You won't find many teachers who would admit they've played with kitty litter-and claim to have learned valuable teaching techniques from the experience. But when the studio lights up, dramatic music fills the room and the secret ingredient is unveiled, participants of the Iron Science Teacher competition will do what they must to wow the crowd.
From making weights with the kitty litter to comparing the absorbency of various brands, the teachers got creative, says Linda Shore, host of the game show, based on the popular Food Network television show The Iron Chef.
Sound like a joke? Well, it did start out that way. Shore spends her off-stage hours as director of the Teacher Institute at the Exploratorium, a San Francisco museum of art, science and human perception. Back in 1997, the museum's high-tech Web cast studio was looking for new shows. The institute, which offers interactive programs where teachers from throughout the U.S. learn alongside physicists and biologists, needed a workshop where participants could build mini-Exploratorium exhibits and other classroom materials.
During a staff brainstorm, the conversation took a turn from serious to giddy. A fan of the Japanese cooking show (which aired on a local television network, without subtitles, at the time) suggested naming a secret ingredient for science teachers to use in an experiment to present to the audience. "It was honestly and truly a joke," Shore says. "We thought we'd do one show."
Now 10 to 12 shows are produced annually for the Exploratorium's Web site, many of them during summer institutes. "Secret" ingredients, which are revealed in advance to participants so they can practice, have included everything from ordinary baking soda and food coloring to Marshmallow Peeps and pantyhose.
The show's fan base is so wide, it should perhaps be tracked by Neilson. While Shore guesses the live Internet audience is only about 100, the shows archived on the Web get "a lot of hits. Teachers will broadcast them in classes. ... And I hear there's a group in Japan [that watches the archived show together]," she says.
The studio itself seats 20 to 30 guests, but because it's glass-enclosed, visitors can watch from several areas of the museum. "We now have groupies," Shore says with a laugh, explaining that some elderly couples from the neighborhood and at least one family never miss a live show. Part of the draw: Each episode's winner is determined by audience applause.
Behind the Curtain
Despite its glitz, the Iron Science format offers some important lessons. "The misconception about hands-on science is that it doesn't have any substance. But science is hands-on," Shore says. Institute activities "arouse questions that arouse other questions and experiments."
In addition, Iron Science and other institute activities involve simple, easy-to-get materials. "The hidden message is that science is everywhere. You don't need a test tube and a microscope to do science," Shore says. Repeat participant and one-time winner Richard Delwiche, an eighth grade teacher at Ben Franklin Middle School in San Francisco, concurs. "You can take the barest bone ingredients and make them into something that demonstrates [science]."
Contestants also experience the "thrill of doing what they do every day-teaching science-in front of people [other than students],"
Shore says. When educators teach to their peers, they gain confidence. Since Delwiche started participating in Iron Science competitions, he says he's been more likely to try traditional classroom activities in more spontaneous ways. "There's always the fear that it's not going to come off as it's supposed to-but you learn to run with the punches a little more," he says. "There's no such thing as a failed experiment."
It was inspiring to work with less experienced teachers and hear their ideas, says Sharon Kirby, a 2001 participant from Etowah High School in Cherokee County (Ga.) School District and a 27-year teaching veteran. These teachers are building leadership skills that can serve them well in their own schools and districts, Shore says.
But is stage fright a problem for Iron Science teachers? "It seems pretty casual up until they suddenly go on with the music and the microphones," Delwiche says of his experiences. "But as a teacher you're used to being put on the spot." Kirby adds that while she was a bit tongue-tied at first, wearing her T-shirt of Einstein with his tongue sticking out set the tone. "That's the kind of attitude we were taking. We were there to just have good fun with science," she says.
The audience, meanwhile, gets to watch good science teachers at work. Shore reminds parents and kids that they can and should "try this at home."
When the goal is being crowned Iron Science Teacher, wackiness and showmanship count. For an episode with paper as the secret ingredient, Delwiche boiled water "in a paper cup, folded like origami-which was a crowd pleaser," he remembers. But it was the blowtorch he used as a heat source that likely made him victorious.
Tops in Shore's book is the holiday fruitcake episode. "One person on staff suggested we should try to actually eat the fruit cake, because that would be an experiment in itself," Shore laughs. The winning teacher showed that fruitcake floats in water.
Another special episode was the bi-coastal competition between Teacher Institute alumni and teachers pursuing graduate degrees at Columbia University. Using video feed off the Internet, the Exploratorium projected the remote contestants on large screens. Technical wonders aside, the end result is one that Shore and her team may want to forget. "We had a series of mishaps ... They took it," she admits. But the audience got to watch a great show, and the East Coast teachers are more than willing to defend their crown in a future battle.
What if a future episode featured administrators going head-to-head? Shore says she would recommend that they keep their experiments simple, focusing on a single concept for the best chance at success. She adds that she would love to see more administrators attend institute programs. "They'd know what to do to be more supportive of teachers [in their own districts]," she says. Plus, everyone is a scientist. "We're all curious people." And the Exploratorium can "rekindle that natural scientist in all of us."
Melissa Ezarik, firstname.lastname@example.org, is features editor.