The Book of Potentially Catastrophic Science

What You Need


Per student group:

  • 20-gallon lightweight black trash bag
  • Twist tie
  • Scissor
  • String
  • Small toy soldiers or animals
  • Hair dryer
  • Stop watch
  • Meter stick

In addition, you may want to provide an electronic scale for the students who wish to weigh their balloons or other items.

The Book of Potentially Catastrophic Science


To help students engage in the scientific processes of inquiry, teamwork, and communication by learning about and doing an experiment about one of the major scientific and technological breakthroughs that have occurred over the past two million years of human history.


This lesson uses the book, The Book of Potentially Catastrophic Science, by Sean Connolly. This book is one of the winners of the 2011 SB&F Prize for Excellence in Science Books. SB&F, Science Books & Films, is a project of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

As students learn science in school, they learn a great deal of content and information about the natural world. Great science teachers always make connections between the new knowledge that they are gaining and students’ prior knowledge, as well as bridging connections between what is learned in the classroom with what the students actually experience in everyday life. Part of learning science, however, is actually doing science. Science is a way of thinking about the world using skills of observation, logical reasoning, and inquiry. These skills are not just important in scientific careers, but across the spectrum of a new global economy. As we encourage our students to pursue and learn science, it is also important to emphasize the competencies and skills they need to develop the habits of mind of an engaged citizenry. In this light, the nature of science is about discovery, curiosity, imagination, and collaboration. Students are naturally engaged in these processes outside of the classroom, through their personal interactions with the environment and perhaps through out-of-school time programs. As middle-school teachers, how do we help develop these skills in our science class and encourage students to bridge the wonderment of exploration that is often happening outside of the classroom with in-school learning?

This lesson for grades 6-8 helps answer this question by making use of The Book of Potentially Catastrophic Science, a collection of science experiments that can be performed at home and in school. The author, Sean Connolly, builds the book around the theme of major scientific and technological breakthroughs that have occurred over the past two-plus million years of human history—arranged from the first stone tools crafted by Homo erectus to the Large Hadron Collider now being used to accelerate particles to speeds approaching that of light. Each of the 34 chapters comprises descriptions of a scientific advance and its context, the science behind it, and one or more experiments that demonstrate underlying principles.

In his introduction, Connolly states, “Luckily, a small minority of the world’s population has had the curiosity, patience, and nerve to try out new ideas anyway” (p. xi). Arguably, young people are naturally engaged in these skills yet these principles are not always valued by the structures of our school curriculum. As you engage students in this wonderful book, remind them that they are already practicing these skills in their everyday life. The goal of this lesson is not to teach students new skills that they have never practiced, but to draw out and identify the natural scientist within each of them that already exists.

In this lesson, students work in scientific teams to engage in an experiment from the book as an exploration of a scientific or technological breakthrough. As students work together, they are asked to consider how the breakthrough has been of benefit to humanity and how it could be potentially catastrophic. Because students are working on an experiment they can do at home and with household supplies, this lesson lends itself to being used for producing science fair projects and as an introduction to the nature of science.

Ideas in this lesson are also related to these concepts found in the Common Core State Standards:

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RST.6-8.3 Follow precisely a multistep procedure when carrying out experiments, taking measurements, or performing technical tasks.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RST.6-8.7 Integrate quantitative or technical information expressed in words in a text with a version of that information expressed visually (e.g., in a flowchart, diagram, model, graph, or table).
Read More

Planning Ahead

You can view a short video about the book and youth doing some of the experiments at the Scholastic Book Clubs Book Talk'n: Book of Potentially Catastrophic Science.

You also can listen to an interview with the Sean Connolly by the hosts of BookTalks, Heather Malcomson and Sherman Suter.

For this lesson, you will need at least one classroom copy of The Book of Potentially Catastrophic Science.


Have students individually write a response to this prompt: “Describe a time when you challenged yourself to do something new or daring. How did you feel before the experience? How did you feel after the experience?”

Ask students to share their reflections by either reading out loud to the entire class or sharing with a partner.

As students share their responses, you may want to write down key words that come up in their readings. For example, students may use the words “daring, scared, challenging, something new, never before, etc.” After the sharing, tell students that all of them have had the opportunity to do or try something new. The reasons we challenge ourselves to do these things are often due to curiosity and a desire to know something. Science is a way of understanding the world around us—the sky, the ground, the plants, the rocks, other animals, and so on. The reasons we have some of these answers is because people are always curious and asking questions. Tell students that these are the same things that drive them to try a new food, go on a new ride at the amusement park, turn over a stone, or pick up a new instrument. It’s all a way of challenging oneself to find an answer about the world. Sometimes the goal isn’t to find out the “right” answer, but to see what you can discover.

Show students a classroom copy of Sean Connolly’s The Book of Potentially Catastrophic Science, describing how the book includes examples of people over time who have tried new things to answer questions, even when answering the question could be potentially dangerous or risky. Students should use their Sean Connolly student esheet to listen to an interview with Sean Connolly and answer questions from the esheet.

Discuss these questions:

  • Where did Sean come up with the ideas for the experiments?
    (He came up with the ideas on his own, from friends, and his family.)
  • What was the first book that Sean wrote?
    (It was the Book of Irresponsible Science.)
  • Why did Sean choose “catastrophic” in this book’s title?
    (There was the potential of catastrophe at the heart of all the breakthroughs of the discoveries.)


Begin by telling students that human beings have been trying things out for over two million years. Show them pictures of various Oldowan tools from Oldowan & Acheulean Stone Tools. These are the oldest known stone tools. Ask students:

  • What types of breakthroughs did human beings have with these tools? (Responses could include hunting, cleaning, removing fur and skin, cutting, etc.)
  • What kinds of things could human beings potentially do with these breakthroughs? (They could eat new animals, cut new plants, use fur and skin in new ways, sew, etc.)
  • How could developing these tools be potentially catastrophic? (The tools could potentially be used for violence against other humans or animals unjustly.)

Share with students that technologies and breakthroughs in science have the potential to be both useful and catastrophic. Ask students for other examples of technological or scientific advances that can be used in either way. Students may mention the use of fossil fuels, explosives, genetics, etc.

Tell students to think about flight. Ask students:

  • How many people have been on an airplane before?
  • Before airplanes, how did people travel? How did people fly?
  • Has anyone here gone on a hot-air balloon ride? What was the experience like?
  • How do you think hot-air balloons work?
  • Why do you think people were afraid of hot-air balloons as a form of travel? What might have been some of the risks?

Use “The Montgolfiers’ Hot-Air Balloon” story on page 109 of the book to provide some background to your discussion. Students could read the story themselves or you can go through it as a class. Tell students to imagine that they, as a class, are trying to convince others that they can take people into the air on a basket attached to a balloon. Why might it be important to do a small-scale experiment first? Why did the Montgolfiers run their hot-air balloon ride with animals before humans?

Organize students into groups and tell them that they will work in teams to design an experiment that will help convince people that hot-air balloons really can be used to transport people. Provide the supplies listed in the Materials section to the entire class (not to each group) based on experiment 19 on page 114 in the book.

Using the Hot-Air Balloon Design student sheets, students should work in teams to design an experiment that will help show that hot-air balloons really can be used to transport people or animals in a safe way. You can refer to the Hot-Air Balloon Design teacher sheet for suggestions on how students can do the experiment.


Have each group present the results of their experiment to one another. In addition, ask students to answer the assessment questions on their student sheets to describe and discuss their experiment. Make sure they explicitly discuss their reasoning and how they are daring young scientists taking on potentially catastrophic science!

  • What is air made of?
    (Air is made of mostly nitrogen and oxygen atoms. These are invisible gases that move around in the atmosphere.)
  • Draw a picture of the air inside your balloon at the beginning of the experiment.
    (Refer to the drawing on page 112 of the book to show students how molecules at normal temperature are moving but crowded together. Be sure to emphasize that the molecules of gas are still moving, but that they are close to one another.)
  • Draw a picture of the air inside your balloon as it was rising.
    (Refer to the second drawing on page 112 of the book. This shows that when the same molecules of air are heated up, the space between them becomes greater because they are moving around quicker. This means that the same molecules are taking up a greater amount of space when warm than when they were cooler and that makes them less dense.)
  • Describe why heat was needed for the air inside the balloon.
    (Heat was needed to warm up the molecules inside of the balloon or trash bag.)
  • How far were you able to transport your “passenger” in your hot-air balloon?
    (Answer will depend on the student responses.)
  • How long was your balloon in the air?
    (This will depend on the student responses.)
  • How might you be able to make your balloon go farther? Go higher?
    (Encourage students to think about other sources of heat, such as fire or the sun. Also encourage them to think about other materials for the balloon.)
  • Describe two ways that your experiment is “risky” or “potentially catastrophic” for transporting humans or animals.
    (Accept student responses. Refer to the catastrophes described on page 111 of the book.)

Ask students to think about how hot-air balloons, and other forms of transport, can be both incredibly helpful as well as potentially catastrophic. For example, on page 11 of his introduction, Sean Connolly states, “Helicopters have become airborne gunships in modern warfare, but they also airlift injured people from the wilderness and get relief to disaster areas.”


Follow up this activity with one of these Science NetLinks lessons:

If students were particularly engaged by one of the activities, have students explore the topic in more depth, with special attention to the history of the advancement.

Funder Info
Science NetLinks is proud to have Subaru as a funder of this project.

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Lesson Details

Grades Themes Type Project 2061 Benchmarks National Science Standards