Myths. Folklore. Urban legends. Most students are familiar with at least a few examples of these; for instance, mention the idea that Americans never landed on the moon, and you’re sure to elicit a bevy of opinions!
Fascination with urban legends is one reason the television show Mythbusters, hosted by Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman, is so popular with elementary and middle school students. During the show, the famous co-hosts take on the challenge of scientifically proving or busting common myths – everything from movie special effects (could a car really sail over a 50 foot crevice without being smashed to bits) to determining whether goldfish have memories.
Mythbusters and the Scientific Method
Teachers can take advantage of students’ interest in Mythbusters by using it to teach the scientific method. In nearly every episode, students can readily spot the hypothesis, procedure, data, and a conclusion based on an analysis of the information. In addition, they should be able to use critical thinking skills to spot potential sources of error in each investigation. In addition, each episode can be used as a springboard for teaching core science concepts, such as buoyancy, magnetism, or Newton’s Laws.
For example, in Episode 24: Ming Dynasty Astronaut, Adam and Jamie decided to test an ancient myth involving Chinese astronomer Wan Hu, who supposedly wanted to study the stars up close. After some extensive calculations, he strapped 47 rockets to his chair, asked 47 assistants to light them, and ultimately disappeared in a fiery explosion.
After constructing replicas of a Ming Dynasty throne, the Mythbusters attempted to launch Buster (a crash-test dummy) using 16th Century bamboo rockets and later, modern day rockets. Students should easily be able to spot the hypothesis being tested (will 16th century and/or modern day rocket technology be able to send a human being into space?), the procedure used, the data collected (in the first “launch,” Buster is found some distance away from the throne, charred beyond recognition/ in the second, the throne is briefly airborne before crashing to the ground), and the conclusion reached (myth is BUSTED!).
Teaching Scientific Content
Mythbusters is also a great way to teach scientific content. This particular episode lends itself quite nicely to a study of Newton’s Laws. To introduce the concept, each student or team can be given a film canister (the kind that seals on the inside), antacid tablets, construction paper, and tape.
Directions for students:
- Build the body of your rocket out of construction paper. Experiment with different lengths of body tubes to determine which might be best.
- Design fins for your rocket. Fins are used to maintain stability and keep the rocket flying straight. They come in many different shapes and sizes, so experiment with your design to determine the type and number of fins that are best.
- Make a nose cone for your rocket by cutting out a circle and cutting a pie-shaped wedge out of it. Fold your circle into a cone shape and tape it in place.
- Decide on a name for your rocket and write it on the side of your design.
- Get your rocket ready to launch by placing half an antacid tablet in your film canister. The canister should contain some water – you can experiment to determine the best amount to add.
- Quickly snap the lid on the canister and place it lid-side down on the ground. Wait for launch!
- Experiment with lots of different designs and different amounts of water. Remember to change only one thing at a time; otherwise, you won’t know which change caused a different effect! Good luck!
After the activity, Newton’s Laws can be defined, discussed, and applied to improving each rocket’s design. For more innovative ways to teach the scientific method, try one of the following lesson plans.
Scientific Method Lessons and Activities:
In this lesson students use the scientific method to conduct an investigation involving bacteria and antibiotics. They share their results with the class.
This lesson has elementary school students learn about the scientific method. Students conduct hands-on activities and practice collecting data and writing observations.
In this lesson students use a gyrocopter to explore the scientific method. Students do experiments to investigate which way the blades spin on gyrocopter and analyze its movements.