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Johnston: Blowing bubbles, doing science and wearing pants

By Adam Johnston - | Sep 13, 2023

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Adam Johnston

To be honest, one of the reasons I make many of my students blow bubbles in the first weeks of the semester is so that they can make a scene. Pouring out of the classroom and into the wider spaces of our science building and the great outdoors, they take bubble wands from cups of solution and exhale a perfectly spherical, levitating, luminescent orb. They pause only to catch a breath or note observations in a notebook, part of the assignment I’ve given just before I sent them off. Others walk by, maybe on their way to the coffee shop or between classes or, best of all, staring out of the confines of their chemistry classroom. I like the idea that I might be taunting other students and making them question their choice of coursework.

But it’s more than this. I tell students to observe, write, observe, write, observe … and continually repeat this cycle until after about 15 minutes they’ve exhausted the exercise of all there is to note about bubbles. We come back together and record on the board all they’ve seen. There are differences in sizes and falling rates, comparisons of how the bubbles are blown to their diameter and stability, noticings of strange colors swirling about the fluid or the stark reflections on different surfaces. These are volunteered, one after the other, so that within minutes the board is flooded with observations, many of which I’d never realized before for myself, even though I’ve done this for nearly three decades.

I then tell them to go back and observe again. This is often received with a bit of dismay. More? How could there be more when we’ve already seen so much, their slumped shoulders seem to say. I think they realize almost immediately that this is the point: There is always something else to see. It’s only after that later round when the especially deep and meaningful observations start to come out. The obvious fact that the bubbles are round doesn’t get shared until this second act of observation. It’s so obvious that we forget to notice, yet it might be the most important feature of a bubble. Frankly, I don’t fully understand why it should be this way, so I’m happy to introduce this bit of wonder to my new students.

This is all to justify some important reasons why I’d send future scientists and teachers to take on such a simple task. The deepest rationale for it, however, traces back to children.

Years ago, I was invited to make some science with learners in Weber State’s Children’s School, a beautiful place for learning. Construction, stories, imagining, play, cooperation, snacks, sharing and naps all seem to be essential components of the program, features that adult learning should probably also aspire to. We were working alongside a basin holding an eruption of bubbles, and we watched them build up and get popped by tiny fingers, reshaping the entire construction of these air-filled films. Out of the corner of my eye, I glimpsed one student returning to our station, but he wasn’t fully prepared. I was unsure of how to address this, but in the moment I heard myself saying, “Zach, we need to wear pants to do science.” To me, this seemed like a good rule and the right way to address his zeal as he returned from the bathroom, forgetting just one step before reentering the classroom.

I started to think that this is exactly the bar we should set for scientific work. You ought to wear pants, but otherwise there are no barriers to your participation. As I was congratulating myself for this ideal, I noticed the girl across the table looking up at me worriedly, clearly upset.

“What about a dress?” she asked.

Right. Of course. That’s fine, too.

To this day, that is my enduring rule, and a good reason to continue to have my students blow bubbles. Entry into science should be just so simple. Be willing to observe and wonder. Also, wear pants. Or a dress. It doesn’t matter which. These are all that’s required to get started.

Adam Johnston is a professor of physics and director of the Center for Science and Mathematics Education at Weber State University, where he helps prepare future teachers and supports educators throughout Utah.


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