When teaching science to kids, a visual approach is good. Humor is also good. And blowing things up is really, really good. At least that’s what educators at the Exploratorium in San Francisco have found in the nine yearssince the museum began producing a live, off-the-cuff competition called Iron Science Teacher. Modeled after the Japanese cult TV favorite Iron Chef (and The Food Network’s American spinoff), Iron Science Teacher pits educators against one another in a fast-paced competition to produce the best classroom science activity that can be presented in 10 minutes.
All the teachers win, of course—even those sitting in the audience—since the real point of the contest is to produce ideas for science lessons that will hold students’ attention. IST “contestants” come from the ranks of middle and high school educators who attend the rigorous professional development Teacher Institute at the Exploratorium, a “learning laboratory” for science, art, and human perception.
The show, which is Webcast live four to six times each summer, has very few rules. Contestants’ experiments must include the “secret ingredient” revealed to the audience at the beginning of the show and be safe and replicable in the classroom. But beyond that, almost anything goes.
And most everything has, as more than 60 past competitions demonstrate—they’ve featured secret ingredients ranging from eggs to corks to fruitcake to crayons.
“We have an odd cult following,” says Linda Shore, director of the Teacher Institute and mistress of ceremonies for Iron Science Teacher. “People stay the entire hour. These fidgety little kids—I’m astounded that they sit the whole time.”
That is, after all, the point: to get school-age children to focus on the science that’s taking place before their eyes. And by all accounts, it’s working. Over the past eight years, archived IST competitions have been downloaded more than 450,000 times.
“I’ve learned a lot watching the other Iron Science teachers doing their thing,” says Brooklyn teacher Avery Pickford, who’s been a contestant twice. “My kids thought it was the coolest thing in the world that I was on ‘television’ talking about science.”
The heavy doses of audience participation also help captivate the budding scientists, who are charged with the important task of choosing the IST winner by the volume of their applause.
And young audience members take the competition very seriously. “Kids will come up after and swear someone else got louder applause,” Shore says. “We kind of have to tell them it’s not about the winning. It’s about the science.”
A version of this article appeared in the January 01, 2007 edition of Teacher as Lights! Camera! Learning!