standard Magic or Science?

When you see something you can’t explain, it can be easy to mistake those moments for magic, such as a balloon floating into the sky or water disappearing from a surface right before your eyes. However, the truth is these moments aren’t magic but scienceat play. Observing the laws of physics or chemistry can, at first glance, seem too fantastical to be explained, but science can explain a lot.

These moments serving as creative ways to engage kids in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) learning may be one of the best tricks of them all. STEM touches many aspects of daily lives, and finding the connections between the classroom and the “magical” STEM moments of day-to-day life can inspire children and pique their interests in these topics.

Consider these simple tricks that help convey the “magic” of science:

Rubber Pencil
By holding an ordinary pencil by the eraser between your thumb and index finger then shaking it at just the right speed, it appears to become made of bendable rubber instead of wood. However, it’s simply an optical illusion. The effect is due to visual persistence, which occurs when many different images blend into a single image in the human mind. This is the same reason people can see a rapid sequence of changing images and recognize it as a movie.

Vanishing Water
There is a popular magic trick in which a magician takes an ordinary looking cup, pours water into it and, after a series of gestures, appears to make the water disappear. The viewer is surprised when the cup is flipped over and no water drips out, as if it has vanished into thin air. The science and answer to this mystery is a substance called sodium polyacrylate. This is a “hygroscopic” substance, which means that it acts like a sponge and absorbs water almost instantly. When the cup is lined with this substance, any water that meets it forms a mixture that is a solid gel. Unassuming audiences think the water has suddenly disappeared, when in fact the mixture is simply stuck to the base of the cup.

Ventriloquism
The art of talking with the tongue and not moving the mouth or face is called ventriloquism. When a skilled ventriloquist does this sitting beside a puppet that has a moving mouth, the human brain is tricked into thinking the puppet has come to life and is speaking to the audience. It works because humans use their eyes to find sound sources. The area of the brain that processes sounds entering the ears also appears to process stimulus entering the eyes, providing a novel explanation for why many viewers believe ventriloquists have thrown their voices to the mouths of their puppets.

Knowing how the magic works doesn’t necessarily make these tricks any less fun, and these simple tricks help teach children how STEM plays a role in everything, including fun and games. Another way to encourage children with STEM at an early age is encouraging them to participate in a program such as ExploraVision, the only STEM-related competition of its kind. It allows kids of all ages to create ideas for new technological innovations in response to current real-world issues. Participants work on their projects to supplement their science education, while also developing problem-solving, analytical and collaboration skills.

Parents and students can learn more about the competition and how to enter, and teachers can find free tips for engaging students, at exploravision.org.

Photo courtesy of Getty Images

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