Make rain in a jar? Repel pepper with a finger? That’s ‘Learning by Doing’

A new, free program by Yale’s Franke Program in Science and the Humanities and MIT aims to engage elementary and middle school students with science.
A screenshot from the “Learning by Doing” website.

A screenshot from the “Learning by Doing” website.

As any parent homeschooling a young student knows all too well, finding fun science experiments that can be conducted safely and affordably at home — while also conveying important scientific concepts — isn’t easy.

All too often, home experiments require the purchase of materials or supplies that families don’t have readily available. In other cases, the experiments don’t provide avenues for further reading or additional experimentation.

Well, help is on the way, thanks to Yale’s Franke Program in Science and the Humanities, with an assist from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Learning by Doing, a free, introductory series of online science videos geared for elementary and middle school students, launched this week. The Franke Program hopes to build a digital trove of experiments — with the help of kids themselves — by sparking the creativity of families who film their own videos and upload them to the site.

Our goal is to curate 100 experiments in the coming months,” said Yale astrophysicist Priyamvada Natarajan, director of the Franke Program. “I am deeply invested in the public understanding of science and inviting people to explore their creativity in fun ways to celebrate science.”

Learning by Doing emerged from a contest the Franke Program had planned for spring 2020. Called Eureka!, that project would have invited the Yale community to submit short videos explaining a scientific concept in an innovative way, such as with a dance or a poem.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. It scuttled Eureka!, but Natarajan saw a new use for the idea of filming short science videos. In 2012, she’d written an op-ed for the Washington Post on the value of encouraging children to experience the singular joy of figuring out basic science — learning by doing — even if they never went on to become professional scientists. Perhaps, she thought, Eureka! could be adapted for youngsters.

The pandemic wreaked havoc on all our routines,” Natarajan said. “Many of our colleagues were struggling with teaching their children, who were doing their schoolwork remotely, while working from home themselves. I realized we could tweak Eureka! to respond to the new need to keep young children learning at home and enjoying it.”

Natarajan enlisted help from Franke Program Assistant Director Ty Kamp, Yale graduate students (and Franke fellows) Madeleine Reinecke (Department of Psychology) and Liam Taylor (Ecology and Evolutionary Biology), doctoral student Clara Liao (Interdepartmental Program in Neuroscience, School of Medicine), and MIT graduate student Zahra Kanji. They helped create sample videos, set up a website and YouTube channel, and developed “explainer” materials for the experiments. Independent filmmaker Erin Macpherson edited and compiled the videos.

Natarajan also consulted with MIT’s Full STEAM Ahead group, which has developed resources for online teaching and learning.

At MIT we seek to use technologies that expand the reach of our learning opportunities while maintaining or enhancing our focus on hand-on, minds-on learning,” said Eric Klopfer, professor and director of the Scheller Teacher Education Program and the Education Arcade at MIT.

Kamp and her children conducted a pair of the “template” videos: one that demonstrates surface tension with black pepper, water, milk, and dishwashing liquid, and another that demonstrates condensation with hot water, ice, a measuring cup, and a glass jar.

Accessibility is a large part of this project,” Kamp said. “People are rightly concerned about the growing disparity in education, particularly at the early stages where inequities cascade to limiting opportunities later. We want to engage students to explore science in a way that isn’t passive.”

Reinecke, a graduate student in psychology, made a Learning by Doing video that demonstrates the Stroop Effect — the idea that people take longer to process incongruent information — with a bowl, colored markers, and some strips of paper.

The Learning by Doing website has a form through which participants can submit ideas for new videos. The project team will vet those ideas, offer help with video editing, and augment them with explainer material.

My own interest in science was stoked by early ‘flotation experiments,’ dunking myself and my toys in tubs of water stored for watering plants in our garden in Chennai, India,” Natarajan said. “Which toys floated, which ones sank, and why — this was my introduction to the joy of figuring things out. Before I knew it, I was hooked on science.”

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Media Contact

Fred Mamoun:, 203-436-2643