Implementing Classroom Demonstrations – Incorporating Student Inquiry

Amy Chan-Hilton (@abchan123) of Florida State University explains exactly what to do with all the other posts. That is, how do you actually get educational value out of running in class demonstrations.

With the start of a new academic year, I find myself with renewed enthusiasm to try something different or tweak an activity done previously in my courses.  Nigel’s Teaching Fluid Mechanics blog provides wonderful examples of classroom demonstrations that can be implemented in class.  Another resource is the book H2Oh! Classroom Demonstrations for Water Concepts (ASCE, 2012) (full disclosure: I served as editor, along with Roseanna Neupauer, of this publication).

I am motivated to incorporate demonstrations and other active learning* activities in my engineering courses for several reasons.  First and foremost, I want to improve my students’ learning.  Why bother showing up to class if what happens during the class period does not add to my students’ learning and motivation?  This is easier said than done (see below for a little more on this).  I also aim to keep my students engaged during the class period.  My class occurs right after lunch; so keeping my students awake is key, as sleeping students will not learn much (if at all!).  The third reason is selfish on my part – to have fun during class.  I would bore myself and be very tired if I were to lecture for the full 75 minutes each class.  If I cannot hold my own attention during class, how can I expect my students to do so?

*There are plenty of resources defining active learning, describing effective examples of active learning, and studies of its impacts on student learning and attitudes.  A recent PNAS article by Freeman et al. (2014) and highlighted in Wired points to evidence on the positive impacts of active learning on student success in STEM courses.  In addition, a recent post by Lisa Benson on the Teaching Fluid Mechanics blog nicely highlights examples of active learning activities and offers best practices for implementing them.

Now back to in-class demonstrations.  Whether you develop your own demo, use and/or adapt established ones (such as those described in the Teaching Fluid Mechanics blog, the H2Oh! book, and/or others), one needs to consider implementation.  At what point in the class period will I conduct the demonstration?  How long will the demo really take? (I have had my share of experiences when I miscalculated time and had to rush through a demo because the class period was ending.)  What will my students be doing during this demo?  What do I want my students to get out of the demo – entertainment, stimulate interest, test theory or hypotheses, apply knowledge?

The last point is the most important when planning the implementation of a demo.  Certainly demos can be used to hold student interest, but this alone will not make significant impact on enhancing student learning.  Studies by Crouch et al. (2004) and Zimrot and Ashkenazi (2007) showed that students who engaged in the demos through inquiry learned more than students who passively observed classroom demonstrations.  When student-centered learning and inquiry-based learning techniques were used, in which students make predictions about the demo, observe the outcome, and discuss with their peers and the instructor, these implementations of the demos not only resulted in student learning gains but also helped to overcome student misconceptions.  So while it is important to practice a demo before class to check that it works, careful consideration of the student inquiry and interactive aspects during the demo helps us achieve the goal of improved student learning while both students and instructors can also have fun during the process.

Here’s a simple example of how intentional student inquiry and engagement can be incorporated into the implementation of the pipe networks and head loss demo posted in the Teaching Fluid Mechanics blog, in which the time to fill up an equal volume of water for two different lengths of tubes from the same water tank are compared.

  1. The tank and tubes are prepared and shown to the students.
  2. Ask the class what is different between the two tubes (you can randomly ask 2-3 students for their observations). Once the students have determined that the lengths are different, then have a student come up to measure the lengths of the two tubes).
  3. Tell students that each tube will be used to fill up a cup. Will there be a difference in the time it takes to fill each cup with the same volume?  If different, which one will fill up faster?  Why?  Students can pair up to discuss this using Think-Pair-Share or other techniques (this can take 3-5 minutes).
  4. Run the demo, have 2 students record the times to fill up the 2 cups.
  5. Have the students in pairs compare their predictions to their observations and data from the demo. Ask the class what the data from the demo shows (again randomly asking 2-3 students).  Then this can lead to a more in-depth discussion in which the instructor uses students’ comments and questions to guide the class into particular points, or you pose additional guiding questions (prepared ahead of time).
  6. Students in pairs can continue with the quantitative analysis of the demo.

Happy teaching!

Amy B. Chan Hilton

Associate Professor, Civil and Environmental Engineering

Florida State University,


Bhatia, A. (2014). “Active Learning Leads to Higher Grades and Fewer Failing Students in Science, Math, and Engineering.” Wired.  Accessed on 8.12.14 at

Chan Hilton, A.B. and Neupauer, R.M. (eds.) (2012). H2Oh!  Classroom Demonstrations for Water Concepts, American Society of Civil Engineers, Reston, VA.

Crouch, C.H., Fagen, A.P., Callan, J.P., and Mazur, E. (2004). “Classroom demonstrations: Learning tools or entertainment?” American Journal of Physics, 72, 835-838. DOI: 10.1119/1.1707018

Freeman, S. et al. (2014). “Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(23), 8410-8415. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1319030111

Zimrot, R. and Ashkenazi, G. (2007). “Interactive lecture demonstrations: A tool for exploring and enhancing conceptual change.” Chemistry Education Research and Practice, 8(2), 197-211.  DOI: 10.1039/B6RP90030E

An index of all the demonstrations posted on this blog can be found here. Don’t forget to follow @nbkaye on twitter for updates to this blog. If you have a demonstration that you use in class that you would like to share on this blog please email me ( I also welcome comments (through the comments section or via email) on improving the demonstrations.


2 thoughts on “Implementing Classroom Demonstrations – Incorporating Student Inquiry

  1. This looks terrific! Thanks again, Nigel, for providing this opportunity to write a post.


    Sent from my iPad

  2. Hi colleagues, how is all, and what you would like to say regarding this piece of writing, in my view its in fact remarkable in favor of me.

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