The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Archive for July 20th, 2010

How I Use a Card Trick to Teach About Science

Posted by mattusmaximus on July 20, 2010

Every year when I start a new class, I always take some time on the first day to discuss science & the scientific method. But I have my own fun & unorthodox spin on it: I first tell the “Dragon in My Garage” story, and then I go on to describe the scientific method in a very fun manner.  In short, I do a card trick…

The way I start is to ask my students if they’ve ever been to a family reunion or other gathering where someone present is doing card or magic tricks (suppose this person is “Old Uncle Harry”).  And say Uncle Harry does a particularly impressive card trick (some kind of “mind reading” or mentalism trick); what is likely to be the first response from the children present?  If you said “Do it again!” that’s a pretty good guess, but second to that I’d say the next most common response is “How did you do that?”

“How did you do that?” – contained within this question is a lot of information, folks.  First, it shows that even little kids can think critically & skeptically, because if Uncle Harry responds “It’s magic, kid (wink, wink)” even children know something’s fishy.  Second, it shows that kids want to know some kind of plausible, naturalistic solution to the supposedly “magical” phenomenon they just witnessed.

Then I play off this curiosity & natural skepticism: I ask my students what a particularly curious kid might do to figure out Uncle Harry’s trick (because really good magicians don’t reveal their tricks too easily).  Invariably, they respond that perhaps the first step would be to do some research on card tricks by looking up info on the Internet or going to the public library.  Then, once they think they’ve got an idea of the process, what’s the next step?  “Experimentation” comes the reply – in other words, the student might try to replicate just how the trick is performed by getting their own deck of cards and trying to repeat the phenomenon they observed earlier.  Depending upon their relative success or failure at replicating the trick, they may have to go through this process multiple times before coming to a meaningful conclusion as to how the trick is done.

And that, as I tell my students, is the scientific method in action.  Scientists are going through the very same investigative process as are those kids attempting to figure out Uncle Harry’s magic card trick.  They are attempting to figure out the “tricks” that nature is playing upon us all the time, and to do so they must study, research, hypothesize, and experiment in order to form a coherent & naturalistic explanation for the phenomena we observe (sorry, no “magic” allowed 😉 )

And then I ask the question I’ve been waiting to ask for the entire class: “So, having said all of that, do you want to see a trick?”  The answer is always yes, and it’s always a satisfying and enjoyable trick.  This very trick I performed at the “Skepticism in the Classroom” workshop at The Amazing Meeting 8 for about 150-200 people, most of whom were teachers, and it was a real hit.  In fact, it was such a hit that I decided to write up the solution for it, and I share it with you here… enjoy… 🙂

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