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How I gained my students' respect by experimenting on myself

Updated: Jul 19, 2023

Some teachers happily embarrass themselves by dancing on stage or allowing their students to shave their heads for charity. They do this because making themselves vulnerable fosters respect and improves student morale. I'm not much of a dancer and I already shave my head, so running experiments on myself was my way of gaining some clout in the classroom, especially early in my career when I needed all the help I could get.

Human guinea pig wearing a lab coat
Source - Midjourney

How it all started

When I first began teaching biology, I knew I wanted my students to design many of their own experiments. There's nothing wrong with doing prescribed labs with straightforward procedures, but I find that students simply learn more and are more invested when they have to research, plan and execute an investigation themselves. We ran into a problem, however, when I asked students to design experiments for a human physiology unit that they would then carry out on themselves. There were all sorts of fantastic proposals, involving blood, sweat, and probably tears, but unfortunately, most of them were too unethical to expect kids to do in a school setting. I didn't want to stifle their creativity, however, so I made a seemingly harmless suggestion - they could test me instead. I would become the class guinea pig.

"Whatever you do to gain (and keep) your students' respect, it's one of the most fundamental things you need to learn as a new teacher, and something they rarely, if ever teach you how to do."

Innocent beginnings

I didn't know what I was getting into, honestly. Many of the students had initially proposed fairly benign experiments, but as soon as I became the test subject, they started making much more demanding tasks. How would my body respond to wearing just one layer of clothing in the cold? What would happen if I stopped eating for a week? Could I function with no sleep at all? Yes, they really went to town thinking of all the ways they could torture me in the name of science, and for the most part, I was game. This all started years ago before I had a family, so I was pretty flexible outside of school. Still, I insisted on rigorous scientific standards and detailed planning. If I was going to consume dangerous levels of caffeine or exercise intensely for days on end, we were going to learn something from it!

The process

I had each of my classes rewrite their proposals. This time they presented their ideas, discussed them as a class, and chose one or two for me to carry out. Each experiment would last one week with a recovery week in between, which meant that I was busy doing this nonsense for about a month each year. Throughout the process, I made journal entries and videos of my progress. Afterward, each student was tasked with writing a full lab report based on the data we collected.

The results

It was an instant hit. Students delighted in taking measurements and seeing how I was doing. Kids from different classes were talking about their experiments. There was also a sense of pride for the students whose proposals had been selected for me to carry out as we referred to them by name ("so-and-so's experiment"). Eventually, other teachers found out what I was up to and probably enjoyed watching me torture myself as well.

I ran these sorts of experiments annually for a number of years, and they were always a highlight of each course I taught. I still have all of the proposals and reports, which is why I can tell you that no, I didn't end up drinking 3 liters of milk a day or wearing an eye patch (although I kind of like the idea of being a pirate). Of the experiments I did complete, I was able to function (barely) for a week with an average of only 2.71 hours of sleep, although my reaction time nearly doubled and I had trouble doing any sort of mental calculation. I also recall my students getting a kick out of me dozing off at my desk. During another experiment, I almost made it through a week without eating and lost more than 4kg (nearly 10 pounds!), but I cheated on the last day while on a hiking field trip.

Do what works for you

After a few years of teaching, I found other ways of gaining my students' respect and decided to stop subjecting myself to these experiments, but I still think back on them fondly and I'm willing to bet many of my former students do as well. While I'm not suggesting that every science teacher allows their students to experiment on them, I think that used sparingly under the right circumstances, it can be a very effective means of engaging your students and building positive relationships. It certainly worked for me! Whatever you do to gain (and keep) your students' respect, it's one of the most fundamental things you need to learn as a new teacher, and something they rarely, if ever teach you how to do.

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