For those in the STEM or science education community, the name Steve Spangler may ring a bell – perhaps even a Pavalovian one.
For the rest, the name may not sound so familiar.
Spangler is, as described by his website, “The science teacher you always wanted to have in school. Things just happen to fizz, pop, smoke and explode, and before you know it, you’re a part of his learning experience. His passion is to find the most creative ways to make learning fun.” For those who grew up in the 1990s and early 2000s, he’s in the same league as Bill Nye the Science Guy (though has yet to Dance with the Stars). Spangler has been a frequent guest on the Ellen Show, and is perhaps best known to general audiences as “the guy who made all those Diet Coke bottles explode with Mentos.”
Last month I was fortunate to meet Spangler while attending a professional development workshop hosted at the Science Museum Oklahoma. This was my first major science education workshop, and I enjoyed every minute of it. From the start, the SMO was incredibly organized and efficient in setting up this opportunity for educators – formal and informal alike. I look forward to returning to the SMO someday to further explore the Museum itself. I was able to attend this workshop through my museum network, and I quickly met other likeminded educators from across the region. At my workshop table we had museum professionals as well as middle and high school science teachers. The diversity of experience and backgrounds was great when we were able to work as a team and try some of our own experiments.
Steve Spangler focused the workshop on a wide range of science content, but his primary focus was on presentation and working with different audiences. We worked hands-on with everything from exploring kid-friendly density and mass experiments to messing (literally) with polyvinyl alcohol slime. For me, this engaging format was a great introduction to both Spangler and even some of the content. Having a primarily history and art-based academic and professional background, I immediately felt at ease and engaged with the content through learning some effective demonstrative techniques. Much of what Spangler emphasized focused on showmanship – that the way to best engage your audience was to hook them through a “WOW” moment. It was important, Spangler emphasized, to be able to push beyond that “WOW” moment and deliver the essential content.
One of my favorite experiments during the workshop explored what happens with a build up of gas in a confirmed space. To demonstrate, Spangler utilized film canisters (with lids), Alka-Seltzer tablets, and tonic water. When the tablets and water combine in the sealed film canister, the pressure within becomes too much and POP! the lid is flown off. It seemed every workshop participant had to try this experiment at least three times…for several minutes after, during Spangler’s presentation there was the occasional POP! as someone continued to experiment!
Throughout the day-long workshop, Spangler pulled many attendees on stage to assist with demos, and the energy in the room was palpable. Several times throughout the event Spangler compared the room of nearly 150 educators to excitable third graders (the POP! of the occasional film canister did nothing to go against this assessment)! This excitement was based not only on Spangler’s infectious enthusiasm, but also to the generous supplies and materials given away at this workshop. At the close of the day, each workshop participant was able to walk away with a full goody bag of demos, equipment, dvds, and signed Spangler books. The book giveaways are now on my desk, just waiting for future program brainstorming sessions. I left Oklahoma excited and energized to try some of the experiments myself, and I mentally began planning some hands-on activities and possible summer camp programs…
Before we ended the workshop however, Spangler had one last “WOW” moment to share with the crowded room. After discussing engaging ways to present Boyle’s Law, Spangler detailed how he liked to use potato gun launchers as instructional devices to showcase how the pressure of gas and volume impact one another. The room was able to watch video clips of the launchers in action, and there were murmurs of interest from every table. Then, without much warning, Spangler invited every educator to grab a potato gun launder from the back, head to the field outside the SMO, form armies, and launch potato bits at one another! Needless to say, it was quite the epic battle.