Category Archives: Education Today

Jelly Marbles: Oh, the Versatility of Polymers!

I love to play with jelly marbles!  These polymer orbs have so many uses, from play to gardening to home decorating to party fun and who only knows how many other uses!

Just add water!
Just add water!

Who could ever guess that a pinch of tiny rock-hard “things” would grow into beautiful crystal-clear orbs, hundreds of times their original size!

The snow is finally gone and the weather has been spring-like for a few days, and this always makes me want to have fresh flowers in my house.  In my house, fresh flowers in a vase also means getting out the jelly marbles.  The marbles are often used in gardening of all kinds because they are mostly water and will hydrate your plants for weeks.  That’s right.  If there are jelly marbles underneath each of your flowers or vegetables, you can go on vacation and not worry about your garden.  These jelly marbles are also used in dry areas, to help keep the plants hydrated.  But I digress.  Back to ME.

Just a pinch of dried-out jelly marbles in a vase, and in an hour they look like this:

These started out as just a pinch.  Seriously, just a pinch.
These started out as just a pinch. Seriously, just a pinch.

Now, I could have left the flowers in the jelly marbles and they would have been fine.  But I wanted to take the magic a step further.

Now you see 'em, now you don't.
Now you see ‘em, now you don’t.

Oh, the water jelly marbles are still there.  I just added some water.  The clear water jelly marbles are now invisible.  If you put your hand in there, you would feel them; they would feel like eyeballs, but that’s for a Halloween post later on. . . .

When the orbs start to show, that means I need to add more water.

Fresh flowers brighten up  the home, don't you think?
Fresh flowers brighten up the home, don’t you think?

Polymer science is one of my favorite areas, and Spangler Science’s almost-magical Water Jelly Marbles are one of my favorite products.  They’re inexpensive, and a pinch goes a long way.  They’re also indestructible; if you get tired of the way you’ve been using them, just put them in a bowl and let them dry out.  When you’re ready to use them again, add water and they’ll burst into bloom.

Just a little pinch goes a loooong way!
Just a little pinch goes a loooong way!

Why not order some today?  It’s time to think about gardening. and it’s always time for some science play!

Today is St. Patrick’s Day – add a few drops of green food coloring to your vase of orbs!  They take the color beautifully!  Don’t know if you believe that?  Check this out, then:

Seven years old and still going strong!

And who WOULDN’T want a bowl of invisible eyeballs?  But you’ll have to wait for that one.

Education, Connections, and Humpty Dumpty

Sometimes I feel like several different people when I talk or think about education.  Most of me can’t even begin to comprehend how anyone could not want to learn as much as possible, every passing moment.  Some of me can understand how a person can be too exhausted from the labor and stress of a typical day to even think about thinking.  And all of me wonders how people who hate everything about learning can remember to breathe.  Education is too important.  How can a person be too tired to live properly in the universe?

Turn off the TV and pick up a book.  Go outside and do things.  Look around – the world is a beautiful, fascinating place.   Play games.  Playing is learning.  Climb a tree.  TALK to each other.

I write about connections a lot.  Once a person of any age – and it can start in infancy – learns that everything in existence and out of it is connected, the learning will never end.  Things like nursery rhymes (which were not intended for small children, but that’s another topic.) connect to adult literature and history and sociology.  Did you really think Humpty Dumpty was an egg?  I’ve had students who didn’t know a single nursery rhyme, which makes me despise their parents, but that’s another topic, too.  (They were not in the top class, by the way.  Or the average class. Far from it.) Connections.

connections, education


Fairy tales (also never intended for small children) are also a wonderful connection to modern literature, history, and many other topics. (Not the Disney versions – the real ones.) Connections.

Humpty Dumpty, Battle of Colchester, cannon, king, not really an egg
. . . not really an egg. . . .


As for mythology. . . . well, connecting the dots from mythology to science to literature to music to poetry to everything else will give you great works of art, not just a hen and chicks, when you stop and take a good close look at the picture you’ve made by connecting.  Almost everything in the night sky is named for a mythological character, as are most of NASA’s spaceships and a great deal of scientific vocabulary.  Oh, and a great deal of every other kind of vocabulary, too.  Connections.

connections, education


I know there are people who care nothing for learning.  They come home from work or school and sit in front of the TV and cherish their mindless, effortless evenings.  It’s beyond my comprehension.  I’m so sorry for their children – the children who will come to school with no connectable schema – no prior knowledge.  It’s hard to learn anything without something to tie it to.  Shame on these parents.

turn off the TV, education

Educators owe it to the universe to try harder with these poor neglected children, to give them a base on which they can start making the connections necessary to become a learner – an educated person who is curious about the world and never stops trying to find out “why.”

There is no such thing as a subject that exists only unto itself.  Everything is connected to everything else.  You know something about everything.  YOU KNOW SOMETHING ABOUT EVERYTHING.  Just think about that.

contented cowsPlacid contentment is a good thing only if you’re a cow.

ONLY if you’re a cow.

We Can Only Scream If We Have A Voice

Let’s talk about voice.  Let’s talk about connections.  Let’s talk about screaming.

I wear a lot of hats in the course of my days. This past week, I’ve been wearing this one:

Look familiar?  I hope so.  Respect the hat!
Look familiar? I hope so. Respect the hat!

The lesson last Halloween week in my writing labs was “Nobody will hear you unless you have a voice, and you’ll only have a voice if you’ve got something to say.” This ties to my ongoing themes about connections and schema and how everything affects everything else.

One of my favorite experiments is Steve Spangler’s Screaming Balloons. It’s also one of the simplest experiments – you need only two things! – but it can be used in so many different ways.

The science behind the scream is in the inside of the balloon. Depending on what’s inside, you’ll get no sound, a soft sound, a pleasant sound, or a really really loud scream that sounds a lot like those earsplitting vuvuzelas that had to be banned from the Brazilian World Cup!

Just imagine the loud distracting voices coming from this crowd!
Just imagine the loud distracting voices coming from this crowd!

The sound your balloon will make depends entirely on what it’s got on the inside. You know, pretty much like the voice you have depends entirely on what YOU’VE got on the inside.

If you are full of many-faceted connections, your voice will be loud, proud, and well worth listening to. With many-faceted connections, in fact, your voice will be of vital importance, and listening to it will enlighten the people around you who are lucky enough to hear it.  When you use a voice full of schema, people will pay attention.

Now, a Screaming Balloon will not enlighten all the people around it, but it’s a pretty good analogy all the same.

Put a smooth facetless marble, for example, inside the balloon, and it won’t scream. You’ll just hear the round, smooth marble spinnning around and ’round. It won’t have much of a voice because it’s not complicated enough.

But here at Spangler Science, we don’t put voiceless marbles in our balloons. We put hex nuts in them, because the facets on a hex nut will give the balloon enough reason to scream. The complications on the hex nut will give the balloon a voice.  Screaming Balloons definitely have a voice!

The balloon will scream only if there's something inside with a voice!
The balloon will scream only if there’s something inside with a voice!

Wait.  Why was I wearing Professor McGonagall’s hat to school last week?  Besides it’s being Halloween, you mean?  Easy enough.

When I talk about schema, I am also talking about attention.  My beginning writers need to be reminded, over and over, about the importance of paying close attention to, well, everything.  Distractions exist, of course, but letting themselves be easily distracted by things can be disastrous, depending on the context.

Getting distracted while driving can be fatal.  Getting distracted while eating can be messy.  Getting distracted in my writing lab can mean the professor might dump something on your head.

Don’t let the professor distract you too much.

Fair warning.


Jane GoodwinJane Goodwin is a professor of expository writing at Ivy Tech Community College, a hands-on science teacher for College for Kids, a professional speaker and writer, and a social media liaison  for Steve Spangler Science.  She wanted to be a ballerina and an astronaut, but gravity got the better of her.

Jefferson County School District – The Teacher Salary Debate

Our office is located outside of Denver, Colorado. The Jefferson County School District is in our backyard. Teacher sickouts and student protests recently made national news when one of the school board members proposed creating an advisory counsel to review curriculum in AP History classes.

9News - Stand Up for Students Rally
Parents, students, teachers, community members line Wadsworth Boulevard to voice displeasure with recently elected school board majority in Jefferson County.
(Photo: Andy Buck)

Those protests and frustration aimed at the majority board members is only a small part of tensions between the board and the teachers, students, parents and community it serves.

Salary Increases Based on Changing Criteria

The teachers are also unhappy with salary negations with the union. The board majority recently approved salary increases but changed the criteria for how teachers receive the raises. This was without listening to input from the teachers’ union, the teachers and administrators or anyone else.

The board majority of Ken Witt, Julie Williams, and John Newkirk even rejected the findings of an independent fact-finding report that recommended the teachers’ union and district work on a new evaluation system.

Witt said he wants to only reward highly effective teachers – “This is increased compensation. That’s what this discussion is about. It’s not about moving anyone back,” Witt said. “Our experienced teachers, their salary is what it is. We’re talking recognizing effective and highly effective teachers and increasing compensation for those teachers.”

However, the system that currently ranks teachers is unable to clearly evaluate teachers in the way Witt wants.

Jefferson County Education Association President John Ford has expressed concern over this plan.

“Having an evaluation system that does not accurately rate teachers does not help reach our goal of every student being taught by a quality teacher,” explained Ford.

The old step system awarded pay increases based on a scale of years of experience and education. The new criteria awards increases based on last school year’s performance evaluations.

Increases that don’t even restore the teachers’ salaries to where they were five years ago. Budget cuts slashed salaries by 3% in 2009/2010. Those salaries were partially restored, but teachers have not seen an increase since 2010/2011.

Even with this brand new increase, many teachers are still making less in 2014 than they did in 2009.

Changing Expectations for Raises 

Agree or disagree about teacher salaries based on experience or performance, changing HOW a teacher receives their increase without consulting or even informing them to criteria changes until after the fact is wrong.

What would happen in the business world if a company decided to base this year’s pay increases on last year’s performance when expectations were already set that raises would follow a different scale?Jefferson County School District Teacher Salary Disputes

What if your entire job performance and raise was based on one evaluation for 30 minutes of the entire year? Would that be a fair and accurate snapshot of your abilities?

That is primarily what the teachers are upset about. The way in which they are reviewed and base their income changed after the fact.

Teacher Evaluation Rubric 

The current teacher performance rating is not based on anything concrete. Yes, they have a rubric and yes they have an understanding of where they need to be, but the performance criteria is only based on “Highly Effective,” “Effective,” “Partially Effective,” and “Ineffective” rankings. In the past, this was set only as a guideline to help show teachers where they were at in their classroom.

How a principal or other administrator decides to rank that teacher on the rubric is very subjective. Clear definitions of what a highly effective teacher vs an effective teacher looks like do not exist.

The rubric is several pages long and contains a summary of what each performance level could be, but does not give clear directions for what each level actually looks like. How these definitions are interpreted is up to each individual administrator.

How and when teachers are evaluated also varies from school to school and from administrator to administrator. Some teachers are evaluated one time over the course of the entire school year, with the potential to not even receive the feedback until the end of the school year.

Other teachers are evaluated several times over the course of a year with short drop-ins and visits.

Many teachers also know when an administrator will be visiting their class, so they have time to prepare their best lesson for their evaluation.

In any of these scenarios, an administrator will have a difficult time getting a strong sense of what happens in that classroom every day, not just on evaluation day. They may miss teachers who are missing the mark or need additional support. The possibility of misinterpreting a great teacher for a satisfactory teacher is high depending on what’s happening in the classroom when they observe.

Administrators may also miss several of the rubric criteria, because they must grade that teacher in a very limited time frame.

The administrator may never actually see the real teacher in the day to day classroom to gain an accurate view of teaching abilities.

Keep in mind a principal doesn’t just do evaluations and doesn’t have one teacher to evaluate – one school may have 30 teachers or more. The principal and administration must run the school in addition to finding time to evaluate that many employees.

Are Teachers Afraid of Feedback? 

The review system is flawed and must be fixed before salaries are fully linked to performance evaluations. 

The teachers I’ve spoken with are not afraid or against pay being tied to performance. They just want a voice, an accurate rating system and an evaluation that encourages their growth as teachers, not a retroactive iron fist.

Great teachers want to be evaluated and given feedback so that they can improve their skills and abilities: they want to give their students the best education possible. 

If we as a community or society agree that it is important to base teacher pay on performance and not a pay scale, then we must –

1. Allow teachers and administrators to participate in defining the performance rubric and set up clear and defined criteria.

2. Give teachers and administrators the information on how pay will be decided BEFORE it is changed, not after the fact.

3. Give administrators quality time to evaluate their teachers, give them feedback in a timely manner and opportunity to improve where needed.

4. Most importantly – Stop portraying teachers as greedy, manipulative people. Teachers only want what everyone else wants – to be able to support their family with their career, make a difference and live a happy life.

Sure there are incompetent teachers, every profession has bad apples, but the majority of teachers are incredible human beings who dedicate their lives to teaching the young people of our community and preparing them for a successful life. Teachers give back a portion of their own salary to their classroom, work tireless hours, solve childhood dramas on a daily basis, offer emotional support, work in a germ factory, educate and stimulate young minds and so much more. It takes a very special person to become a teacher. Let’s give them the respect and honor they deserve.

What are your thoughts on teacher salaries? Should they be based on scale or performance or both?

What is the salary situation in your school district? How are increases determined?

Denver Post
CBS Local

Hands-on Science at Home: Needless or Necessary?

Some of us grew up with fantastic science teachers. Mrs. Russell, Mr. Steward, and Mr. Landis are names that you won’t necessarily recognize, but they’re the three science teachers I’ve had in my entire lifetime. I will never forget them, because they were and are awesome science teachers. (Forget the fact that I graduated with less than 20 kids in my class and that the last of those teachers is my best friend’s dad, or that my sister married my best friend’s little brother… Hooray small towns!) But some kids will never have that, that’s why you need to get hands-on science at home.

Classroom Thumwar with DJ
I assume that not everyone had the beneficial science teacher experience that I did, but it blows my mind. How can that even be possible? Then I discovered that the “science teacher” is an endangered species.

Especially when it comes to elementary-aged chitlens, there aren’t teachers dedicated to educating 6- to 12-year-olds on the FREAKING AMAZING WORLD OF SCIENCE! If you were to remove science education from my elementary education, I can personally guarantee that I would not have graduated. Math never made sense unless there was a scientific application. Science is the answer to “when will I ever use this?”

Tomorrow. You'll use this tomorrow... what's the squiggly line mean, again?
Tomorrow. You’ll use this tomorrow… what’s the squiggly line mean, again?                            (Source)

I’m definitely NOT saying that the current teachers being tasked with educating the youth on science are incompetent. They’re already stretched beyond their means, for Bill Nye’s sake. I’m saying that science deserves its own special time, teacher, and even room in the school. I want to scream, because it isn’t getting the attention it deserves.

When I worked in customer service here at Steve Spangler Science, I cannot count on all of my fingers and toes how many times I heard that there’s no budget for science, or that it is being cut, or that teachers had to squeeze it into after-school programs. DEAR SCHOOL BOARDS: Science is the reason that there is a school in the first place, that your children aren’t dropping dead from small pox, and is the basis of all advancement for our planet.

Math = important. Language = important. History = important. Science = meh.

Yeah. That looks super boring and unimportant.
Yeah. That looks super boring and unimportant.

That just doesn’t add up. And again, I’m not arguing importance of anything except science, here. Without language, how could results be replicated? Without math, how would we understand measurements necessary to science? And history… well, there’s the whole saying about it repeating itself. Then there’s science, down at the bottom of the budget list below the coffee expenses.

But, as we’ve seen in recent history, schools take for-eh-ver to change their ways, and the government takes even longer. So how do you inject science into your children’s education? YOU have to do it. You don’t need to home school your kids, but I’ve got all kinds of props for parent/teacher hybrids that I like to call Parajucators. But, take some time out after dinner, before bed, or when the kids get home from school to do some hands-on science.

I'm partial, but may I kindly suggest...
I’m partial, but may I  suggest…

Don’t have a lot of dough for science supplies? You don’t need it! There are plenty of simple experiments, projects, and activities that can be done right at home and there are plenty of resources to go off of… *cough* *cough*

I’m not going to toot my own horn. Instead, I’m going to conduct the entire band. Have you seen our Sick Science videos? They’re less than 10 minutes long, every time, and walk you through the steps of simple hands-on science projects to do at home. Worried about cost? You probably have well over 90% of what you need right at home!

I’ve spent over 4 years writing the step-by-step instructions for our write-ups, but when I finally started doing the activities with my 6- and 8-year-olds at home, I realized just how easy it is to get them excited about ciencia (that’s science in Spanish). Now, even if there just isn’t time for the actual hands-on experience, they mix in science how-to videos with all of their usual video games and talking cats. Your kids can do it, too, I bet. But I don’t gamble.



Fresh Prince of the Science Fair.
Writer for Steve Spangler Science.
Dad of 2. Expecting 1 more.
Husband. Amateur adventurer.

Expert idiot.