In Cambridge, Massachusetts, right near the MIT campus, there’s a great little bar called “Miracle of Science.” It’s as if someone took everything from my science-outreach-filled dreams and made it a reality. Each delicious dish served up by the kitchen has a corresponding chemical symbol, and the menu looks, for the most part, like a periodic table. The veggie burger, for instance, has the symbol “Vb,” and can be found in the second column, where, as it happens, the alkaline earth metals would be in a real periodic table. I love this place. It’s like concentrated nerdiness mixed with good food and drink, and in my life, there’s not much sweeter, particularly given that one of my main outreach projects is an informal education model known as the “Science Café.”
While Miracle of Science uses clever themes to build its menu and décor, their periodic table, unfortunately, can’t hold a candle to the power and majesty of the real one. The true, Mendeleev periodic table, in all its form and glory, teaches us an incredible amount about the world we live in. It shows us not only that ours is a world comprised of constituent elements, that those elements fall into families, and that each member of a family shares characteristics with its relatives, but (and here’s the kicker), it also gives us clues as to why elements behave the way they do. Learning to read the periodic table is like learning to read music. It represents not just the individual chemical substances that make up our world, but the nature of the relationships between them. If you know how the elements relate to each other, you can use them, like notes on a staff, to create what some might call harmony.
NOVA’s series, Hunting The Elements (funded, in part, by the Department of Energy), is about understanding those harmonies and how they make up the chemical roots of our world. Host David Pogue takes us on a journey where we investigate some of our most familiar substances, and learn how the theoretical basis of the periodic table can be applied to them. We learn about gold, salt, plant fertilizer, and more. Through it all, we stay close to Mendeleev’s chart, and learn how it serves as a guide to explain much about the daily processes we take for granted.
At The Exploratorium in San Francisco, California, scientists are working hard to design ways to bring these every day discoveries about the elements into classrooms. Iron Science Teacher, an event series organized by The Exploratorium, borrows from the format of the famous cult TV series Iron Chef, and challenges its competitors (who are all instructors at the Exploratorium’s Teacher Institute) to produce, on the fly, an interactive science lesson that will engage learners’ curiosity and interest in a STEM-related topic. The lessons themselves are based on a “secret ingredient” which changes with every new episode. NOVA Education sponsored the last Iron Science Teacher presentation to be held at the Palace of Fine Arts Exploratorium location, and chose, as its secret ingredient, any one, or more, of the 92 naturally occurring elements.
The contestants took five minutes to devise a lesson. Using things like pocket change, a box of cornflakes, or plastic flatware, they worked hard to use materials that would allow their lessons to translate easily into classroom demos.
After the “construction phase,” the contestants presented their work to an audience comprised of museum visitors, some of them children, and some of them attendees and alumni of the Teacher Institute.
With the presentations complete, the audience voted on who they thought built the most fun and informative lesson. To find out who won, you’ll have to log on to Iron Science Teacher’s website at www.exploratorium.edu/iron_science/ and have a look. While you’re there, have a little fun investigating the resources made available by The Exploratorium, including webcasts of past events, as well as links to the Exploratorium Teacher Institute.
Also, please have a look at NOVA’s Hunting The Elements Education Collection. There, you’ll find a carefully curated space devoted to the most relevant online resources related to NOVA programming, designed specifically for use by teachers. Take some time to explore, and don’t hesitate to reach out to NOVA for guidance, to comment, or simply to connect. We look forward to hearing from you, and to helping you use NOVA to its highest potential.