~Shocking~ Myths

This week my students were giving group presentations on a variety of topics from the “Chemistry, Physics, and Natural Phenomenon,” unit that we are currently studying.  Topics included simple machines, light, types of energy, work, and thunder and lightning.

When assigning groups, I was a little disappointed that what I thought was going to be the easiest topic (thunder and lightning) went to the group of my 5 smartest students. I figured this presentation would be way quicker than the allotted 20 minutes, so I decided to start with it in hopes of making up for time that I knew would be lost with the more complicated topics.

Things started off pretty well, the group explained that lightning occurs due to a difference in charge between the clouds and the ground and why the sound of thunder occurs before moving onto how you can protect yourself during a lightning storm. As the presentation had been going so smoothly, I was only half paying attention when I hear Stella, my best female student, warning of the dangers associated with wearing a red shirt during a storm.

Assuming I had misheard, I asked her to repeat herself, and confirmed that yes, wearing a red shirt makes you a target for lightning to strike.

(I’ve been binge watching House this week)

Trying to be somewhat neutral, I jokingly corrected them saying, “That sounds like a myth about lighting… In America we say that lightning cannot strike the same place twice but this is a myth!”

This created total chaos in the classroom, as the students began arguing that not only can wearing a red shirt put you in danger, but also that lightning cannot in fact strike the same place twice. In an attempt to regain control of the classroom I ended our discussion on lightning and told them that in our next class, we would continue the topic.

I started the next class by creating a full list of things that the students believed make you vulnerable to lighting which included:

  • Wearing a red shirt
  • Eating a mango
  • Standing in a doorway
  • Being in a car
  • Watching TV
  • Talking on a phone (cell phones included)
  • Walking with a dog
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When we watch videos in class, I try to find videos where hearing is more important than seeing, set up my speaker, and gather everyone around my 13″ laptop screen. Luckily, about half the students were skipping class this day so everyone had a good seat. Unluckily for those students who skipped, I gave a pop quiz after this video!

Luckily for me, Brazil apparently experiences more lightning strikes per year than any other country, so there were plenty of resources online for me to use to broach the subject of scientific based lightning safety. I explained that being in a car during a lightning storm is actually very safe, because the tires protect you in the same way wearing shoes protects you from shocks when using a shifty phone charger or electric stove. While I think they more or less bought this explanation, they remained skeptical when I tried explaining that lightning doesn’t know what you’re wearing and doesn’t care what you’re eating. Several students offered personal accounts of their encounters with lightning: one students solemnly stood up and told a story his grandmother was eating a mango during a storm and was struck and killed in 2012. Another student shared how when he was younger he was walking and texting during a thunderstorm and his phone became “red hot” and exploded as he threw it to the ground, and his hands were burned.

I left this class feeling like I may have failed, which was swiftly confirmed when I went home and graded my most recent set of quizzes, which included brilliant responses such as this:

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For those of you who do not speak Portuguese, this question was, “_________ % of the surface of the earth is covered in water?” to which this student responded “100%”

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