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Science Court Explorations - Tom Snyder Productions (Scholastic)

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Review Synopsis: by afterschool program expert Tom Bromage

Science Court Explorations advertises itself as a series that "introduces and reinforces the scientific method and fundamental science concepts" using multimedia CD-ROMs and hands-on experiments. In this Pendulums installment (it is one of six available as of March 2006), viewers must decide the answer to a legal case created around the timer for a ski race. The timer is a pendulum, in this instance a long rope with a bucket of sand, which happens to be monitored by a friend of one of the racers. Controversy ensues when sand is added to the bucket of the pendulum and the case ends up in Science Court.

As the events of story unfold, viewers are asked to determine the answer to whether or not the weight added to the end of the pendulum changed the rate at which the pendulum swung and, therefore, the result of the race. The audience watches as a cartoon TV reporter describes the properties of pendulums and then demonstrates the steps of forming, testing, adjusting hypotheses and sharing conclusions.

The 10-minute video uses cartoon characters to hook its target, the young, elementary school audience. The leap from the video to reality is the key to whether or not the lesson is successful.
Full Review:
Through a multimedia CD-ROM and hands-on experiments, Science Court Explorations: Pendulums teaches students about the properties of pendulums by making them the jury on a court case about a ski race. The skiers' timer is a pendulum—in this instance, a long rope attached to a bucket of sand—which happens to be monitored by a friend of one of the racers. Controversy erupts when sand is added to the bucket of the pendulum, and the case ends up in Science Court.

Students must determine whether or not the weight added to the end of the pendulum changed the rate at which the pendulum swung and, therefore, the result of the race. Students watch a cartoon TV reporter describe the properties of pendulums. She then demonstrates the steps of forming a hypothesis, testing it, adjusting it, and then sharing conclusions.

In addition to introducing the viewers to the properties of a pendulum, the video does a good job of simplifying scientific vocabulary: students are first encouraged to form a hypothesis, and then to use the Scientific Method to determine the variables that affect the rate at which pendulums swing. They test their hypothesis using a small rope—adding weight to the end of the rope, and observing how this affects the swing of their pendulum. By hypothesizing, testing, and changing variables, the participants imitate what any scientist would go through to test results for validity. Participants then share their conclusions with the group.

The program is also entertaining. The video format of Science Court Explorations: Pendulums should engage young elementary school participants. The video encourages participants to take an active role in uncovering the answer to the court's dilemma by conducting experiments of their own.

But—there is a hitch. It lies in the "buy-in" factor necessary to "sell" the experiment. The audience may or may not be engaged by the 10-minute cartoon video, and the entire lesson relies upon this factor. If the participants "buy in"—and they probably will—the lesson should be successful.

The video also gives visual and aural learners a way to enjoy learning that may otherwise have failed with two-dimensional diagrams on a blackboard. The video uses fun characters to tell the story, showing that learning can take place outside of school, that learning can be useful, and that science exists all around us.

An additional positive attribute of Pendulums is that it makes otherwise intimidating vocabulary, such as "hypothesis" and "variables," accessible by incorporating it into the story line.

A potential obstacle in running the experiment is the required setup time—limited for many afterschool teachers. Given the fact that the majority of afterschool educators are not full-time employees, the time to organize materials, read the manual, preview the video, and try out the experiment may be too demanding. Another potential obstacle is the length of the lesson. The necessary time—to set up a room for the video, give instructions, watch the video, set up the experiment, conduct the experiment, share results, and finish watching the video—may be too long for many afterschool programs, where students may attend multiple activities in a single afternoon. This complication could be overcome with a "science day," where a special 2-hour session is dedicated to the activity.

The materials are somewhat expensive yet durable. Recommended follow-up activities are essentially the same activity as the principal activity, only on a grander scale. Given the limited budget of many afterschool programs, and the narrow scope of the experiment, Science Court Explorations: Pendulums may not be a good investment for programs operating on a limited budget.

Although Science Court Explorations: Pendulums comprises only one lesson, its materials are durable and easily replaceable. Therefore, the experiment may be repeated multiple times for various audiences.