Category Archives: Teaching Moments

Are Some Science Educators Playing with Fire? When Does Sharing an Experiment Cross a Line?

By Blog Editor Susan Wells

I am frustrated. As our children grow up, they want to experiment. Explore. Discover. The internet is a wonderful tool to use in their education and growing independence. Growing up, I had to use encyclopedias, libraries, books. Now, everything is at our children’s fingertips. We all know dangers exist on the internet. Today’s kids have to learn how to navigate through the dangers and decipher the pitfalls. But what about when they are researching and learning? What if they are on a website aimed at children and their education? Will they recognize the dangers?

We get numerous requests to share how Steve does the Exploding Pumpkin demonstration. He is very clear that it is a demonstration, not an experiment, and does not give the chemicals or the instructions on how to do it yourself at home. It isn’t a magic trick or a secret. It is dangerous for children.

With knowledge comes power and with power comes responsibility.

Chemistry can be dangerous… and explosive. Mixing chemicals, discovering the flammable elements, and playing with fire; no wonder chemistry also involves safety goggles, hot pads, lab coats and eye wash. Chemistry can also be cool. Making things explode, ignite and react is exciting. And tempting.

That is why chemistry teachers share demonstrations in a controlled, safe environment.

My husband shared stories with me last night about how he experimented with gun powder and fireworks in his youth. He has the burns to prove it. My cousin burned his hand attempting to throw a firework when we were young. Even though we teach them not to, kids are going to play with fire.

Today, I love to see all of the science shows, science channels, science websites, science educators and science talk. But science isn’t just a bunch of explosions and flames.

The internet is currently full of science enthusiasts. Science is buzzing, which is a great thing, except with that buzz comes a lot of imitators and people jumping on the bandwagon.

Just because you know how to make homemade fireworks and fuses, breathe fire, juggle fire or have 4 ways to start a chemical fire without the use of matches, does not mean you should share it. Especially on a blog that is geared towards children and their parents.

And no, a disclaimer at the bottom stating “Wear proper safety gear and work on a fire-safe surface” does not remove your responsibility if someone is hurt. Giving out a recipe for a chemical fire that includes sugar and sulfuric acid is not the responsible act of a science educator.

My dad was a chemist and my brother currently works in a lab. They both have burn scars from chemicals. Some chemicals, like sulfuric acid, will burn through jeans. Just the fumes from some chemicals can burn sinuses. This is not child’s play. Even the pros get hurt.

As a mother, it makes me shudder to think there are children who are finding science lessons online and learning how to scrape match heads with a screw driver to add to a fireworks mixture. That isn’t science education and those are certainly not proper hands-on science experiments for children. We (parents, teachers, online educators) all need to teach our children how to not only dig deeper and explore science but also to respect it. There is so much more to science and chemistry behind just the big boom.

The inexperienced science educator can easily fall into the trap that bigger is better. Bigger fire, bigger boom, bigger audience. But that is not true. One of our most popular experiments is Color Changing Milk. It’s simple, it’s safe and it’s science.

Steve’s Mentos and Diet Coke experiment went viral because it was safe, okay for kids to do and had a wow factor. Not everything has to catch on fire to be cool.

I have a request to all science educators – please be responsible with what you share with all of our children. They have plenty of resources and creativity to get into trouble. They do not need to find recipes for disaster next to recipes for bubble solution. Don’t aim for more page views, buzz or content at the expense of having a child get hurt.

The explosions are cool, but safe learning is where it’s at.


Wild About Rocket Boys – Wilder Elementary Students Honor Homer Hickam's Passion for Science

Houston, we have lift-off! The fourth graders at Wilder Elementary in Littleton, Colorado, invited me to participate in their annual paper rocket launch. This 4th grade unit is inspired by the original rocket boy, Homer Hickam. Instead of using pieces of lead pipe and gun powder, these kid-friendly rockets are made from construction paper, tape and clay… that’s it. No engines or explosives in these rockets – the only fuel was 70 pounds of air pressure.

I first learned how to make the PVC Rocket Launcher several years ago while speaking to teachers at Space Camp for Educators in Huntsville, Alabama. The morning started with each student making their first launch. Some of the rocket designs were great while others just blew up on the launch pad. It was back to the drawing board as the students reanalyzed their designs, fixed the flaws and headed out for the second launch. The success rate for the second launch was well above 80%… and the young rocket engineers were amazed to see their success.

The greatest learning moment of the entire morning was the numerous failures the students experienced on their first attempt.

The students expected success… and when they failed it forced them to re-tool and try again. This hands-on rocket activity is an extension of the normal space unit that is standard at this grade level across the school district. However, the teachers at Wilder take the unit to a new level (pun intended) as they Homer Hickam’s October Sky story and his passion for exploration and discovery as a catalyst for their own students to get engaged in the scientific method. This single lesson does more to drive home the importance of trial and error than anything I’ve seen in years. Best of all, the students write about their successes and failures and reflect on the feelings that they must have shared with the author.

If launching rockets wasn’t fun enough, just wait until the real rocket scientists show up from United Launch Alliance here in Colorado. It also doesn’t hurt to have parents of students who work at ULA and support this style of hands-on learning. Ellen Plese from ULA stopped by to not only show her support but to bring goodies for all of our finalists.

PVC Rocket Launcher at Wilder Elementary

Pranks & Tricks for April Fool's Day

April Fool’s day is this Friday. Do you have your pranks ready to go? Our staff spends the majority of March perfecting their pranking in anticipation of the day. I’d declare April 1st a company-wide holiday, except it’s too much fun to mess with your co-workers. A day off of work would just ruin the “holiday.”

A few of our staffers practiced their tricks last week in our company kitchen using Water Gel, coffee and a little imagination.

Hydrogels, or super absorbant polymers, can absorb over 100x their own weight in water. Farmers and gardeners use it to keep crops and plants hydrated during times of drought. It can also be used as the perfect prop for pranks and magic tricks.

Water Gel, the Sugar Substitute
This prank is incredibly easy to pull off and the look on your victims’ faces are guaranteed to be priceless!

  1. Start by emptying the sugar from it’s container. Be sure to put the sugar into another container so that it can be replaced later. The prank is bound to take a turn from funny to tragic if you waste all that sugar.
  2. Once you have an empty sugar container, fill the container with Water Gel. Try to fill the container to the same level as the sugar you removed. The success of pranks is often in the details.
  3. Replace the lid of the container (if it has one).
  4. Sit back and watch as countless victims fall for your epic April Fool’s prank.

You are responsible for ensuring that your victim doesn’t actually drink the Water Gel. Make sure your prank is fun, and not dangerous.

Check out our April Fool’s Day experiment for two magic tricks to do with Water Gel.

Teacher Brings Love of Science to The Netherlands

Triscia is a high school math teacher from New York City who recently moved to The Netherlands. She began her career as a high school biology and chemistry teacher. In moving to Holland, she has reconnected with her true passion – science.
As Triscia works to learn Dutch and find her way in the school system, she offers free science demonstration lessons. She collaborates with the classroom teacher before to create a lesson plan, incorporate learning strategies and discuss the connections they need to continue with after the demo.
She wrote me recently to share some pictures of a demonstration lesson she gave to a class of 6 to 9 year olds in a Montessori school. Triscia taught a lesson about elements, molecules and states of matter. Triscia says the children were focused for over three hours. When their teacher tried to stop the lesson to give the children their break, they screamed, “No! We want to learn!”
Science is addicting in any language if it is taught with enthusiasm and hands-on lessons.
A special thank you to Triscia for writing us and sharing her story.

Oil Settled to Bottom of Ocean After Gulf Oil Spill

The oil left behind from the Deep Horizon catastrophe on April 20, 2010 is still threatening the Gulf region’s people, economy and environment. During the event, a total of 185 million gallons of oil spilled into the Gulf region. At a glance, the water looks clear and life appears to be returning to normal. Marinas have reopened and fisherman are returning to work. But that’s not the case deep under the surface.

The government is estimating that less than 25% of the oil is still in the area, but scientists say the oil isn’t gone, it has settled at the bottom of the ocean.

According to ABC News, a “mile below the surface in the Gulf of Mexico, there is little sign of life.”

ABC News was given the opportunity to see the impact of last summer’s massive oil spill from the U.S. Navy’s deep-ocean research machine. From the submersible at 5,000 feet down, the ocean floor looks like it is littered with twigs. But the twigs are really dead worms littered inside an 80-square mile kill zone. University of Georgia professor Samantha Joye told ABC News “We’re finding it everywhere that we’ve looked. The oil is not gone, it’s in places where nobody has looked for it.”

According to a story on NPR, another research group also reported finding oil on the ocean floor.  “Researchers at the University of South Florida say they saw oil particles sprinkled on top of the mud. These new findings strongly suggest that it didn’t just drizzle oil — in some places it was a blizzard.”

The region will take years if not decades to recover from the biggest environmental disaster in U.S. history. 2010 will go down as one of the worst years for environmental disasters and natural disasters related to climate change.

TreeHugger.com has a “Timeline of Unfortunate Events” of the oil spill on their website.