Teaching with Ciênsação

Sometimes it only takes minutes to change the way your students see science. When they experience the thrill of making a discovery, when they feel as if holding the secrets of science in their own hands – then this is 'Ciênsação'.

Ciênsação is NOT a new didactic paradigm, nor is it a new teaching method. On the contrary, teaching with short hands-on experiments is an increasingly common practice in schools around the world. Our goal is to make it easier for you to integrate more of these experiments in your day-to-day teaching.


Didactic approach

Classroom management

Skills assessment

Didactic approach

Most teachers will agree that students learn best when they are fully engaged – with their hands and mind. Decades of research and studies with thousands of students confirm this observation [PCAST, 2012; Hoellwarth and Moelter, 2011; Hattie, 2009; Prince, 2004; Hake, 1998; Stohr-Hunt, 1996]. Besides gaining a deeper understanding of the scientific concepts, actively involved students will retain more of the material you teach [Bonwell and Eison, 1991]. Moreover, well-designed hands-on experiments create room for student autonomy and foster important skills such as analytical and critical thinking, task oriented teamwork and effective communication of ideas. Last, but certainly not least: engaging research activities make science lessons much more fun for both students and teachers.

If you are a teacher, you probably have heard all of this before. But why then is it so rare to see this in day-to-day teaching? Most teachers will say that as much as they would like to integrate more engaging student activities, they simply lack the time and resources to do so. Investing an entire lesson to conduct one experiment with your class (plus at times one or two hours preparation) is simply a luxury when you have to prepare your students for the next exam.

Ciênsação therefore wants to share with you ideas for short experiments (taking just a few minutes), which highlight one specific aspect with clear but open-ended questions. To give a practical example, let's imagine you want to introduce magnetism:

After letting your students know what this class is about, you might tell them that you brought magnets and place them on your table. According to your personal style and your students, you then could:

If you have conducted similar experiments with this class once or twice before, it might take less than 5 minutes before you have your students engaged in a vivid discussion in which they share their own findings on magnetism.

As far as possible, build your teaching on your students’ experiences and refer to their comments, mentioning their names. Besides making the content more personal and memorable, it is a great encouragement for students to hear the teacher cite their ideas, observations or explanations – this too is Ciênsação.

Skill focused

Since most relevant information is easily accessible and continuously changing, skills have become far more important than memorizing facts. Summarizing the challenge to succeed in a globalized knowledge society, the World Bank wrote in 2010: “Labor market data in Brazil are signaling that 21st century skills are important for the next generation of workers. Producing graduates with these skills will be a critical challenge for the education system over the next decade – graduates with the ability to think analytically, ask critical questions, master new skills and content quickly, and operate with high-level communication/interpersonal skills, including foreign language mastery and the ability to work effectively in teams.” [Bruns et al., 2012]

The tasks to foster the skills of the future workforce and to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers ultimately fall to you as teacher, especially when teaching so-called STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). Practically all teachers want their students to develop skills, but many find it difficult to create situations that allow students to explore and discover, try, fail & succeed, as well as to engage and experiment first-hand – experiences that are prerequisites to raise instruction beyond the mere transmission of facts. However, just like a language cannot be learned if students are never allowed to speak, skills development requires student driven activities.

Skills are not just acquired to boost careers. They are essential for an informed participation in public debates and democratic processes. The ability to "ask critical questions" [Bruns et al., 2012] is increasingly needed to safeguard democratic achievements against the lies of demagogues. Young people need to develop evidence-based intellectual autonomy, i.e. the will and ability to seek scientific evidence instead of uncritically relying on authorities. You will find this idea reflected in many of Ciênsação's experiments, e.g. "Believe your eyes, don't be deceived by public opinion" and "The myth of the tongue map". Ciênsação's approach to challenge students analytical thinking with apparent or real contradictions between experimental results and textbook claims was recently discussed in a scientific article at IOP Physics Education [Abreu et al., 2017]. Students' – especially girls' – self-confidence and scientific self-efficacy get a boost each time they succeed in conducting and explaining an experiment, which, in the long run, is probably more valuable to them than any memorized equation.


Abreu de Oliveira, M. H.; Fischer, Robert (2017). "Ciênsação: gaining a feeling for sciences", Physics Education, 52 (2)

Bonwell, C.; Eison, J. (1991). Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom AEHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 1. Washington, D.C.: Jossey-Bass. ISBN 1-878380-08-7.

Bruns, Barbara; Evans, David; Luque, Javier. (2012). "Achieving World-Class Education in Brazil", The World Bank, ISBN 978-0-8213-8854-9

Hake, R. R. (1998). Interactive-engagement versus traditional methods: A six-thousand-student survey of mechanics test data for introductory physics courses. American journal of Physics, 66, 64

Hattie, John (2009). "Visible Learning. A synthesis of over 800 meta-analysis relating to achievement" Routledge, ISBN 978-0-415-47618-8

Hoellwarth, C.; Moelter, M. J. (2011). The implications of a robust curriculum in introductory mechanics. American Journal of Physics, 79, 540

PCAST (President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology) (2012). Engage to excel: Producing on million additional college graduates with degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

Prince, Michael (2004). "Does active learning work? A review of the research." Journal of Engineering Education, 93 (3), 223-231

Stohr-Hunt, Patricia M. (1996). "An analysis of frequency of hands-on experience and science achievement" Journal of research in Science Teaching 33 (1), 101-109

Classroom management

The more freedom students have to bring in their own ideas, the more they will identify with the research activities and ‘their’ findings. Obviously, the responsible and effective use of this freedom is something your students need to learn, and this learning takes time. But research and practical experience show that this time is well invested.

To avoid disappointing experiences, it is essential that your students have a clear idea of what is expected from them. Discussing procedures and rules before the experiment, as well as consequences of disturbing behavior, will save you a lot of time in the long run.

Each school and class has its own set of procedures and rules, some of which may already cover hands-on activities. It is a good idea to talk to your colleagues and keep rules consistent wherever possible. Here some suggestions that have proven to be useful:


Transition: Beginning and end of the research activity are marked by a signal you give, e.g. a clapping of your hands. At the closing signal, all students stop talking and put the materials on their desk.

Distributing materials: The students in the front row get the material from the teacher table and hand them out to the groups.

Collecting materials: The students in the last row collect the material to put it on the teacher table or discard it.


Only responsibly acting students are allowed to handle the material.

While your students are working on the task, you could go from group to group and encourage them, showing real interest for the individual approaches they take to address the research task. These moments are a good opportunity to interact with students who need additional attention, e.g. because they are particular quiet.

It lies in the nature of experiments that not everything goes according to plan: if it cannot go wrong, it is not an experiment. The best preparation for the unexpected is humor – laugh with the students and then see what lessons can be learned from the unforeseen outcome.

Time saving strategies

The indicated duration of the experiments refers to the active hands-on time plus the distribution and collection of materials, and does not include the discussion the experiment is meant to provoke. Depending on how familiar your students are with the procedures, they may need even less than the indicated time.

Still, every minute counts. Therefore here some hints to maximize the time spent on learning:

Skill assessment

Many teachers hesitate to adapt skill fostering teaching methods because skills are more difficult to assess than the memorization of facts. While this is understandable, you probably have noted that more and more national and international assessments like the ENEM in Brazil or the PISA study focus on skills rather than fact knowledge. This reflects the workplace reality: in the context of rapidly changing technology and ubiquitous access to information, your students will have little use for memorized facts, but heavily rely on skills they have learned at school.

There are different ways to assess the skills your students gained during a Ciênsação experiment. However, most teachers are interested at including this assessment in regular written exams. In order to do so, it is important to take into account the type of the research activity your students performed. Some of the experiments focus on – often literally – gaining a ‘feeling’ or intuitive understanding for a specific phenomenon. To see if you students indeed developed such an understanding, you could ask them a qualitative question about a situation similar to the experimental conditions. For instance, the research activity “Getting a feeling for spring systems” employs extension springs in parallel and series. In an exam, you can test if the concept was well understood by asking a question about stacking spring mattresses or the four shock absorbers in a car.

Several of the research activities challenge your students to answer a given question with experiments they have to develop themselves. This skill can be assessed with open ending questions like “How would you proof or disproof experimentally..?” If, for example, your students have studied what factors determine the speed of a chemical reaction, you could verify if they honed their scientific skills by asking how they would find out if the shape of the vessel has an influence on the reaction rate.

At times you could also adapt the questions from the section “Guiding questions” for your exams. This will help you to see if they learned to develop a rational that leads to evidence-based conclusions.