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.

 

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