions were designed to trap students with common misconceptions: “Why do the astronauts have to wear a spacesuit on the moon?” One of the choices was “There is no gravity on the moon,” a common misconception.

 There were two hypotheses that the data could validate or falsify: (1) A majority of sets would show an increase in learning after participating in the moonball demonstration and (2) students from Title 1 schools would benefit more from the moonball demonstration than other students.

 Two anomalies were discarded from the data set. In one case an A group included ESL (English as a Second Language) students even though the test was in English. In another case the A group had performed the moonball demonstration in their classroom the day before coming to the planetarium. The final data set consisted of 32 sets (64 classes), for a total of about 1,900 students.

Results

The average improvement in scores was 19.48%. Only two sets showed no improvement. The data overwhelmingly showed that the moonball demonstration helped reinforce what students learned in the planetarium program.

To determine whether Title 1 schools benefited more from the moonball demonstration than other schools, the sets were sorted by the percent of increase. A count of Title 1 schools whose percentage of increase was above the median score was compared to the count of Title 1 schools below the median.

Five Title 1 schools were in the group below the median gain, while 11 Title 1 schools were in the group above the median. In other words, more than twice as many Title 1 schools showed large gains than showed smaller gains. The impact of the moonball demonstration on student learning was much greater for Title 1 schools than for other schools.

The planetarium experience has been shown by previous researchers to be a valuable learning environment. The data presented in this study, however, show that whenever possible, planetariums should provide students with live science demonstrations in addition to the planetarium program itself. This study also reinforces the idea that the planetarium is a unique resource for school districts, providing students with learning and laboratory experiences that cannot be obtained in most classrooms.

chart of results 

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Uploaded March 14, 2016

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