Steve Spangler – Hands-on Science

October 01, 2010

Steve Spangler is a science educator, inventor, and an Emmy Award winning TV personality. He is the author of Fizz Factor: 50 Amazing Experiments With Soda Pop, Secret Science: 25 Science Experiments Your Teacher Doesn’t Know About and his latest title Naked Eggs And Flying Potatoes.

Steve’s inquiry-based learning approaches to science education are highly successful. With his innovative “hands-on” approach to teaching he is the “fun science guy” who shoots potatoes, makes toilet paper fly and mixes batches of slime; but he is best known for his erupting soda geyser experiment.

Behind all of this fun is a very serious mission: to improve science literacy for both children, and adults.

In this episode with Karen Stollznow, Steve tackles the “science is boring” stereotype, and explains how science education can be exciting, accessible and fun. Steve talks about using the Internet for effective science education, citing his famous viral video, the “Mentos and Diet Coke geyser experiment” that has had millions of views and inspired thousands of imitations.

Steve not only teaches students, but he also teaches teachers. He talks about becoming a great science teacher by creating unforgettable learning experiences. With Steve’s interactive methods, science has suddenly gone from “Don’t try this at home!” to “Try this for yourself and see how it works!”

In closing, Steve discusses the state of science literacy today, and tells us what we can do to nurture scientific curiosity, build critical thinking skills and instill healthy skepticism.

Links Mentioned in this Episode

This is point of inquiry for Friday, October 1st, 2010. 

Welcome to Point of inquiry. I’m Karen Stollznow point of inquiry is the radio show and podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs and to the grassroots. My guest this week is Steve Spangler, science educator, author, inventor, trained magician and Emmy Award winning TV personality. Steve is the founder and CEO of Steve Spangler’s Science, a company specializing in the creation of educational toys and training services for teachers. Steve’s inquiry based learning approaches to science education have been highly successful, and he has an infectious passion and energy with his innovative hands on approach to teaching. He’s known as the fun science guy who shoots potatoes, makes toilet paper fly and mixes batches of slime. While Steve is best recognized for his popular erupting soda, guys are experiment. But behind all of this, fun is a very serious mission to improve science literacy for both children and adults. 

Steve, welcome to Point of Inquiry. Thank you for having me. 

So my first question, let’s face it, the stereotype is that learning about science is boring. However, you’ve made it your career to make science education fun. And you’ve been highly successful in making science exciting and accessible not only for kids, but also for adults with your hands on science and inquiry based learning activities. So what is your approach to popularizing science? 

So first of all, the assumption is that I’m boring. And then number two is science is boring. 

And it well, I guess you’re right on all of those accounts. So that’s how you win when you think of science and somebody says to you, science, probably the thing that pops into your mind is, a, it’s unfortunate, but it’s a stereotype. A white male in a lab coat with goofy hair and a bow tie and glasses or whatever it is, it’s it’s this kind of stereotype of it’s not that many people think about science as the experience that they had in high school. It was the smell of that lab when you walked by or the it’s a very visceral response. And so in answer to your question, you have to overcome an entire generation’s bad experience with science education. And in order to do that, you’ve got to break down some of those stereotypes. And so you have to kind of really dig in and try and figure out what at the at the heart is that visceral response so that when you say I’m a teacher and somebody says you at a party, someone says, I mean, what do you do? And you say, I’m a teacher. And the person says, really, what do you teach? And you say, I teach science. You watch their eyes very carefully because what they’re going to share with you is a huge insight as to where we are with science education today. I tell teachers all around the country, if you can take that person and that response and learn from that person in that response, you’ll become a much better teacher because you get some sort of idea of how science has been branded and what we have to do to move people to the next level. 

I wanted to say that your methods are not only fun, but they’re truly educational. And you’ve said before that just because kids are doing a hands on activity doesn’t mean that they’re learning and that there’s a difference between real fun and real learning. So what is that difference? 

Well, we’ve found that, you know, if you go back through with science education, I think I take a look at it. Starting in the 1970s, there was a very whole language or holistic approach. And as a kid who grew up in elementary school in the 1970s, science was one of those things you did. But when I think you did science, you didn’t really you learned it from a book, and yet you were good. You got it. And you get a good teacher. He or she might do an activity. And I’ll never forget in second grade, I got to watch a teacher boil water, which was totally exciting, change my life. But they were talking about evaporation. And as silly as that was, that was the only demonstration the entire year. That was science, except what was in the dress book or whatever. But but she boiled water and we gathered around and then she held a plate above it. And then we all got to touch the condensation that was on the plate. And as silly as that example is, that was an experience and not just an activity, because I remember that to this day, I remember reaching out and touching it. I remember the yellow color of the plate and everything that was there. And when all the wire had boiled and it was completely gone, the whole idea was there’s no more water in the pot. And there was a little white residue, which were the minerals. And she wasn’t talking about any of that. But I remember that very, very dramatically. Maybe it’s because that’s the only thing I got for the year. But you jump ahead to sixth grade boy. Didn’t remember much science in third, fourth, fifth grade, you know, except for stuff in the book. Sixth grade, we had a teacher who always wore a suit coat and a tie and played the guitar. Kind of a hippie. Reformed hippie in and he was. He was science and we did a lot of things in the book. And I remember the day that it changed because he went to the closet and got the volcano and the ears, this clay volcano that he brings out and and puts it on the table and not didn’t really tell us too many things other than there was a powder going into it. And then he squirted what looked like a thick this gas LeWitt fluid in there. And within about 10 seconds, smoke started to erupt from the volcano. And then who knows why it would fire Shore ahead of the volcano. Enough so that a konta desk on fire. And so his suit coat got pulled off real fast. Me threw it over the volcano, of course, as a whole noun the suit coat after everything’s done and the rooms filled with smoke and we cleared out. But when I was back in the 70s, I mean, today, we were cleared out an entire city and called him Hasmet. Back then, it was just some things in there. Who cares? But you know what? That was an unforgettable day in sixth grade. And so the secret to all of this is taking an ordinary activity and trying to do more than just showcase it more than just let people see it more than just like kids. You know, if a kid came up and put that powder in the volcano and put the glycerin or whatever it was in the top of the volcano, they would’ve called it hands on what’s not hands on. It’s just a demonstration, but it’s the next level of learning because we understand that just reading the stuff and trying to comprehend it, we really only get about 15 percent of that material. And research tells us that we jump up to over 50 percent once we do a demonstration. But we really don’t hit that upper 80 to 90 percent learning until kids do it themselves. And we have to be careful that we don’t trick ourselves into thinking that just because kids have a couple things in their hands and we’ve paid a lot of money for a kit that they’re really doing science. They’re not they’re just involved, engaged in their learning, if not until they start asking their own questions and allowing those materials that are there to become tools so they can change and manipulate in and use them as a variable to really start asking questions in investigating. 

So you’ve spoken before about the difference between good teachers and great teachers, and you’re very effective at getting teachers as well as students excited about learning. And you also have workshops and teacher training. So what is your you’ve been called a teacher’s teacher. What’s that about? 

That maybe just means, you know, when you’ve got a briefcase and you step off the plane, you’re a consultant. So maybe it’s just you show up in another town and you’re a teacher’s teacher. Maybe it’s this. Maybe it’s for the last 20 years, I’ve been really focused on what makes a great teacher great. And as an educator, I can tell you that I am doing what I’m doing today, not because a good teachers, but because of one or two or a handful of great teachers. And once you understand the difference between good and great, it is a bar, a standard, a benchmark that everybody else gets measured by it. Maybe we start by just talking about good teachers willing to talk about bad teachers. They weed themselves out. It’s hard to be in this profession if you don’t love what you’re doing. So first and foremost, you’re in this because. Well, maybe it’s because the salary and benefits. No, maybe not. Maybe it’s because you love what you’re doing and you love the fact that you’re planting seeds that will come to fruition in 20 or 30 years. A good teacher, you know, knows their content. They went to college. They have a degree. They’ve studied something that they want to teach somebody. They understand classroom management. They know how to do a lesson plan. I always joke and say good teachers eliminated their lesson plans on the first day of their teaching and probably didn’t change them until they retired. Good is just good. You know, they know the content. So. So we always say a good teacher, a teacher, how to do something. A good teacher will. We’ll give you some some worksheets and some lessons to kind of practice what you just learned. And a good teacher does lots activities, you know, lots of Hands-On activities, and that’s good. And a kid can go through his or her entire education and have good and never, never experience. 

Great. And that’s the unfortunate thing that’s happening possibly in today’s education world, because once you have a great teacher, you understand the difference. A great teacher doesn’t tell you how to do something. They tell you why a great and no teach you. Why did do a great teacher will ask you a question and wait for you to respond and to listen and process a great teacher or value what you think and your ideas and will validate those things that are happening. A great teacher will not show you just an activity or a piece of information, but they are always connected to a real world application. 

So one of the pieces of a great teacher is they build connections that are valuable to the learner. And whether you’re five years old and you build a connection, because if I’m going to teach kids about hot air, I probably should get a hairdryer out in the makeshift hot air balloon. Go outside and see if I can get this thing to float to the next time the kid sees the hot air balloon here, she looks at it as a hot air rises and starts building those connections. It may be the last part’s the most important part. And I didn’t realize until early ahto. Much later on in my career. But it was that whole idea that just because kids have things in their hands doesn’t mean that they’re learning science. And that’s exactly what a great teacher is here to share with us, is that they know how to take an ordinary activity that a normal good teacher would just do. And they know how to turn it into this unforgettable experience. And they know they’ve gotten to that point when it gets to the dinner table. And that’s the secret. When a kid talks about what he or she did in class that day at the dinner table, it’s a pretty good indication that it wasn’t just a mere activity because kids don’t even remember those. It truly was an experience. 

And you’re probably best known as the Mentos and Diet Coke guy for your famous GEISER experiments. And your video of this experiment has had millions of viewers and inspired thousands of imitations. And your site also offers a video library of hundreds of science experiments. So what’s the key to making a viral video for science? 

Well, first of all, the key is you don’t even know what you’re doing. And the first part. So, you know, you set out to try to do something. I’m a firm believer it’s not going to happen, especially in today’s quote unquote, viral world. That term is less than five years old and it keeps evolving. As you know, people get more tuned into watching things, you know. Years ago, a million views was considered viral. Today, that’s just an ordinary thing that a kid might do in his basement in Minnesota. So. So I don’t think that there is a secret to creating a viral video other than being able to tap in to human emotion and being able to either have the viewer look at it and see themselves in the video or be able to say, I got to try that, or that is so insane that I couldn’t do that. I got to show somebody else. And that’s really what happened with the Mentos thing, because if I go backwards, the Mentos phenomenon, for those listeners that don’t know what this thing is, if it take a Mentos mint, they’re a little chewy mint and you drop them into a brand new bottle of soda. This little chewy mint, because of the microscopic little pits that are on the outside of the mint. Think of it like craters on the moon. They say it’s heavy. It fall to the bottom and the carbon dioxide that’s in the soda will go jump onto those little jagged pits. And they’re called nucleation points and release the carbon dioxide that’s in the soda. Doesn’t make carbon dioxide. Just releases what’s in there as a result of a shoots up. There’s this enormous geiser. So by just dropping them in, you can get, I don’t know, 15, 18, 20 feet out of a out of a bottle of soda. And I have to tell you that the teachers have been doing that for 20 plus years, not just with Mentos, with a whole bunch of different things. In fact, it was first done with Wintergreen Lifesavers. So back in the 80s and early 90s, we were all as teachers playing with this. As you take a roll of Wintergreen Lifesavers and stick a pipe cleaner through Ohman from the soda and shoot chewed up in the air, the Wintergreen lifesavers changed their size. So believe it or not, they wouldn’t fall into the bottle anymore. And when teachers found that out, it’s like I got to find of the new. And that’s where the Mentos kind of came into the spotlight, so to speak. So a lot of people been doing that and a lot of kids have been doing that and a lot of teachers. And it wasn’t until we had the perfect storm, because I can tell you that I had tried to contact the corporation that owns the Mentos brand back in the early 2000s and didn’t get a response at all. So I kind of figured they probably weren’t really into this thing or didn’t think it was good or didn’t want to be associated with it. And I was completely wrong. It should we didn’t get their attention. We didn’t grab them emotionally just yet. It was in September of 2005 that for the fourth or fifth time I did this Mentos reaction on a gig, a normal gig that I have with KUSA TV here in Denver, Colorado. It’s our local NBC affiliate. And the nice lady, that co-anchor that I’ve been with for almost 10 years was in the backyard with me. And I told her a commercial break. Since this is live TV. I said, Kim, remember when you dropped these Mentos in Stanback? It’s going to shoot up in the air. And she said, yeah, that’s fine. She’s in this beautiful pink St. John’s outfit and I’m looking wonderful. And that didn’t last for long because about three minutes later, she was covered in soda. She forgot to step back, I guess, or in the excitement, put her hand some blow. But it’s online. And all of sudden she covered herself three times. She was a dripping mess. So because she had to do the news for the next two hours, we were, you know, soft news at four o’clock in the afternoon. The thing that they talked about at every break and every toss to the weather and everything else was how Kim look like a drowned. She had Diet Coke all over. And that particular piece of video shut down the Garnette server because the blog posted appeared two days later was or the day later. One day later was. News anchor gets soaked, science experiment goes awry or something like that. And this before YouTube. I mean, when I say YouTube, YouTube is in its infancy. September 2005. So this was just regular video that was hard for people to see. I had to wait for a while yet to go to the news server. So literally within weeks it had been viewed, copied. Which is exactly as a teacher what we want. It’s not a bad thing that it’s copy. You know, the imitations are good because the reason it went viral is because I think as teachers for the last 20 years, we’ve been telling kids, don’t try this at home. Don’t try things at home. Don’t do this. Leave it to the teacher. And had a whole generation of kids going. I’m doing it at home. What do you think about that? I can do this. I’m going to go get Mentos. I’m gonna go with Diet Coke. And I’m doing this at home. And now I’m going to record myself doing it and I’m going to put it up on my own YouTube account. And there’s literally thousands and thousands of Mentos videos that are out there now. 

And when your video came out, that coincides with around the time where the word viral became popular as well. 

Exactly. Exactly. And there are some great guys back east that that they put it to music and and shot him around like the Bellagio fountains. And that inspired teachers to do it during the opening day of school. I mean, it literally it just exploded. Pun intended. And to this day, we’re still doing stuff. I invented the guys, the tube toy. This was an attachment that would allow us to drop the Mentos in all at the same time. And here’s why. So here’s what’s your next question was gonna be it was gonna be Bill. Steve is here actually science with this. And I would say yes. I’m so glad you asked. I feel somewhat responsible for kids dropping Mentos into Diet Coke and then saying, well, I just did science and they didn’t they didn’t do any science. 

They just dropped Mentos into a bottle of Diet Coke. And why Diet Coke? Do you know why Diet Coke? 

Oh, don’t ask me to put me on the spot. 

See, the reason for Diet Coke is because it’s not sticky. Oh, and that’s it. So I had regular Coke and Coke and regular Pepsi and Diet Pepsi. Is it amazing because of that video at that time and the way it spread that no matter how much money Pepsi puts into this, it will always and forever be the Mentos and Diet Coke explosion because that’s the way it was branded. Is it so important with the branding piece? Well, back to the kids, B, C, here’s what was happening. A kid would say, well, why Diet Coke, maybe Diet Pepsi? 

And then kid would say, well, which one’s better? Which was the greatest thing? That’s music to a science teachers ears. Because now I got a comparison. I get I get the basis for an experiment. It’s organic kids, all of it. It wasn’t in a book. Nobody said, now, please test the difference between Diet Coke and regular Coke or Diet Pepsi and regular Pepsi or whatever it is. So what was happening is the variable was how you dropped the Mentos into the soda. You might drop them differently than I drop them. Did I get them all in at once? And we didn’t want that as a variable. So we started with pieces of BVC that we put over the bottle with a hole in it and a toothpick, and we drop them in there and pull. And that was a pretty good way to be able to see it. The problem with BVC is you couldn’t see how many Mentos and that kind of thing. So ultimately what came of it was a prototype for the toy called the Guys or tube toy that now is on the market and mass market. So you’ll find that at your local Wal-Mart and Toys R US and targets and places like that. 

But it all started with a tool in a classroom so that we could drop the same number of Mentos and control the variables so they could really see what was the difference between hot soda and cold soda or diet and regular or brand test or whatever it might be in your website is fantastic to you, author of a 900 Science Toys. 

And these toys on Barbie dolls, they’re educational products that you categorize into fields like anatomy and chemistry and. And explain what does it teach? 

Isn’t it funny how you go from doing teacher workshops back in the early 1990s and telling people now go to Home Depot or not? At the time, he didn’t have Home Depot go to the local hardware store and get this and go to Target and get this and go to Wal-Mart. And finally, some he says, could you put it all together for us? Because as a teacher, I’d like it all together as a kit. And that’s really what started our company, was as a request of people saying, what if you put this in this in this together and help us out? So we you know, I think all good businesses are and good solutions are start with a problem in there. And the problem wasn’t that people needed more science toys. The problem was that my market at the time needed a quick, easy way to do what they learned in the workshop to be successful, to focus on the teaching and not just the collecting of materials. And so. So that’s really our business started and now it’s. I’m happy to say it’s kind of blossomed into this piece of it. The retail division, as you talked about, is over it. Steve Spangler, science dot com. And there are close to a thousand items that are there and a lot of very unique items. We while we often say once an item goes from obscurity to mass market, that’s the time that we let go of it and start focusing on the new piece. So we have a number of inventors that come to us, a number of startup companies that come to us and say, could you help us get on the map? And that’s a nice way to be able to do that and to work with that person for two or three years until ultimately they’re successful and they go mass market. And we’re looking for something new for a teacher that’s in the classroom and now it’s no longer teachers for the first time ever. 

Our business is more non educator than it is educator, which just goes to show you that there’s a lot of parents and grandparents and providers that are out there that are looking outside the traditional school model to be able to to teach their kids. 

And with your videos, you were saying as well that these are experiments that kids can do at home. And I think you’d call it supermarket science before, haven’t you? 

Yeah, there’s all all of those terms. And the whole idea is to make it accessible. And again, we go back to what made the Mentos videos so popular and why so many people have tried it. And they’re variations and, you know, Mentos car and all those things that are out there. 

It’s because the materials were easily and readily available and the focus wasn’t on getting those things as much as it was being creative with those and turning those toys into tools to come up with something new. And I think as this generation moves forward, we have to ask so, you know, I guess educational toys, because it’s the buzz term or no. If you put these materials in front of kids and watch how they interact with them, they truly become engaged. It’s not a passive push. The button wants something happen and move on. The more engaged they can get and the more variables. And we don’t column that at the time because it doesn’t sound fun and sexy, but that’s exactly what it is. They’re engaged. They’re changing. You know, you go back to simple toys like Legos and wonder why Legos are so good. It’s because it’s just in the imagination of the child what they’re gonna build. And if we can create products there like that and follow that so that it’s not just one outcome, but they can ask what if questions parents sense. I mean, that’s a perfect thing for a parent to to search for as their kids get smarter. 

And your videos. Do you have a lot of characteristics? They seem to be very short, maybe one to two minute experiments that can be done at home. And you’ve spoken about the quick wow factor as well. These shot, these videos and like myth busters, you use explosions and energetic interactive experiments. 

Well, to be even mentioned in the same sentence as myth busters is totally a compliment. So I had an honor. So I appreciate that. And I was very excited. We actually get to be consultants for the Minto’s show that Myth Busters did. Their consultant contacted us and said, so we’ve seen online you can get 18 feet out of this. 

And the myth busters would like to get a higher, you know. GEISER So, Yemi, suggestions and what else could use besides those little mints? And so that was very fun. I think the secret to the video is, believe it or not, is, again, dumb luck. I started working in television news back in the early 1990s. I was host of a program here locally in Denver called News for Kids. That program, because of FCC regulations, got bumped up because stations all over the country needed it. And by the time that show was in its heyday in 1997, it was a nationally syndicated program. 

And you received an Emmy Award for that, didn’t you? 

Well, that was kind of nice of them. I guess they had an extra trophy sitting around. So that was nice that they would they would do that. I learned a lot. And what I learned was that that you didn’t have a long time to drag it out. When I started that show, I contacted my idol and my hero, and that was a guy by the name of Don Herbert in some of your listeners will go, Mr. Wizard. 

At the time, Mr. Wizard was living in California in Chino Hills. And so I contacted him and said, You don’t know me, but I’m your biggest fan. And I said, I would love to ask for your advice because I’ve been given the opportunity to do a little two and three minute vignettes on a program called News for Kids. And he had some wonderful advice. And one of the pieces of advice was, don’t let those producers put you in a lab coat. He says kids hate that. Make science accessible. Make it so they feel like you’re in their home and you’ll be successful. And I went back and looked as much old Mr. Wizard footage. He was very, very generous. He sent me a library of tapes and I noticed that it was only in the beginning years that he was ever in a lab coat when he worked for G.E.. The rest of the time he was in his garage. And if you remember, old Mr. Wizard, you’re not old enough to remember Mr. was your baby. You remember old Mr. Wizard. They kids would knock on the door and it was his garage. They’d open it up and hello, Mr. Wizard. He was in a sweater now lab coat with glasses and a bow tie. It was very accessible. The difference between 1952 in 1992 was a matter of time. And that was he had 30 minutes to do a couple experiments and we had a minute and a half to two minutes. So I learned the importance of cutting to the chase and doing the experiment. But it wasn’t until about 2000, 2001, that this interactive kind of quality came in where people would see something on TV and e-mail and say, how do you do that? I want to get that. And it was more of an immediate piece. Here we are sitting in 2010, and I can’t finish the segment today for a live news spot that we do on a thing called Science Mondays and have it not appear in some sort of blog post or Twitter or a comment on Facebook. Where did you get this? How did you do this? It’s an immediate kind of thing, which is great because every one of our videos spawns, you know, a couple dozen more that are sitting out there. 

Brilliance and your science experiment videos demonstrate a scientific phenomenon. And then generally it’s left up to the viewers to draw their own conclusions, to explain the processes that are involved. And this is a really effective way to build critical thinking skills. So what are some of the ways that you teach critical thinking and a healthy skepticism to children and to adults? 

Well, you don’t give them the answers first. And it’s something I appreciate you observing some of the changes in our videos, the way they’ve changed over the years. And I have to to think our video editor, Bradley Mayhew, for kind of bringing this new little variation. He’s actually using YouTube as a platform to get people to interact and say, how does that work? So if something as simple as a plate of water and a candle in a glass and you turn it or turn the glass over the candle and in in, you know, rested in the plate of water, and all of a sudden the candle goes out in water, rises in the glass. And the question is, why does the water rise? If we immediately tell you why the water rises, then we don’t get comments, but we don’t tell you why the water rises. Then all of a sudden it’ll solicit two 300 comments and this healthy dialog and a debate going back and forth that seems to be a huge key to getting kids involved. 

I heard that you had come upon your love of science by magic, that you’re a trained magician and saw your father’s a very influential magician. And I was wondering, is there an element to science being a kind of magic until it’s explained? Is there some sort of link between science experiments and magic? 

I think there’s just a natural link between science experiments and magic science by its very nature in invite you to ask the why question. So when we see something, we immediately try to use the laws of nature to explain it. And we immediately put up barriers saying why can’t happen because of this? And it only can happen because of this and because of this. So it’s A equals BBC equals C, you know, that kind of thing. Magic is beautiful because when done properly, it breaks all that down. When the ball floats in the air or the magician borrows a dollar from you and cripples it up in his hand and then slowly lets go and it floats right in front of your very eyes. It’s hard to use science to explain that because immediately you’ve defied the laws of gravity. And can somebody really defy the laws of gravity? No, it’s a threat. We know that. Or it’s some sort of support system or whatever it might be. But done properly, the viewer or the audience member never once questions it because they were transformed into a new place, a new way of thinking that for that minute help them dispel belief. And if there are people that hate magic and they hate magic because it messes with their mind. And so as soon as it floats, they’re immediately thinking. All right. Well, I went I went to see. And they reach out and try to grab the dollar bill. And these are people who are wonderful skeptics. But there is a sense it doesn’t mean that if you if you enjoy that kind of emotional response to something, that you’re not a skeptic. You know, magicians are the best skeptics in the entire world. But I can tell you that when you go to a magicians convention, here are a couple hundred of the most creative minds, all in one place. And they’re constantly trying to fry each other. You know, so. So watch this and see if you can get. And what happens is they come up with these very, very clever ways to do things. But sometimes when the public sees that they’re not amazed at all because it’s such a complicated thing that it’s only fun for a magician. It’s like, you know, humor for an engineer. There’s just certain things I guess are only funny, the engineers. Same thing can happen with magicians. So we have to remember that there is that visceral response to that and that’s that that momentary sense of disbelief, you know. And then totally believing in what’s happening. And that’s kind of a neat approach. 

Ends up just giving back to teachers for a second. You speak about teachers and experts as being gatekeepers of knowledge for students. And nowadays, students can just use Google to answer their questions instead of going to that, these teachers are experts. And you’ve also said that parents and teachers can be afraid of using Google because of the poor reputation of the net as a resource to take as an example, Wikipedia. But do you think that it’s an important tool in the classroom still? So how can the net be used effectively for science education? 

Well, when you have a four or a five year old who wants to answer a question, to learn where to go to, whatever it might be, and he or she in today’s day and age says Google it, mom. You know that this is where we get our information today. No longer do we turn to you are the only source of information. And in fact, a child will challenge a teacher sometimes because a teacher may say something and a child might say, that’s not true. And immediately go to another source to be able to prove that ten years ago we couldn’t do that. You would turn to the encyclopedia that was already outdated as soon as you would see it or or we were. We trusted that the you know, the person there was one person in the school that did science and one person that knew about this kind of topic area and so forth. And so it’s a critically important thing to be able to not only introduce but teach kids how to be a responsible digital consumer. The school district that I’m working in right now refers to it as digital citizenship. And I really like that term. The whole idea of being responsible with the digital information that’s out there, using it to make you a better person. But if you don’t have skills of inquiry and you don’t have critical thinking skills and you’ve never been taught how to use your critical thinking skills and how to enhance them, then you will take anything that you see online. Anything that you see in print as as fact. So isn’t it great at an early age where having kids challenge what they’re seeing online? And if we can teach them to challenge that in a healthy way, in some instances, you know, they’re trying their own experiment. And we’re back to the YouTube piece that, you know, we pose a reality that’s out there. We pose an experiment, we pose something and invite their inquiry and have them debate back and forth between what other people think, what a healthy way to be able to to come up with an answer. So I think it’s crucially important. And I think it’s crucially important that parents understand how to connect with teachers and make sure that the learning that’s going on at school is enhanced at home. So when they come home, being able to use that tool with them effectively to answer more questions, to ask more questions, to just to have a different starting point when they go back to school the next day and say because of this and I found this and this and this now helped me understand that that can be very challenging for teachers because, again, the teacher role model or the teacher maybe not role model, but the teacher model was that we are the conduit through which the information flows and we’re no longer that conduit. We are a different conduit. We’re motivational, inspirational kind of piece that helps to focus kids in a certain direction. But we’re no longer the gatekeeper of the information. We really are a disseminator. We’re a router, so to speak, for the information coming in and help guiding it in the right way, because as teachers were experts in how kids learn and we can watch what inspires them and what changes them and how to become a, you know, a much better person. And I think that that’s the way that the role of teaching and how it’s changing in the future is being able to see that and route the information and the and the enthusiasm in the right direction. 

Your Web sites, sites are trends in international mathematics and science study. Back to 2004 that discovered that American fourth graders are doing no better in science than they did in 1995. So I was wondering, what’s the state of science literacy today? Has there been any progress? Has it declined or improved? 

I think it’s improved. And I’m going to tell you that it’s improved now from an empirical standpoint. But what we’re seeing out there and again, the emotional response of teachers when the Temes tests came out, when the team’s results came out. When you look at a generation who has been trying very, very hard, there’s not a teacher that’s out there saying, well, we’re just not going to educate kids in science. 

Yeah. They’re all wanting to many of them at the elementary level don’t know how to. And the most effective way and they’re learning right now, that’s why teacher training is so important. But what we look at that and we say we went 10 years with no advancement, no progress in American fourth graders from, like you say, 1993 to about 2004, there is a 10 year period of time that was in there. So what happened with all that money that we poured into the system at that point? Well, we went from fourth in the world to 17th in the world. And now what? 24TH. Now in math and 25th in science. So there is a problem. And part of that problem is, you know, our inability to find time in our teaching schedule to get kids to and allow kids to sharpen their critical thinking skills. And you can’t do that just on a test. You can’t do that by just feeding them content and asking them to regurgitate that content. We have to have time to be able to allow kids to wonder and discover and explore and ask questions. And that means we have to change the teaching model. And we’re seeing that across the country. But we’re seeing far more integration than we ever saw before. Are we’re seeing teachers who are being trained to integrate math and science in not just a way to say, well, because you’re using measurement, you’re using math to be able to actually use the math lesson to introduce the science concept that blends itself well into a writing prompt for a paragraph that’s being written that ultimately will be presented in an oral presentation that all of a sudden it becomes this great, big, huge circle of learning. And it starts sometimes with an element of wonder. So instead of creating, you know, something artificial, why not use science as that stepping off point? So I think we’re seeing a tremendous amount of progress. The unfortunate part is it takes teacher training. If there’s one thing that I think that we leave this interview with is from my standpoint, is the importance that our listeners, I think, understand that they have to support their local teachers as they become trained. Many times we think of an in-service day as a play day for teachers. It’s not you wouldn’t have somebody operate on your eyes and perform LASIK surgery or or repair your ACL or do some sort of surgery if that doctor wasn’t the best at what he or she does. And why is it that you would allow somebody to teach your child the same kind of thing without going through the latest training to be up on the latest cognitive research on how children learn in the best ways that they learn? You don’t do that by spending 20 years in a classroom doing the same thing over and over and over again. So we have to support teachers in their teacher training. We also have to support them in the time that they need to be able to create these experiences and they don’t have time during the day to do all of it. So they need our help at home. 

They need a chunk of our time at home to help bring that experience back to the, again, the dinner table, to enhance it, to do more with it and to take it back to class. 

So we’ve spoken about teachers, but what can parents and we in general do to improve science literacy and to nurture a scientific curiosity in children? 

Make it as part of your dialog, in your discussion, Mehos. Again, go back and support the teachers. Ask the school how you can support and help them. That could be something as simple as volunteering for their local science fair. It could be if you own a business or you’re involved in a business that has some sort of scientific aspect to it, to be able to help bring that to light as a real world application. I think more than anything else, you don’t have to have the answers. 

Just help support this natural curiosity and your sons and daughters and help teachers with the tools that they need to be able to not only help them answer those questions, but to help students ask those questions so that ultimately we see the progress when our kids are asking and they have the tools to start answering some of their own questions. We know that we’ve moved well beyond where we were in science education, you know, even a decade ago. 

Steve, thank you so much for joining me today. It was a pleasure to speak with you. 

I appreciate Ms and your viewers over to the Web site. And I’ll promise they’ll get to see the latest things that we’re working on for some of the fall shows and some of the exciting things that kids are doing. 

Thank you for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry. Steve’s experiments, science toys and his new book, Naked Eggs and Flying Potatoes can be found at his Web site. Steve Spangler’s Science Dot com. To participate in the online conversation about this show, please join our discussion forum at point of inquiry dot org. The views expressed on point of inquiry aren’t necessarily the views of the Center for Inquiry, nor its affiliated organizations. Questions and comments on today’s show can be sent to feedback at point of inquiry. Dot org. 

Point of inquiry is produced by Adam Isaac in Amherst, New York. And our music is composed by Emmy Award winning Mike Whalen. Today’s show also featured contributions from Debbie Goddard. I’m your first Karen Stollznow. 

Karen Stollznow