Exploratorium’s Iron Science Teacher Competition Explores Everyday Objects

Photo: Theresa Chong
Contestants, Dawn Larkin [left] and Becca Friedland [right], scramble as they’re given 10 minutes to prepare their science experiments incorporating the special ingredient of air.

Science enthusiasts crammed into the Exploratorium’s studio in San Francisco last week to watch the last Iron Science Teacher competition of the year. Mimicking the popular TV show, Iron Chef, four-science teachers battled it out to construct science experiments incorporating a specific ingredient found in everyday life.

Among the fans were Soo Han and her eight-year-old daughter, Isole, and five-year-old daughter, Lanah. “We loved it [last time], so we came back for the second one,” says Han, who arrived early to secure front row seats. “I think it’s important for them to learn about science.” At home, her daughters play with electricity and physics learning kits and visit the Exploratorium every week during the summer, she says.   

Each year, three episodes of Iron Science Teacher are showcased featuring staff scientists or teachers enrolled in the Summer Institute for Teachers, a three-week program that helps middle and high school instructors learn hands-on about teaching science and mathematics. The point of using everyday objects, such as light bulbs, magnets, and even lunch foods, is to show people that science is accessible—and fun. This season, one competitor demonstrated the physics of blinking lights by using Christmas lights, while another competitor draped a paper-bag skeleton over a volunteer to demonstrate how air passes through our lungs.  A winner was selected based on how loud the audience cheered.

“I was nervous” about entering the competition, said Becca Friedland, a contestant in last week’s season finale. “I thought I would push myself and try to go outside my comfort level.” Friedland was crowned victor after she climbed on top of a flat table stacked on top of an open table. As volunteers blew air into Ziploc bags wedged between both tables, she levitated through the air with each passing breath.

Beyond entertaining science enthusiasts, the Exploratorium hosts these yearly challenges to encourage interactive STEM education and to celebrate educators. “Teachers get to be cheered for teaching well, which does not happen at school very often, if at all,” says Julie Yu, director of the Exploratorium’s Teacher Institute and host of the competition.

If you missed this season of challenges or if you’re hunting for science experiments, you can catch all the action here

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