ECCNvideos: Free online demonstrations for students and teachers

Incorporating good teaching practice into chemistry demonstrations

At the recent International Conference on Chemical Education, Toronto, the Early Careers Chemistry Network (ECCN) presented (or shall we say launched?) the new ECCNvideos chemistry demonstration project (ECCNvideos Youtube channel and @delaneysw). With this online resource we hope to encourage teachers worldwide to incorporate more demonstrations into their chemistry teaching. Based in Melbourne, Australia, the ECCN is a not-for-profit group aimed at supporting chemistry educators early in their career with workshops and online resources. We are supported by the Chemistry Education Association (CEA) in Victoria, Australia.

The origins of the ECCNvideos project are twofold. For some time now, some of us had been keen to ‘update’ a popular but long out-of-print demonstration book1 published by the CEA. The update would be directed at a new generation of teachers — those who are now heading online for their professional learning. We did not simply want to republish the book online. This was an opportunity to add more value to demonstrations. Also some of the book’s demonstrations are now considered far too dangerous! Our goal was to compile a list of demonstrations, that when combined with good teaching practice, could greatly extend their learning value. We wanted to outweigh the reasons often cited for avoiding, limiting, or “phasing out” (Chem 13 News, May 2014) the use of demonstrations.

Given our insatiable appetite, the list began to grow as we reviewed other classic demonstration books, such as Shakhashiri,2 Lister,3 Summerlin and Ealy,4 just to name a few. Oh how much fun I had reading through these! I was picturing whole syllabi in my head, with explosions at least once a week! But I jest; we were looking for demonstrations that could be “learned”. Each had to contain a concrete observation that with facilitation, by either a teacher or through a peer-based discussion, could lead to the assimilation of an abstract concept of science.

Much of the hard work getting the ECCNvideos project underway took place at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, University of Melbourne, Australia. As the chemistry education lecturer, I gave this list of demonstrations to my pre-service teachers. Over the semester each student presented to their classmates one demonstration from the list. With the help of our lab technician the list was pared to down to take into consideration safety and feasibility (thanks Stacey!).

I constantly pressed my pre-service teachers to look beyond just the “oohh” and “aahh” parts. We discussed how to improve and “fine tune” the pedagogy behind each demonstration, such as, effective questioning, timing (often the hardest part), observations to highlight, how to reduce the “noise” and clutter before, during and after the demo, and opportunities for student involvement. These enriched, insightful discussions with my pre-service teachers have fed into the resources we are preparing, and I am eternally thankful for their contribution.

Filming of the demonstrations took place in our laboratories and preparation room. Over 80 demos were filmed. For each demo, YouTube clips are being prepared. The first is a brief “for students” clip, that is kept as short as possible (40-60 seconds), and focused only on the key observation of the demonstration (i.e., the teachable moment) with minimal distraction. Educators who are unable to undertake the demonstration in their own classrooms will hopefully find these videos useful. Whilst we are clearly advocates, and we want students to feel the atmosphere of a live demonstration, we also understand there are often good reasons for not doing so. For instance, there may be physical and financial constraints, particularly with sourcing chemicals. Alternatively, these video clips may be used for a flipped classroom.

In the second, slightly longer “for teachers” clip, ECCN members or other like-minded chemistry teachers provide a brief “how to” for each demo and discuss some of the pedagogical approaches (key questions, making the most of the key observation, acting out the demo) that underpin the demonstration’s inclusion of this project. We have unashamedly paid homage to the excellent productions of Brady Haran (Periodic Videos5) and Declan Fleming6 (Royal Society of Chemistry School Teacher Fellow) with the design of our clips.

For each demonstration, a written method with some theory and key questions are supplied. The links to these accompanying handouts are found with the publishing date under the video. The original book source is also cited. All of these are published with a creative commons licence.

At a time when we are seeing research focused on student-centred, inquiry based learning — which we also strongly advocate and may aspire to film one day — it is easy to stigmatise teacher demonstrations. I will use one of my favourite demonstrations to argue against this negativity —  boiling water with ice.7 The learning is not just in the observation of bubbles appearing inside a cooled flask. It is the teacher who ensures that this observation can have a lasting learning impact. The teacher values cognition and uses questioning to promote sustained thinking — more than just “connecting the dots”. Together with the students, a shared language can be constructed — what is gas, what is heat, energy transfer, kinetic molecular theory…

As an educator also involved in technology education research,

I see some parallels between the perceived effectiveness of teacher-led demonstrations and the ongoing debate around the effectiveness of technology for teaching and learning. For every feel-good story you hear (yeah!), naysayers will highlight concerns about technology/demonstrations being an unnecessary distraction from ‘the learning’, or that technologies/demonstrations are only being used to ‘rebrand’ old approaches to teaching. A perceived criticism for both incorporating technology (such as the flipped class) and an unexpected chemical observation is that they are “teacher-driven” and therefore no longer appropriate (or in vogue) for 21st century learners. However, this is not the case, if these approaches are supported with good solid teaching.

The best description of technology I’ve heard for a while is to envisage it as pedagogical amplifier.8 We should not be asking what technology can do for the teacher, but what teachers and students can achieve with technology.9 A subtle change, but a powerful one, and it re-introduces the concept of working in partnership with machines.10 For instance, when you read or hear about a good example of flipped learning, do you not often then proclaim, either to yourself or out loud, “well, that just sounds like good teaching!”

I propose that we should see chemistry demonstrations in the same way; they can be a pedagogical amplifier that can greatly enhance student learning, but only when combined with good teaching practice. And though we are in the early stages, we are hopeful (with some modesty) that our ECCNvideos project can positively contribute to encouraging teachers to use demonstrations and improve their teaching practice.

References and notes

  1. C. Commons, B. Hogendoorn, (Eds), Demonstrations for Secondary School Chemistry, Chemistry Education Association, Melbourne, 1990.
  2. B.Z. Shakhashiri, Chemical Demonstrations: A Handbook for Teachers of Chemistry (Volume 1): The University of Wisconsin Press. Wisconsin 1          983.
  3. T. Lister, Classic Chemistry Demonstrations, Royal Society of Chemistry, London, 1995.
  4. L.R. Summerlin, J.L. Ealy (Jr), Chemical Demonstrations: A Sourcebook for Teachers (Volume 1), American Chemical Society, Washington, D.C., 1988.
  5. Periodic Videos, University of Nottingham, UK
  6. Declan Fleming’s website:
  7. Boiling water with ice. Coincidently, this demonstration was the first ECCNvideos demo published (pictured below). Boil water and some boiling chips in a good quality round bottom flask — use a kettle first to speed this step up — and let steam flow out for 30 seconds, remove the heat source and firmly seal the flask (duct tape helps; doesn’t it always?) Carefully invert the flask. A retort stand and o-ring could be used. Place a bag of ice on top of the inverted flask. Hopefully, your students will be amazed to see that the water can be made to re-boil, and this can be repeated multiple times over the next few minutes.
  8. J. Cummins, K. Brown and D. Sayers, Literacy, technology and diversity: Teaching for success in changing times. Boston: Pearson, 2007.
  9. C. Redman, (Ed.), Successful Science Education Practices: Exploring what, why and how they worked. Nova Science Publishers, New York, 2013.
  10. R. Luckin, The learner centric ecology of resources: A framework for using technology to scaffold learning. Computers and Education, 2008, 50, pages 449-462.

Ice pack over flask of boiling water.

The first demonstration video posted on the ECCNvideos YouTube channel was “Boiling water with ice”. Online there is a student version (one minute), a teacher version (four minutes) and an accompanying handout — listed underneath the video with the date of publishing.