Should magic tricks be used as a way to teach science in today’s classrooms? This question and about a dozen more were asked of me during an interview for an international magazine for the Society of American Magicians. The author of the article, Lindsay Smith, wanted to know my thoughts on a current trend in science assemblies and before-and-after school science classes being offered in many elementary schools throughout the U.S. The issue for magicians is one of exposure – teachers or science demonstrators who are exposing secrets of magic in an attempt to teach science.
What are your thoughts on this? You can read an excerpt from the interview that appeared in the September issue of M-U-M by clicking on the “more” link below. Should science demonstrators / teachers use tricks from a magic shop to teach science?
Excerpts from the article by Lindsay Smith in the September issue of M-U-M for the Society of American Magicians:
The most important distinction between the science entertainer and a professional magician lies in what happens after the trick is performed. The magician concludes the effect to a nice round of applause and segues into his next effect. The science entertainer, on the other hand, poses the question to his audience, “So, do you want to know how this works?” Applause is replaced with screams of “YES!” as the science entertainer proceeds to share the “science” behind the secret. I use the term “science” in the loosest sense because anything can fall under the auspices of teaching science.
I recently attended a meeting for science teachers in California where a science entertainer shared the basic elements of his school assembly program with a packed room of teachers. After using a Dove Pan and some Flash Paper to magically make “science candy”, he posed this question to the audience members, “So, how do you think that was done?” He solicited a number of “predictions” and then proceeded to expose the workings of the Dove Pan. “You see, magic is nothing more than a clever adaptation of science. Friction and some spring-loaded clips are used to hold the upper pan in place. Since magicians can’t really do magic, they have to misdirect you with things like Flash Paper, a chemically treated paper that burns without leaving any ashes. This gives the magician the perfect chance to put the lid on top of the fire”¦ and presto”¦ the candy appears. See, magic is nothing more than a bunch of scientific principles you can learn in school. And that’s how the show started.
Bottom line… these science entertainers are looking for anything that is interactive, amazing, funny and has a gee-whiz factor.
Should magicians be mad about this kind of exposure? Sure”¦ it’s our natural response to be upset, but let me suggest that it’s our own fault. As magicians we are eager to open magic shops (especially on-line stores) and to sell almost anything to the public. We even go so far as to write books and star in our own DVDs that showcase our best practices when it comes to performing the material. As long as we continue to openly sell the tricks of our trade to anyone (that means non-magicians) with a credit card, we really don’t have grounds for much of a complaint. Please don’t take this the wrong way”¦ I understand our age-old oath of secrecy and our concerns about exposure, but try explaining that the person who wants more material for their upcoming school show – material that you’re willing to sell to anyone – and they’re willing to pay the asking price.
FULL ARTICLE FROM THE SAM MAGAZINE – Reprinted with Permission
Steve Spangler wears a number of professional hats. He’s the founder of Steve Spangler Science, a Denver-based on-line and catalog business specializing in the sales and development of science-education teaching tools and specialty toys. A mass-market division called Be Amazing! Toys manufactures science toys and kits for retailers such as Toys “R” Us, the Discovery Channel Store, and Target. Spangler’s work on television over the past 15 years has earned him an Emmy, and his weekly science segments are seen by over a million viewers both on television and on-line at youtube.com/stevespanglerscience. Steve also has a B.S. degree in chemistry and 11 years experience teaching science in a Denver-area school system, providing him with excellent credentials in that discipline.
Of greater importance — for purposes of this interview conducted by Lindsay Smith, President of the Mile High Magicians Society Assembly 37 — Mr. Spangler is a professional magician who grew up in a family of magicians. Steve has a solid back- ground in magic and showmanship and a love for the art that goes back to his roots. Earlier this year, there were some posts on SAMTalk about a program called Mad Science, an entertainment franchise that is booked as a science program and, in the process, explains and exposes a number of magic tricks. Mark Weidhaas, S.A.M. Regional Deputy Colorado and new Regional Vice President for the Northwestern States, quoted a post from a first-grade teacher regarding a Mad Science entertainer in his column in Assembly 37’s newsletter, Abracatabloid: “Right from the start, he told the kids (kindergarten through fifth grade) that the difference between a scientist and a magician is that both show you really neat things, but the ‘scientist will show you how it works.’” During the course of the program, the presenter exposed the Change Bag, Slush Powder, the Flash Wand, and the Pom-Pom Pole… all in the name of science education.
Q: Considering your science and magic back- ground, I’m sure you have some thoughts on this.
STEVE: Even before I received my copy of our Assembly newsletter, I had four messages on my phone and email about Mark Weidhaas’ commentary on the Mad Science assembly programs. Mark is correct… there’s a problem with exposure and it’s happening under the auspices of learning. But even more telling is the fact that magicians are losing bookings hand over fist to this new breed of children’s entertainer. I’m worried about the ongoing exposure of magic, and I’m worried about magic tricks with no connection to science being used to supposedly teach science.
Q: That sounds fairly ominous. To start with, what can you tell us about these programs like Mad Science?
STEVE: Mad Science is a Canada-based corporation with a large number of franchises throughout the U.S. and in about 25 other countries. In a nut- shell, Mad Science (and a number of other science education companies) provides schools with science assembly programs, before-and-after-school science classes, and a wide assortment of science- theme birthday parties. Most of the franchises are owned by entrepreneurs who are selling education- al entertainment services — plain and simple. And, since “science” is a top topic in education, the services that these companies offer are in high demand.
Q: Are these people who own these franchises science teachers or struggling scientists looking for another career?
STEVE: Probably a mix of both, but they’re first and foremost entrepreneurs. While some of these franchise owners have a solid science education background, I’d have to say that this is the exception and not the rule. The vast majority of these franchise owners and operators approach the job not from the standpoint of an educator, but rather as an entrepreneurial endeavor. They’re business people and that’s not all bad. Here’s the bottom line: These science entertainers are looking for good paying gigs and they’re constantly on the lookout for show material that is interactive, amazing, funny, and has a gee-whiz factor. It doesn’t matter if it’s magic or science as long as it’s entertaining.
Q: Given the scope of your work, how is your science-education business different than the franchises you speak of?
STEVE: I started my career as a science teacher at an elementary school and I got a lucky break. During my first year of teaching, I was approached by a producer at the NBC affiliate in Denver who was in the audience at a science magic show I performed earlier in the school year. The producer was creating a news magazine show called News for Kids, a weekly half-hour Saturday morning show. She liked my science demonstrations and how I worked with kids, so I got the job as the science host of the program.
Q: How long was the show on the air?
STEVE: News for Kids ran from 1991 to 1997. The show was picked up for national syndication in 1993, airing in 185 cities every Saturday morning. During each season, I was responsible for 39 original segments (about three minutes long). When the show wrapped up in 1997, we had aired over 200 science magic segments.
Q: I assume that this national exposure helped to launch your career as a profession- al speaker and science education consultant.
STEVE: No doubt, the publicity from the show helped my career. But the best thing that came from the show was coming up with 39 original science magic segments each season. I quickly blasted through the “A” material during the first season and then had to get serious about working on new material.
Q: Give us an example of a few of your science magic tricks from the show.
STEVE: There was the “Obedient Eye Dropper” that would float and sink on command in a soda bottle filled with water. It was actually an age-old science experiment called a Cartesian Diver. Simply by squeezing the sides of the bottle, water secretly filled the eyedropper, making it heavy enough to sink. Releasing the squeeze caused it to float back up to the top. It’s a great science demo because it illustrates the concept of buoyancy and density. But the magic component came into play when the viewers were taught to present it as a mental magic trick, using your mind to cause the eye dropper to move in the bottle (while the science magician secretly squeezed the sides of the bottle). Do you see how a science demo was turned into a piece of science magic?
Q: I don’t think that too many profession- al magicians are going to be upset with you teaching people how to make a Cartesian Diver.
STEVE: In fact, it should be just the opposite. When you put a magic slant on a science demonstration, you get the best of both worlds. The kids learn how to be amazing with science. Now you know why we call our mass- market division Be Amazing! Toys.
Q: Give us a few more examples.
STEVE: We did lots of chemical magic effects, bubbling potions, optical illusions, puzzles, brain-teasers, and many segments that didn’t have a magic slant at all… but were entertaining to watch (I hope). If you want some great examples of science magic, take a look at Bob Friedhoffer’s huge offering of science magic books. Bob is a great magician and a prolific author of science magic books.
Q: But this is not representative of the kind of magic that is being exposed, right?
STEVE: Correct. Earlier this year, I attended a regional convention for science teachers where a “science entertainer” shared the basic elements of his school assembly program with a packed room of teachers (maybe 350 people). After using a Dove Pan and some Flash Paper to magically make “science candy,” he posed this question to the audience members, “So, how do you think that was done?” He solicited a number of “predictions” and then proceeded to expose the workings of the Dove Pan.
He said, “You see, magic is nothing more than a clever adaptation of science. Friction and some spring-loaded clips are used to hold the upper pan in place. Since magicians can’t really do magic, they have to misdirect you with things like Flash Paper, a chemically treated paper that burns without leaving any ashes. This gives the magician the perfect chance to put the lid on top of the fire, and presto! The candy appears. See, magic is nothing more than a bunch of scientific principles you can learn in school.” That’s how the show started.
Q: That’s how it started? You mean there was more?
STEVE: Given the preceding account, just imagine the scientific explanations that were given for the Mirror Box, the Pom-Pom Pole, a handkerchief vanish with a Thumb Tip, and the Square Circle. Key phrases like “strength- en critical thinking skills,” “increase scientific inquiry,” and “challenge students to think out- side the box” are all used to justify the explanations. Remember, the science entertainer has no vested interest in the art of magic. All of these clever tricks are simply part of a bigger presentation. The presenter is being paid to do a show where the kids have fun and learn about science. Unfortunately, many clients who book these shows (parents in the P.T.A., for example) base the success of the show on how much the kids laugh and cheer, and not on the science content. It’s really part of a much bigger problem in science education.
Q: Do you use these kinds of stock magician’s props in your presentations?
STEVE: No. When I’m hired to speak professionally about science education, I use science demonstrations (not magic tricks) to illustrate many of the best practices that I’m teaching. Sure, I may incorporate showmanship that I’ve learned as a magician, but I’m doing science. If, on the other hand, I’m hired as a magician, then I do magic… but I don’t expose anything. The two are completely separate.
Q: If these science entertainers aren’t get- ting the magic ideas from you, then where are the ideas coming from?
STEVE: Just as we magicians attend lectures, read magazines, and browse the internet in search of new performance material, the same holds true for the science entertainer. It’s not uncommon for these science entertainers to walk into their local magic shop or browse on- line for tricks that have a science slant.
Q: Again, can you give us some examples?
STEVE: Sure. Slush powder, Insta-Snow, or any chemical magic effect is an obvious choice, but as Mark Weidhaas pointed out, the browsing doesn’t stop there. How about a Milk Pitcher, Chen-Lee Water Suspension, Coke- Go, the classic Soft Soap effect or a Change Bag? I’m sure that readers of M-U-M can immediately come up with many more examples. Since magic dealers have no problem selling their secrets to the public — anyone can walk into a traditional bricks-and-mortar store or buy on-line — it’s relatively easy for the science entertainer to round out his or her show with a few great tricks that are guaranteed to get the much needed ooohs and ahhhs.
Q: Should magicians be angry about this kind of exposure?
STEVE: Sure, it’s our natural response to be upset, but let me suggest that it’s our own damn fault. As magicians we are eager to have magic shops (especially on-line stores) and sell almost anything to the public. We even go so far as to write books and star in our own DVDs that showcase our best practices when it comes to performing the material. As long as we continue to openly sell the tricks of our trade to any- one (that means non-magicians) with a credit card, we really don’t have grounds for much of a complaint.
Please don’t take this the wrong way. I understand our age-old oath of secrecy and our concerns about exposure, but try explaining that to the science franchise owner/performer who wants more material for an upcoming school show, material that you’re willing to sell to anyone willing to pay the asking price. If exposing the Pom-Pom Pole gets a great audience reaction, it’s tough to resist buying the prop from the magic shop no matter how much it costs. The bottom line is that this trick is going to make the science entertainer money.
Q: You said that these science entertainers could make pretty good money. How well are they paid?
STEVE: Well, it all depends on how good the person is, his or her celebrity status, and what
the program entails. I’d say that a good science entertainer can make between $500 and $1,500 a day doing school shows. Typically, he’ll do an hour show for the kindergarten through second graders and another show for the students in grades three through five, for example. I’m sure that some of these franchise owners make more and some make less, but it’s not bad money.
Q: Steve, you have a critical eye. Are these science entertainers good performers?
STEVE: If they’re doing 80 to 100 schools a year, averaging three assemblies daily, it’s a safe bet they’re probably doing something right. Let’s face it, they’re good because they’re doing a ton of shows, they do them day after day and they’re getting paid well. Most importantly, these science entertainers are in high demand because science is one of those hot topics in elementary schools throughout the country.
Q: Let’s get back to the magic aspect of the show. What’s the difference between a magician and a science entertainer doing a school assembly?
STEVE: The most important distinction between the science entertainer and a professional magician lies in what happens after the trick is performed. The magician concludes the effect to a nice round of applause and segues into his next effect. The science entertainer, on the other hand, poses this question to his audience: “So, do you want to know how this works?” Applause is replaced with screams of yes! as the science entertainer proceeds to share the science behind the secret. I use the term “science” in the loosest sense because anything can fall under the auspices of teaching science.
Q: Do most of these science entertainers expose magic tricks as part of their presentation?
STEVE: I think that it’s difficult to really define the magnitude of the problem because of the tremendous growth in this area of children’s entertainment. Again, as long as anyone can go into a magic shop or an on-line store and purchase our closely guarded secrets, they will do with them whatever they wish. I’ll say it again… it doesn’t matter if these so-called science entertainers perform the trick well or not. The entertainment value they seek comes from the explanation and not the presentation.
Q: Can you provide some perspective on what’s going on in science education right now and why schools are hiring science entertainers.
STEVE: As everyone knows, education is always in a state of change, but science education is going through some incredible changes. Reading, writing, and math are always important subjects, while science and social studies have taken a back seat for many years. Well, the tide has turned and science education is in the spotlight. Whatever gets tested gets measured, and educators are scrambling to find ways to make science attractive to students. Here’s the sad part… kids are literally begging to do more science in school, and teachers just don’t have the time needed to really let their students do lots of hands-on science.
Q: So that’s why these programs are so popular with kids both in school and at home?
STEVE: You got it. Thanks to depriving children of getting to do hands-on science in school, they’re begging for it at their birthday parties. Let’s see… do you want to have the
magician this year or do you want to have a science birthday party? It’s not fair because they’re both great, but kids want to do some cool science demos and take home their bag of slime. And parents couldn’t be happier because their children want an “educational” birthday. There’s a new breed of entertainer on the birthday party scene, and parents are voting with their dollars.
Q: Are you saying that magicians who do birthday parties need to make slime in order to get more bookings?
STEVE: No, but I am saying that you need to be aware of other performers and the services they offer. Magicians will always do birthday parties, and the great children’s entertainers will always be in high demand. But thanks to the current state of elementary science education, companies like Mad Science will also be competing for the same revenue stream.
Q: I gather that what you’re doing is different. You’re not competing with these pro- grams.
STEVE: That’s correct. I loved the time in my career when I specialized in doing school assemblies — nearly 3,700 over a span of 12 years. During that time, I made lots of toilet paper fly, shot smoke rings from a giant trash can and caused lots of bottles of soda to erupt using Mentos candy (yes, that’s me). Now, my focus is on training teachers. The primary mis- sion of my staff development business is to teach science teachers how to be better teachers. I’m calling on my background as a professional educator, as a chemist, as a teacher in the classroom for eleven years. This is what I do for a living as a trainer and speaker. I teach teachers to be better teachers based on my background and experience as an educator.
Q: Where does your training as a magician come into the picture?
STEVE: I learned how to captivate a person’s attention using magic. I learned how to draw someone in and pique curiosity using magic. But I had to make a conscious decision not to use traditional magic props like a Change Bag or a Milk Pitcher to teach science. That’s not teaching science… that’s doing a trick for the sole purpose of entertaining kids. My mission is to teach teachers how to use their tools of the trade to engage students and to challenge their inquisitive nature.
Q: You grew up in a family of magicians, didn’t you? Both your parents have been doing magic professionally for many years and your dad, Bruce, is perhaps best known as the creator of You- Do Voodoo, the original Needle Through Arm effect that Harry Anderson made famous on TV. Can you share some of that back- ground?
STEVE: I recall going to my first magic convention in 1972, a P.C.A.M. convention in Hawaii. I have been surround- ed my entire life with people who always knew how to be amazing. More and more, I started playing around with chemical magic and being inspired by my dad who was doing all the chemical magic back in the ’70s. I remember going to the Midwest Magic Jubilee when I was probably seven or eight years old and my parents had a booth in the dealers room. I was pouring Think Ink or dad’s famous Switcheroo behind the demo table with my little sister. The booth was always swamped with people because it was so different. I was hooked on science magic at an early age.
Q: What’s your greatest fear with regard to this science magic debate?
STEVE: I’m afraid magicians are going to say, “Hmmm, my school show bookings aren’t that good. I’m going to be a science guy.” So they run out and start doing that. If they do that, they will just make this whole problem worse. Because all of a sudden, now all the people who are out there doing it already are going out and getting more magic tricks until you start seeing some science guy produce a bowling ball from a tablet of paper and expose the gimmick for no good reason at all. And, yes, it’s getting to that point.
Q: You’re really saying that tricks don’t make the science teacher.
STEVE: Teachers go through a lot to become a great teacher. Amazing teachers are not built on a bag of tricks. Amazing teachers take what they know and turn it into a teaching moment. My job is to prepare the next generation so that you and I can have a quality of life in retirement that we think is good and that we have a planet that we want to live on that has natural resources that haven’t been expended. The world is a better place because we taught kids how to wonder and discover and explore. That’s the kicker.
Q: What suggestions do you have for magicians in this magic vs. science debate?
STEVE: We need to figure out how to help these science demonstrators stay in their role and not keep stealing ideas and tricks from the magic world. I hope this interview stimulates some conversation about magic and science, on SAM-Talk, on blogs, in letters to the editor, whatever. For example, as a magic community, what are we going to do about the people who — free of charge, with no membership dues, no requirements — can go anyplace online or to any store and buy any trick they want for any purpose they want? That’s what we’re seeing now. The better the presentation, the more likely it is to show up in a school show.
And I contend it’s not their fault. Don’t get mad at the science teacher or science demonstrator. Yes, between you and me and our code of ethics, it’s wrong. But they didn’t sign any code of ethics. They don’t belong to the S.A.M. They don’t adhere to ethics that we take so seriously. They’re making a living. Their job is to find the next greatest science demonstration, whether it’s from watching someone on television, or streaming something on video, or going to a workshop or seeing a magician perform. If they think they can make a tie-in, they will. And that’s what they’re doing. As magicians, the ball is in our court. What we do next will have a huge impact on the wide- spread appeal of these kinds of programs.
One of the vehicles we’re using is magic to rekindle that childlike enthusiasm that a teacher once had for learning and get them to the point where they want to teach more science. We want to rekindle the love of teaching in teachers, not create more assemblies that are out in the market and performers who are just doing science tricks.
If we don’t do that, teachers can never live up to the great expectations that a performer who’s doing magic can. The teacher will never have a Change Bag, never do Torn-and- Restored Newspaper, never go make Clippo or have a Milk Pitcher. But they will have simple things like Elmer’s Glue and Borax and learn how to make slime. We’re just teaching teachers how to present that in such a way that makes it educational and entertaining and makes kids want to learn more.