Popular Science Monthly/Volume 35/August 1889/Home-Made Apparatus

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IT is a duty every teacher owes to his pupils to explain to them, or help them to find out for themselves, the causes of the natural phenomena which occur daily before their eyes. Yet to undertake to teach pupils about natural objects without allowing them to see, handle, hear, taste, or smell them—i. e., to come in contact with them by means of their senses—is like trying to teach music to a man who was born deaf, or color to a man who was born blind. Although it is pretty generally conceded that the teaching of the physical sciences ought to be accompanied with illustrative experiments, it is rarely done in the public schools, even in the larger high schools.

The science teacher in the public schools appears to be in a state of mind which might be described as hopeless. He knows that it is idle to look for well-equipped laboratories in the public schools. He knows, also, that even if he could hope for laboratories and apparatus, he certainly can never expect a course of study which will permit of sufficient time for laboratory work. Therefore, finding it wholly impracticable to carry out his convictions, he is in a state of hopelessness. He despairingly falls into the old way of assigning lessons from the text-book. Subjects so full of interest as the natural sciences are thus converted into useless drudgery.

The problem is, How shall we make it practicable to teach science in the public schools experimentally?

The first difficulty in the solution of this problem is that school boards have not the means wherewith to purchase apparatus to any great extent. This fact has led some firms to manufacture what might be called demonstration apparatus, much cheaper and simpler in construction than that hitherto used, and therefore vastly superior for illustrating principles, although not sufficiently refined for making accurate measurements; like a story told for illustration by a public speaker, short and to the point, but not embellished so much as to divert the mind from the argument. This is a step in the right direction, but it does not solve the problem. The apparatus is still so expensive that it will be a long time before school boards will be able to purchase it.

Driven by necessity, therefore, which frequently proves to be the mother of invention, the teacher must seize upon familiar objects which chance to be at hand, and, with slight changes perhaps in their construction, use them as apparatus with which to illustrate the principles of his science. Oftentimes he will find that this simple, home-made apparatus is far better for illustrating scientific principles than that which has held sway in laboratories for years. Its great merit lies in its simplicity. The student's mind is confused by a complex piece of apparatus. He loses sight of the principle which you would teach in his perplexity to solve the riddle of the machine. Again, this homemade apparatus has special merit in the eyes of the school trustee who sees that with an expenditure of five cents something, has been made which usually costs five dollars.

The second great difficulty in the solution of our problem is that school courses, as they are now planned, do not allow adequate time for experimentation. It may seem strange to say that one can make his own apparatus and experiment with it in less time than is required to use the old-fashioned apparatus, and yet we positively and emphatically state this. For example, the principles taught by the so-called "fountain in vacuo" are much more quickly illustrated by a bottle with rubber stopper and tubing, as shown in Gage's "Elements of Physics," page 3, Fig. 3. In this case the lungs are used as an air-pump. If the same bottle and tubing be arranged as shown in the above-mentioned text-book, page 59, Fig. 40, the lungs may be used as a condenser, and the bottle will supply the place of a condensing chamber. Contrivances by which all the experiments may be performed which usually require air-pump and condenser are as simple as those mentioned above. The common-school teacher who has difficulty in securing air-pump and condenser may rejoice in the thought that he has a pair of lungs which may be made to supply the place of both, and are less liable to get out of order. They will not require him to spend his Saturday afternoons in oiling them and fixing valves.

The time required to get ready the old-fashioned apparatus makes it utterly impossible for a teacher in a public school to use it. Again, the time required for the manipulation of it in the class, causes the pupil's mind to wander to other thoughts than that of the principle which is to be illustrated. Add to this the fact that home-made apparatus is so suggestive of scientific principles that, while the student is making it, his mind is constantly learning something new, and we have ground for the statement that home-made apparatus economizes time sufficiently to make it practicable to teach science experimentally in the public schools.

Perhaps the chief argument in favor of home-made apparatus is what might be called the manual-training argument—i. e., the argument of its educational value to the student who constructs it. It is always noticeable that the student who makes his own apparatus is not only liable to get a better comprehension of the principles which it illustrates, but his mind is thereby stimulated to inquire into many kindred principles.

The third great difficulty in the solution of our problem is often stated in this way: Teachers in the public schools have not sufficient skill to do this work. The reply is, (1) that it requires less skill to illustrate principles with home-made apparatus than with that which has been the awe and admiration of pupils and teachers alike for ages, and (2) that patience and a love for the work are far more essential qualifications than that which is usually called skill.

To summarize the arguments for home-made apparatus:

1. It teaches the principles better than the cumbersome and expensive forms of apparatus can. Pupils, as a rule, are not machinists and do not understand a complex machine.
2. The student takes a more lively interest in it and understands it better because he makes it himself.
3. All schools may possess it because of the slight expense involved.
4. It is applicable to the lower grades because of its simplicity.
5. It is applicable to subjects which have not hitherto been taught experimentally.

The last argument has special reference to physiology. It has been customary to speak of physics and chemistry as the experimental sciences, but there seem to be equally good reasons why physiology should be taught by experiments also. The processes of respiration, circulation, action of muscles, formation of voice, digestion, and many others admit—nay, demand—illustrative experiments, and the advantages of home-made apparatus are quite as apparent in this field as in the realm of the physical sciences.