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Technology Integration

Harnessing the Educational Potential of TikTok in Science Classes

For many science teachers, TikTok serves as a useful library of inspiration for in-class discussions, experiments, and student inquiry.

August 18, 2023

When Greg Wolf’s middle school science students recommended that he film his class experiments and post them on TikTok, he initially thought it was a silly idea. TikTok, Wolf believed, was a space for teen dance videos. “I didn’t even remotely realize there was educational content to be found on the platform,” Wolf says.

But after finding a trove of excellent videos made by educators, Wolf changed his tune. Now, the recently retired science teacher from Vermont is a content creator himself and uploads TikTok explainers and experiments to an audience of over 300,000 followers. Wolf’s recent videos include a 40-second breakdown of just how fast the speed of light is and a demonstration of potential and kinetic energy using Popsicle sticks.

Many K–12 science teachers are following suit, visiting TikTok to showcase their own experiments, explain scientific concepts to their followers, and recommend lesson ideas to fellow teachers. Other teachers are turning to the app as a source of inspiration for lessons, such as potential experiments to re-create—or debunk—in class.

According to educators, when used correctly, TikTok can serve as a means for science teachers to distill complex concepts, bolster lessons, and engage students in the process of scientific thinking and inquiry through a medium that many of them are already using on a daily basis.

Here are some of the ways that science teachers told Edutopia they are using TikTok in the classroom.

A Library of Science Experiments

Teachers looking to find compelling experiments on TikTok can type relevant keywords into the platform’s search bar, scroll through the app’s new dedicated STEM feed, or follow the accounts of other science teachers to get notified about new posts from trusted sources.

After finding an interesting experiment, teachers have options. If it’s simple enough, some will go ahead and re-create the experiment with their students. Savannah Brown, an eighth-grade science teacher in North Carolina, told Edutopia that she recently illustrated the concepts of force and motion to her students by using spring-loaded pull-back cars—an idea she found in a popular TikTok video.

For experiments that are too difficult, too dangerous, or too expensive to pull off in class, teachers also find value in showing TikTok videos of them during lessons to expose students to scientific concepts and phenomena.

“Often teachers don’t have the lab equipment to perform certain experiments in the class for students,” says Josh Kenney, a high school chemistry teacher in Michigan. “So I do a lot of demos, but I’ll use others’ videos to demonstrate a lot of the things that I can’t.” Kenney follows these video demos with elaboration activities, like having students sketch or write out possible explanations, before wrapping up with a full-class discussion.

Showing someone else’s TikTok experiment “is almost like free prep work,” Wolf explains. “Somebody went into my back lab, mixed up my chemicals for me, and now they’re presenting this quick little experiment,” saving both time and resources. Given the vast amount of content available on TikTok, Wolf says, it’s possible to show students a short video of the exact chemical reaction they need to understand. “Then I can tell you how it worked, why it worked, and what they didn’t talk about,” Wolf says.

Getting Kids to Fill In the Gaps

Most TikToks are under 60 seconds. That doesn’t sound like much, but Kenney likes this conciseness.

In fact, he actively seeks out videos of experiments that don’t give a complete explanation of what just happened. “I can use those videos to introduce a phenomenon or to introduce a topic, and then we can have a discussion,” Kenney says. “Why do you think this happened? And what can we do in our class to test that?” To Kenney, TikTok videos serve as useful discussion starters; he often pushes his high school students to use higher-order critical thinking to fill in the information that the video left out.

For example, Kenney uses a one-minute TikTok at the start of a class in his “gas laws” unit, in which a bottle rocket filled with water and liquid nitrogen rapidly takes off. Kenney starts by playing it without sound; “I don’t want students to hear how it works; I want them to think of ideas for how it works.”

Then, Kenney has students break into small groups to discuss why they think the phenomenon in the video occurred the way it did and create molecular diagrams to support their explanation. Once each group has presented their ideas, Kenney plays the video a second time—now with sound—and asks the groups to revise their explanations, before holding a broader class discussion to dispel any lingering misconceptions.

Elementary teachers can follow a similar approach, says Nancy Bullard, a K–5 science lab teacher in North Carolina and popular TikTok content creator with over 3 million followers.

Bullard uploads fun and easy-to-replicate science experiments—like a recent 40-second video on how to make a “DIY fire extinguisher” with baking soda, vinegar, a plastic bottle, and a balloon. Bullard suggests that instead of simply playing full TikToks in class, teachers tease out learning by showing students the first five to 10 seconds of a video and pausing it before anything substantial is revealed. “Pique their interest. Engage them in this lesson, and then have them go make their predictions,” she says.

Bullard argues that students will be compelled to think critically and use their prior knowledge of concepts, chemical properties, or reactions to try to predict what’s likely to happen next, rather than having all the information handed to them at the outset. Wait until the end of class to play the rest of the video or re-create the experiment yourself, Bullard advises.

Think Like a Scientist

Some teachers might be hesitant to use TikTok out of fear of stumbling across the misleading information lurking on the platform. But teachers like Kenney make it instructive: “That’s why I like TikTok,” he says. “Because it has misinformation. That’s super-valuable in an educational setting.”

Kenney suggests actively searching for phony TikTok experiments to show in class, then asking students to break into groups to analyze whether the videos seem legitimate. Kenney notes that this aligns with the instructional framework of “CER”: getting students to identify and evaluate claims, evidence, and reasoning.

Ariel Lane, an educational consultant and former middle school science teacher in Georgia, says her former students would notice small things that seemed fishy about TikTok experiments—like an ice cube tray being one color when it entered a freezer and a different color when it came out, which might suggest that some of the materials were manipulated. To further test the authenticity of experiments, Lane’s students re-created them. This, Lane says, allowed students to engage in complex work and introduced them to the important scientific concept of replicability—used by the larger scientific community to confirm the validity of findings.

After watching a video on the Mpemba effect, the phenomenon whereby hot water actually freezes faster than cold water, Lane’s students conducted their own version of the experiment with ice cubes at home. The next day, they discussed the process: what variables they held constant, what variables they changed, and whether their outcomes lined up with that of the video.

TikTok as Professional Development

Educators say TikTok has gradually become a space for teachers to learn from each other and build relationships. In high school chemistry, Kenney says, “we kind of all do the same demos and labs, but every once in a while someone’s got a better take on it, and they’ll put that out there on TikTok.”

Many teachers reach out to content creators directly to solicit advice on how to pull off an experiment in the classroom, says Phil Cook, a high school chemistry teacher in Indiana whose TikTok account has close to 4 million followers. “They’ve said, ‘I really want to try this experiment. Can you give me a little bit more detail?’”

The app can also help teachers better connect with students. “It does increase your street cred to be able to say to your kids, ‘I’m on TikTok’ or ‘I use TikTok’ or ‘Here, let’s watch a TikTok,’” Wolf says. “I mean, that’s where their lives are.”

To take advantage of that intrinsic engagement, Lane suggests allowing students to find relevant videos to share in class. To ensure that a video is worthwhile, ask students to make the case for how it is connected to a skill or a concept you’re working on. If the video is relevant, Lane suggests attempting to incorporate it into a lesson.

“A lot of times, we just kind of disregard videos they show us,” Lane says. “But try to look deeper and consider, ‘Wow, wait a minute—this could be something we talk about as a class.’”

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