“Hallway Science Displays”
Science is too interesting to keep it
cloistered in the classroom! For almost 30 years, we have been sharing
the wonders of nature with others in our school through the use of
display cases and exhibits located outside the classroom. While doing
science in the hallway or other non-traditional settings may seem a bit
unorthodox, this form of informal education beckons members of the
entire school community to learn just how interesting and enjoyable
science can be.
Science displays are always a favorite of parents attending a school’s
open house. Adults are always interested in seeing what goes on in their
son or daughter’s school, and science displays provide one window into
the school’s academic program. Parents often comment that the science
displays are the highlight of the open house.
Our first involvement in hallway science displays occurred when we
realized that the primary use of our school’s display cases was to store
and display trophies. Many cases were not used at all. It occurred to us
that we might be able to use these showcases as extensions of the
classroom. Our very first effort revealed that a science showcase
attracts both science students and non-students alike. In fact, we learned that
the display case is an excellent way of introducing non-science students
to the wonders of the various scientific disciplines. Students often
spend their passing periods trying to understand some phenomenon that to
them seems paradoxical or a violation of common sense.
Interactivity is the key to a good display. Doing, not just looking and
reading, engages both hands and minds. Furthermore, the more open-ended
an activity, the better. Individuals should be able to view the
apparatus as a vehicle of discovery and feel free to ask, “what will
happen if I do this or that.” As you’ll see, even displays behind glass
can be interactive.
The following examples of hallway exhibits and display cases have been
very popular with our students. While inexpensive and simple to build
and use, they have provided hundreds of students of all ages with a
great deal of pleasure and perhaps a desire to learn more about the
wonderful world in which they live. Hopefully, these exhibits will get
you thinking about ways of decking your halls with science!
The Art of Good Science Displays
Polarization Tape Art Display Case
Some transparent tapes separate white light into its component colors
when sandwiched between two polarizing filters. Using clear packing tape
and a pair of polarizing filters, your students can create beautiful
colored designs reminiscent of cubist art and stained glass windows.
The colors produced depend on the thickness of the tape. Tape is cut
into desired shapes and layered on a transparent substrate such as a
blank overhead transparency. By varying the number of tape layers in
each region, a full palate of color is available to the budding
In a recent display case, student-produced tape designs were displayed
on a light table borrowed from the art department. The tape art was
placed on a sheet of polarizing film that covered the stage of the light
table. When visitors viewed the artwork through a hand-held Polaroid
filter (available outside the display case, loose or tethered with
string) brilliant colors were observed. Rotating the polarizing filter
produced dramatic changes in the observed colors. Oohs and aahs were
frequently heard coming from passers by who stopped to view the display.
Making polarization tape art may be used as a culminating activity after
studying light and color in physics class or as an inter-disciplinary
project. For example, we brought physics and art students together for a
week so that the “two cultures” could gain both a knowledge and
appreciation of what are usually considered to be disparate disciplines.
Sharing the finished artwork through a hallway exhibit allows all to
enjoy the marriage of art and science.
Light will pass through two polarizing filters with
their axes of polarization aligned. However, when two polarizing filters
have their polarizing axes "crossed" (i.e., at right angles), no light
will be transmitted.
For Information on Polarizing film click here!
and Illusions Display Case
Click here for information on Einstein!
You can find more ideas for illusions in
CoolStuff #11 The Haunted Physics Lab.
The possibilities for designing a display case on visual perception are
endless! Perhaps the simplest approach is to use printed illusions.
Figures and photos of visual illusions found in books may be
photocopied. Engaging posters may be purchased in both shops and on the
Internet. Suggestions for viewing the images along with brief
explanations of the illusions are recommended. While not physically
interactive, a display of illusory images has the power to engage and
Simple three-dimensional exhibits may also be incorporated into the
illusion display case. A collection of reverse masks makes for a great
display! We are accustomed to seeing convex faces so it is not
surprising that when presented with a concave face, we unconsciously see
what we expect to see. The reverse Einstein mask shown here certainly
appears to be in relief even though it’s not. But there’s more! When you
walk by the face, it appears to follow you. A simple yet effective
reverse mask results from viewing the concave side of an inexpensive
plastic mask. The effect is often best if the mask is white. Filling a
display case with a number of these masks makes for a most eerie
Pipes of Pan
A trip to the carpet store was the genesis of the giant ambient noise
resonators or Pipes of Pan, as they are sometimes called. Eight carpet
tubes mounted on a plywood base became the basis for a rather strange
musical instrument. Based on the principle of resonance, the air in each
tube vibrates with a frequency determined by the length of the tube. The
background noise in a room contains virtually all audible frequencies,
and is capable of creating resonant vibrations in each of the tubes.
We simply put our Pipes of Pan in our school’s central hallway and allow
people to explore. A sheet with suggestions for use and a brief
explanation of the apparatus is provided. Needless to say, the unusual
musical instrument is almost always in use.
As is seen in the photograph, a person placing their ear near the end of
one of the tubes hears a definite pitch. Moving from one tube to the
next in succession, the listener hears a musical scale. Some people try
to play a simple tune by rapidly jumping from one tube to the next.
To make your own Pipes of Pan, ask your local carpet installer for
carpet tubes. The carpet tubes should have a combined length of at least
8 m (roughly 24 ft). This length allows for loss that will occur during
cutting. The tubes should be cut to the lengths in the chart below. The
chart also shows the corresponding note and resonant frequency for each
tube. The tubes may be painted (optional) and attached to a sheet of
plywood with small bolts. The tubes may also be simply placed on a
tabletop with end stops to prevent rolling.
For ready-made sound tubes, check out
This Exploratorium-inspired exhibit is visual ambiguity set in motion.
As you stare at the shadow of a slowly rotating cube, you notice that it
mysteriously appears to reverse its direction of rotation. A quick check
of the actual cube reveals that it motion is unchanging. What gives?
Rotational ambiguity arises when the three-dimensional cube is
compressed to a two-dimensional projection, removing important visual
cues. Finding either direction of rotation equally acceptable, the mind
perceives the cube to rotate in one direction, then the other.
As the photo indicates, the exhibit is very simple. A cube fashioned
from balsa or soda straws is suspended from a slow turning motor. A
slide projector is used to form a shadow of the cube on a translucent
screen. Our screen is made of muslin. PVC pipe may be used to form the
support for the screen and the motor, but ring stands also work quite
well. Two ring stands support the muslin screen while a third ring stand
and clamp hold up the motor and cube assembly.
This device may be modified slightly for Halloween. Replacing the cube
with a dangling plastic skeleton adds an additional creepy element to an
already eerie display.
Interactive Bubble Machine
Who doesn’t like to blow bubbles? With the interactive bubble machine,
students can blow bubbles of unimaginable proportions. They can also
study the beautiful colors produced by thin film interference as well as
standing waves on the surface of the film.
As the figure shows, the device consists of a PVC frame supported by a
wooden base. A PVC rod, attached to a rope that passes over a pulley at
the top of the frame, is lowered into a tank of bubble solution. When
the horizontal rod is retracted from the solution, a sheet of soap film
is produced that fills the space between the upright poles of the frame.
The exact dimensions of the frame are not important. The tank, an
inexpensive plastic flower box, is filled with a bubble solution that
consists of one part Joy or Dawn dishwashing detergent and six parts
water (Note: you may wish to experiment with the bubble solution so as
to obtain optimal results). Two lengths of fishing line are used to keep
the horizontal dipping rod in the plane of the device’s frame. The two
lengths of fishing line attach to the top of the frame, an anchor in
the tank, and pass through holes drilled at each end of the horizontal
We have used the bubble machine in a variety of venues and found it to
be one of those things people can’t keep their hands off of. We have
placed the device in the hallway, at the back of the classroom, and,
with certain modifications, in a display case. Regardless of the
setting, everyone feels challenged to produce the largest bubble. As the
figure shows, this can often be achieved with two people blowing on the
If the bubble machine is placed in the hallway, the floor can become
slippery due to spilled bubble solution. To circumvent this problem, we
purchased a rubber mat with holes in its surface that allow for
References for this issue of CoolStuff:
J. Pizzo, Interactive Physics Demonstrations
(American Association of Physics Teachers, College Park, MD, 2001)
New Trier Connections
Did you know that....
Arbor Scientific now supports these great
textbooks from Prentice Hall with planning resources, lab equipment and
Click the link on the right to select the
textbook you're using. The Arbor Scientific Prentice Hall Resource
Center has exactly the equipment and supplies you need to enhance your
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Concepts in Action
Physical Science Explorations
In the next issue of CoolStuff…
In our next issue of
CoolStuff, we'll once again welcome guest author Patty Carlson. At New
Trier High School, Patty is known for her ability to make chemistry come
alive. Her flair for great demonstrations and labs certainly comes
through in the upcoming collection of activities illustrating properties
of matter. I know you'll enjoy sharing these marvels with your students!
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