Category Archives: Teaching Moments

The Best Teachers Make Learning Memorable

By Blog Editor Susan Wells

As the summer begins to wind down, parents begin to trek to the stores with supply lists in hand and the summer learning break turns to talk about our education system.

What do teachers do over their summer break? Some take to the classroom to do a little learning themselves. Some of the best of the best travel to Denver for Science in the Rockies, a 3-day hands-on science class taught to teachers by our very own Steve Spangler.

Over 100 teachers from across the country (and a few from across the globe) came to learn how to squeeze a little science, a little laughter and a little engagement into their classrooms this next school year.

As testing pressures increase, budgets shrink and class sizes grow, how do teachers motivate and cultivate learning and thinking inside and out of their classroom?

Preschool is all about hands-on learning – tactiles, imaginative play, color mixing and science centers. But what happens when they trek off to elementary school?

At our elementary school, science and social studies rotate. Two weeks for science, while social studies take a break, then two weeks for social studies. The same is true for arts and culture – art, music and P.E. all rotate. I can’t complain about the “specials” rotation. I’m just glad they are still part of the curriculum.

Those classes are special, but I believe they are as important as math and reading. We want to expose our children to a lot of different experiences, right? Well rounded children are stronger functioning members of society  and have a better chance at being successful in their adult lives than those who only have a few skills.

I understand that teachers have a lot to pack into a day. They are under a lot of pressure to squeeze in a full curriculum that is not only based in essentials of learning but also diverse.

When my oldest was about to enter kindergarten, a local charter school was highly recommended in our area. I went to parent night. Not having any preconceived notions about what was expected outside of my own education, I went in with an open mind.

Yes, this school ranked high on the Colorado standardized tests in math and reading. But where was the rest of the children’s education? Three-fourths of the kindergarten day was dedicated to math and reading. That’s great, but where was the rest of their education? The principal promised that all kindergarteners would be reading at a first grade level by Christmas. They were proud of their reading program.

The kindergarteners had 10 minutes for recess. They had reading and math homework every night. Those test scores will be bright come 3rd grade.

I thought this was great, until they began describing the rest of the program. There wasn’t much time for social studies, science or art. The kids would be so busy learning the important subjects, these lesser important and non-tested subjects would happen in a rotation.  The teachers would sneak an art project in once every three weeks. Creativity once every three weeks…in KINDERGARTEN?

Then they took us on a tour of the school. I did a double take when I saw a graph on the lunchroom wall “______ days of quiet lunch.”

No socializing either.

The principal made a comment about “if you are lucky enough to become a family here…”

I realized at that moment that this school was not for us. I want my children to be strong in reading and math. But I also want them to learn how to learn,  understand about the world we live in, create masterpieces and get to know their friends during lunch.

Teachers have a huge job. Schools and districts have a huge responsibility. Parents have a huge job and responsibility to raise their kids and find the right fit for their children.

My hat is off to the teachers and educators who put children first, who make it memorable and bring the lessons to life. Those teachers who are innovative enough to figure out a way to sneak in a science activity during a birthday cupcake celebration, get their students excited about learning and know how to motivate their students beyond the covers of a book.

Boy Scouts Become Mad Scientists to Earn Science Merit Badge

Twenty-one Boy Scouts from the Mesa, Arizona area recently came together to earn a Merit Badge in Nuclear Science. Yes, Nuclear Science.

This lesson wasn’t as easy as it sounds.

The scouts built electroscopes and cloud chambers to earn their badge.

They also had to learn about radiation, radiation hazards, radiation safety; define terms like “atom,” “gamma ray,” & “beta particle;” construct a 3-D model of an element from the periodic table; and discuss modern particle physics and how nuclear energy is used to make electricity. That’s just the first four bullet points in the checklist of requirements.

Here’s one of the bullet points from the checklist –

Using a radiation survey meter and a radioactive source, show how the counts per minute change as the source gets closer to or farther from the radiation detector. Place three different materials between the source and the detector, then explain any differences in the measurements per minute. Explain how time, distance, and shielding can reduce an individual’s radiation dose.

This isn’t your father’s Boy Scout Merit Badge. In two days the boys worked hard, learned a lot and had a lot of fun.

We were proud to donate Tie Dye Lab Coats to help the scouts get their mad scientist on. We had nothing to do with the rainbow wig.

Congratulations to all of the Boy Scouts and their fearless leaders for a job well done and an amazing lesson in nuclear science.

Tricks and Challenges for the NBC Hit Show Minute to Win It

The producers of the NBC show, Minute to Win It, have called our offices with questions about some of our science tricks that they’ve seen on our weekly appearances on Denver NBC affiliate, 9News. Some of our science experiments like Egg Drop and Tornado Tubes have made it on the show. Here are a few more table tricks and stunts for the producers to use in upcoming episodes –

For more on the Coin Drop Experiment and Inertia Experiments click the links to read the experiments.

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