Goggles Required

By Martha Corcoran — October 01, 2000 5 min read

Lesson planning is not an activity usually associated with trash-talking colleagues or a cheering crowd. But at the “Iron Science Teacher” show at the Exploratorium, an interactive science museum in San Francisco, classroom teachers go head- to-head to create science and math lessons before a live audience. The show, simultaneously broadcast on the Internet (at, takes place most Fridays during the summer and periodically throughout the rest of the year and has become a must-view event among the safety-glasses set.

In August, about 100 people shuffle past the museum’s termite village and a zealous demonstrator dissecting a cow’s eyeball in the exhibit hall to reach the makeshift studio, where the final show of the summer season is about to start.

The audience—families visiting the Exploratorium, educators attending the museum’s Teacher Institute, and self-described “Iron Science” groupies—quiets down as a chirpy theme song begins and host Linda Shore, an astrophysicist and director of the Teacher Institute, bellows: “It’s time once again for Irrrronnnnn Science Teacheerrrrrrr!”

Seven teacher-contestants jog onto the stage, Rocky Balboa-style. Their task: Teach the audience a little something about science or math using a “secret ingredient” revealed to them by Shore a few days before the program. An audience “clap-o-meter” decides the winner. “Today’s secret ingredient was given to me by my dog, Reba,” hints Shore. “Oh, whatever could it be? Any ideas?”

“Flea collars!” someone from the audience yells. “Poop,” a junior Nobel laureate suggests. A good guess, says Shore, smiling, but the answer is tennis balls. The crowd seems disappointed—just imagine a teacher blowing something up with dog doodie—but as a producer starts the clock, disappointment gives way to curiosity. The teachers are out of the gates, and they’re concocting mysterious things.

Sue Pritchard from Washington Middle School in La Habra, California, whirls a piece of tubing above her head and attempts to attach a tennis ball to its end. John Lahr, a seismologist from the U.S. Geological Survey in Colorado, slices open his tennis ball and inserts a magnet. Other contestants drill holes in wood blocks, dunk balls in water, and blow up balloons. Linda Sicuranza, a teacher from the Boston area, looks mildly amused as her competitors scramble around while she sits back and does nothing but bounce her ball.

“One minute left,” Shore calls out. “Can John Lahr finish in time?” The Jeopardy theme song kicks in. Finally, Shore announces in her best put-down- your-pencils voice, “The construction phase is over.” Exploratorium staff whisk the participants backstage, where they wait to present their lessons one by one.

Three years ago, Shore and her colleagues at the Exploratorium stole the idea for “Iron Science Teacher” from Iron Chef, a Japanese television show that gives guest chefs a secret ingredient and one hour to create a five-course meal. “It’s a great premise,” says Shore, an avid fan of the series, which airs in the United States on the cable Food Network. At the time, the Teacher Institute, which offers year-round workshops for teachers based on the museum’s exhibits, had requested space for a studio where teachers could build interactive displays for their classrooms. Officials said that, if Shore and her colleagues would create an interactive activity for museum visitors, they could take over a spot next to the cafeteria. “Iron Science Teacher” was born.

“We never expected to do more than one show,” Shore says, but the value of the event was instantly obvious. Kids loved its playful atmosphere and wanted to replicate the experiments at home. Teachers got the chance to perform in front of their peers.

Over the years, “Iron Science” contestants have squeezed educational value out of everything from Marshmallow Peeps and fruitcake to Hanukkah candles. Shore and her colleagues brainstorm possible ingredients a week in advance. She says the ingredient ultimately chosen “sounds most diabolical” yet is still cheap and easily found.

Of course, some have worked better than others. The Christmas fruitcake episode is a favorite: One contestant’s presentation revealed that grandma’s holiday dessert, no matter how dense or inedible, will float. In another episode, an unruly teacher thrilled the audience with an experiment using metallic sodium, an exciting and frothy compound that’s banned from classrooms due to its highly explosive nature. Later, Shore and colleagues realized that kids might dabble with the stuff at home and deleted the experiment from the Web archives.

“The show makes science fun and gives teachers an opportunity to showcase their talents,” says Tien Huynh-Dinh, a teacher at the Accelerated School, a K-8 charter school in Los Angeles, who’s attended the Teacher Institute since 1993. “I always encourage my kids to go beyond what’s comfortable for them, so it’s good for us as teachers to do the same.”

I n the studio, the pressure is mounting. Washington Middle School’s Pritchard and Paul Trudelle, an educator from Woodside Priory School in Portola Valley, California, step up to bat with a demonstration involving the Doppler effect. First, they attempt their best imitations of planes landing and cars zooming to and fro, which the kids dig. “Have you ever been in a car that’s going really fast?” Pritchard asks enthusiastically. “Do you remember the kind of sound it makes?” The teachers then explain the phenomenon. When sound waves from a car or plane approach, they bunch up together and emit a high-pitched sound; as they move away, the waves stretch and produce a lower-pitched sound—the Doppler effect. The pair move in for the kill: A Tennis-Ball-Seeking Doppler Radar Cannon, a device inspired by a type of radar that uses the Doppler effect to measure velocity. The kids by now are drooling for something—anything—to catch fire, or at least smolder a little. So, the mention of a cannon has them intrigued.

The “cannon” is a bottle with two nails protruding from each side and a cork sealing the top. The bottle is filled with evaporated alcohol. The plan: While Pritchard throws a tennis ball in a slow arc, Trudelle will apply a source of electricity to the nails. The reaction between the electricity and the alcohol will launch the cork into the air, missile-like. If Trudelle’s aim is true, the cork will intercept the tennis ball and bring it to the ground. Finally, the experiment is ready: The cork pops, zings through the air, and misses the ball entirely, but a minor explosion occurs.

While the remaining contestants offer intriguing demonstrations—Sicuranza, the teacher who was oh-so-calm during the construction phase, discusses properties of kinetic and potential energy, and Lahr demonstrates how to measure seismic signals with a laptop and a compass (made out of his tennis ball)—the cannon is hard to beat. In the clap-off, the Doppler duo comes out on top.

Pritchard and Trudelle don’t win any prize money, but there are intangible rewards. For a few moments, they stand under the hot lights and face a room full of people happily chanting: “Doppler! Doppler! Doppler!”