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About These Activities

"My whole thing about special effects stems from being in school and hearing the word 'fakey.' You know, you go back to class on Monday after everyone's seen a movie over the weekend. 'How'd you like the film?' 'Ah. It was kinda fakey. Those weren't dinosaurs. They were big lizards with things glued on their backs.'"

Stephen Spielberg, in Meet Steven
Spielberg by Thomas Conklin.

Through our experience living in this world, we expect things to look, move, and react according to certain rules. It's these rules of science that tell us what's "fakey" and what's not. Realistic special effects make us wonder, "How did they do that?" The SPECIAL EFFECTS activities fuel this curiosity, presenting a captivating approach for exploring a science theme through high interest and open-ended activities. The activities are designed for use with elementary and middle school-age people in youth organizations, museums, after-school programs, and schools and have been extensively field-tested with these groups.

Why teach science this way?
National reform in science education arose in response to concerns that science education focused on too much detail and that young people more frequently disliked science than enjoyed it. New curriculum standards published by the National Research Council recommend that science be presented with more depth in content coverage and thematic approaches; increased emphasis on conceptual development over factual information; and increased emphasis on concrete, hands-on experiences and inquiry approaches.

The SPECIAL EFFECTS activities are organized around a thematic framework based on science content. For upper elementary and middle school-age learners, the concepts underlying each activity are stated at a level that is developmentally appropriate to them. The focus for elementary school-age students is on observable characteristics and activities that invite exploration as a means to a concrete understanding of science.

Young people in grades 5 through 8 learn best when given the opportunity to do science in the most complete sense. They recognize the relationships between evidence and explanation, and see themselves as theory builders who incorporate investigation, observation, data collection, and interpretation of results into experiences that allow them to acquire and reframe knowledge. Because middle school-age students frequently focus on information that confirms their current beliefs, the science of special effects offers a perfect opportunity to focus on challenging information and questioning what is perceived by the senses.

What happened to the step-by-step instructions and fill-in-the-blank answers?
The activities are designed to allow you and your students to explore. You will rarely find questions with right or wrong answers. We invite you, the educator, to be a part of the experiential learning process. Enjoy the open-ended experimentation. Don't worry about telling your students exactly how to do it or whether they got it right or not. And don't worry if you don't have all the answers yourself. Scientists are always doing research to find out more. And, yes, this is real science that you can incorporate in your classroom curriculum. Planning activities, investigating ideas, extending the experience through open-ended questions or explorations, and opportunities to work in collaboration with others support a constructivist approach to learning.

The questions.
There are four questions under each of the four science topics: perception, physics, chemistry, and technology. Each of the questions has a corresponding activity, set up to facilitate your students making the connections themselves between the "magic" of special effects and everyday things they understand, and between these everyday things and science.

The activities.
It's always a good idea to try an activity yourself before you try it with your students.

In each activity you will find:
  • An introductory question or idea to get students thinking.
  • A list of materials (most of which are easy to obtain and inexpensive). Very few of the activities require advance preparation beyond collecting the materials.
  • Instructions in language students can understand. Any safety considerations will be indicated in bold type in the instructions. But don't worry that you'll need goggles and create explosions. Safety considerations are usually as simple as "have an adult boil the water for you."
  • A variety of questions for discussion or journal writing including open-ended questions to bring students' thinking beyond the specifics of the activity.

Behind the scenes.
If you and your students are going to be discussing all these science questions, we better have some answers. We do. At the end of each activity, you will find Behind the Scenes, which will give you the answer to that activity and an explanation of the science behind it. Each activity focuses on a single science concept. In a few sentences, the concept is explained as it relates to the activity. And don't worry about vocabulary either. Any new science or moviemaking terminology is explained in each activity.

You'll also find Ticket to More Fun which offers an opportunity to integrate the science of special effects into other aspects of your curriculum.

Now that you're familiar with the format of the activities, use the following science topics and individual activity descriptions to get started. We hope you and your students enjoy your explorations in the science of special effects as much as we did.

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