What does magic have to do with Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math? Everything! Magic tricks aren’t fooling the laws of nature, they’re only fooling our brains. Best of all, they can incorporate everything from surprising chemical reactions, mathematical patterns, and counter-intuitive physics to “gimmicked” magician’s props and the psychology of misdirection. And because the audience participates in the lies magicians tell (as Penn and Teller have often demonstrated — start at 36:04), magic tricks can also teach critical thinking. A well designed magic show can be as educational as it is entertaining.
Many teachers of physics and chemistry are familiar with using “discrepant events” (puzzling or astounding phenomena) to illustrate concepts or force students to confront their misconceptions. Teaching with magic tricks is similar. The main difference may be a sense of showmanship (although I fondly remember many chemistry explosions conducted with a sense of showmanship) and a little bit of trickery — is that hat actually empty? No, of course not.
“Using discrepant events is a great teaching strategy if they are linked with the big ideas that you want students to understand,” explains Mark Watrin, a science specialist for Washington State’s Battle Ground school district. “They usually involve an element of fun, which creates a positive attitude towards science and creates a ‘I wonder what is coming next’ atmosphere.” Watrin cautions that a common misuse of discrepant events is explaining them too quickly or not letting students participating in the activity. “Some of my favorite discrepant events involve air pressure differences because the students can do the activities themselves,” he says, adding that getting students to talk about discrepant events is a great way to reveal their misconceptions.” There has been a lot of work done recently on how to get students to reveal their misconceptions, which is important for understanding science concepts.”
I recommend checking out this short guide to developing successful lessons using discrepant events in addition to all the great sources for ideas and activities below.
- Illusioneering.org offers a free PDF book of magic tricks with which to teach science as well as videos to help you learn how to perform and explain the tricks
- Along the same lines, Mathematical Magic teaches you how to perform and explain magic tricks based on math
- Another from the same author as above: The Magic of Computer Science
- Any book by Martin Gardner is a great read, but you might find Mathematics Magic and Mystery particularly helpful
- Magical Mathematics: The Mathematical Ideas That Animate Great Magic Tricks by mathematician-magicians Persi Diaconis and Ron Graham explains the mathematical theories behind a variety of magic tricks and includes instructions (with photos) for performing the tricks
- An oldie but goodie: Tik Liem’s Invitations to Science Inquiry (Second Edition) is available as a free 488-page PDF You can also buy yourself a copy of the original and the supplement (with 100 new discrepant events) from a variety of bookstores, including Amazon and Educational Innovations (which also sells a beginner’s magic kit designed by a teacher).
- Thomas O’Brien’s Brain-Powered Science: Teaching and Learning with Discrepant Events is available as a free PDF; you can purchase the second volume from the National Science Teacher’s Association
- ScienceFix.com has a video specifically about magic tricks as discrepant events, but also check out his other videos for great science demonstrations
- Magician Wayne Kawamoto maintains About.com’s page on teaching science with magic tricks
- Bonus! MOSART is a free resource that helps you identify misconceptions your K-12 students hold