Experiential learning resources for the innovative educator
Welcome to the beginning of my experiential learning blog series specifically on examples of experiential learning activities. I have been writing about the topic of experiential learning for over a month and have covered experiential learning importance, how to set up your classroom for experiential learning, and have even offered examples of experiential learning methods.
What I haven't done is offer you specific examples of experiential learning activities at play. For the next few weeks I will be laying out and showing you experiential learning activities in action.
The activities included in these blog posts cover a specific theme, but experiential learning integrates subjects by nature. So if the theme is "Mad Science", do not dismiss the activities because you're not a science teacher. A wide variety of concepts are mixed into every activity. Experiential learning is defined more by the approach than the content.
Each example of an experiential learning activity about "Mad Science" listed below includes ways to adapt the experience to work with a variety of age groups and skill levels. So again, do not dismiss the activity because you think it doesn't apply to the grade level that you teach. I have had my high school students and my five- and seven-year-old children do each of the activities below. They're just slightly modified to fit the needs of the students.
Examples of Experiential Learning Activities: Mad Science
My son has been interested in science for a long time, and recently received a starter/kids chemistry set for his birthday. All he wants to do now is mix colors and random kitchen ingredients and make things "explode".
The mad science experiential learning activity examples listed below were inspired by my son. Experiential learning is personal, and part of personalizing learning for students is letting their interests lead the way.
So I developed experiential learning activities for my own children that fit their stages of development AND assigned a more independent, self-directed version of each activity to my high schools students. Check out each activity for ideas and inspiration!
Inspiration and ideas are great! And so are FREE resources! Grab my free experiential learning tools that go along well with any experiential learning activity that you happen to get yourself involved in.
Take a free quiz on which experiential learning activity type is for you and your students, fill in my free mind map to help iron out experiential learning activity plans, and start managing experiential learning activities in your classroom or homeschool with an implementation spreadsheet.
1. "Dancing Noodles"
The chemistry kit that my son got for his birthday came with some science experiment ideas, and dancing noodles was one of those ideas. One of the great things about experiential learning is that I don't feel like I have to reinvent the wheel with every lesson! I take inspiration from others and from the real-world and my students make it what it is.
For the dancing noodles students just add snippets of cooked spaghetti to a beaker and then add baking soda and vinegar. This is an interesting variation of your classic "volcano".
My kids know at this point what happens when you combine baking soda with vinegar. So I asked them to make predictions about what might happen to the noodles if placed at the center of the reaction. My kindergartener could predict that the bubbles would cause movement. This is experiential not only because it's hands-on but because I added an inquiry element. It is student-centered. My kids asked questions, drew on prior experience, did some research, and above all, experienced the concepts first hand.
Modify for Secondary Students: I do a demo of the dancing noodles and have my students write observations and questions about what they're experiencing. Then they conduct scientific open-inquiry, meaning they ask testable questions about what they're seeing and design and execute experiments to test the questions. This is self-directed learning, an important characteristic of experiential learning.
This open-inquiry experimentation experience is a go-to experiential learning activity for my high school science students. Click here for a scientific open inquiry experimentation tool kit designed to help middle and high school students through the process of student-led experimentation.
2. Candy Making
My young children and I make hard candy together every year around the winter holidays. It's always fun and is a great way to talk about evaporation. "If you do this, what will happen?", "If I add this, what will change and how will it change?"
Cooking is a great way to get young kids experiencing science concepts, especially when taken from an inquiry approach as I just did above. Rather than have young kids follow a recipe, work with them and scaffold the inquiry experience with questions such as the ones above.
Modify for Secondary Students: This is a fun one to do with my older students, too, to see what happens if you don't give enough evaporation time or give it too much time. We've also tried making gummy candies to see what it takes to change the consistency of the candy. My students use the same inquiry experimentation tool kit that I mentioned in the dancing noodles activity.
For more cooking experiences, check out my blog post on Kitchen Science Activities. This candy-making activity is included in that post and includes a lot more details on the actual science than what you will find here.
Try this hard candy recipe for science experiments.
3. DIY Bouncy Balls
This was a fun way to make "toys", which was one of my son's interests at the time. It's a great introduction to polymers, which for a 5- and 7-year-old is really abstract. They still don't get the concept entirely, but understand that there is something happening to the ingredients when they mix to give the ball a rubbery consistency.
Modify for Secondary Students: Making bouncy balls with older students gives them a visual and experience around the idea of chemical reactions, mainly the reaction between borax and glue. Again, allow older students to grasp the concepts through inquiry, by asking their own questions and experimenting with ingredients.
I used this bouncy ball recipe for inspiration.
If you do not think your students are ready for open-ended inquiry experimentation on their own yet, try my introduction to experimental design workbook. It was specifically designed around consumer product myth-busters, so would make a great tool for experimenting with this bouncy ball activity.
4. Glow in the Dark "Potions"
Creating glow in the dark mixtures is a fun way to satisfy my kids' interest in "potions" while providing a hands-on way to learn about density. I got ingredient ideas from this website, but didn't have my kids follow a specific recipe. They very casually experimented making observations and they went, and modifications to reflect their observations. For example, if they wanted something to glow brighter, they figured out that they needed to add more highlighter and that that highlighter had something in it that make their potion glow.
Modify for Secondary Students: Okay, you might be noticing a theme here, and sorry to sound like a broken record, but scientific open-inquiry is the way to go with all of these activities. This is no exception! Older students can go through the same observation and questioning process as younger students, but turning those questions into testable questions and then designing experiments around those questions makes the experience more challenging for older students.
5. Natural Dyes
My 5-year-old daughter wondered how dresses become pink. So we looked into dye's and decided to concoct our own dyes out of plant materials. We used avocado, beets, cabbage, onion skin and coffee grinds to dye white socks. We investigated the parts of the plants that make the color and researched how to keep the color once it's been washed.
This experience seems one-dimensional at first. The "activity" is to dye socks with natural ingredients. But look at all of the different angles this simple activity covers? Plant anatomy, fibers and materials, and molecules that are covered in an activity like this. On top of that, my young kids playing around with different dyes are the beginning steps of scientific inquiry. They may not be designing their own experiments around the natural dyes, but they are practicing observation skills, inquiry skills, data collection skills, and more.
Modify for Secondary Students: You know what I'm going to say, right!? Scientific open-inquiry! Again, introduce your older students to different dyes and where they come from now and in history. Have students ask their own testable questions on the topic of natural dyes, and test those questions with student-led experiments.
Yes, almost ALL of my suggestions for adapting the activities for older students revolve around scientific-open inquiry. But at that point in a child's life, that should be the focus (in my opinion). Yes, maybe the concepts are important to understand, but the skills that lead students to an understanding of those concepts are just as important.
Open-inquiry experimentation gets students thinking and acting like scientists. Scientific inquiry helps students develop the skills to test concepts and ideas whether they end up going into science for a career or not.
And that really is what experiential learning is after. The reasons for choosing experiential learning above other teaching methods is to get students thinking about concepts in a different way, for students to experience the content and come to conclusions about the content on their own, to gain skills in the process, and not just 21st-century skills, but the skills to find information without it being handed to them.
If you feel like you could use some additional help and guiding tools for experiential high school students, check out this experiential learning activity tool kit bundle. It includes self-directed tool kits for a variety of my favorite experiential learning activity methods.
Observe. Question. Explore. Share.
To provide innovative educational resources for educators, parents, and students, that go beyond lecture and worksheets.
Sara Segar, experiential life-science educator and advisor, curriculum writer, and mother of two.