SAN FRANCISCO -- The Exploratorium is renowned for its hands-on science, but when 10-year-old Kaitlyn Straight and her family visited the famed science museum on Friday, the Brentwood girl soon found herself part of an experiment.
As an audience volunteer during the Iron Science Teacher competition, Kaitlyn stomped on a plastic bottle attached to PVC pipes that teacher Pete Celona had pieced together to create a rocket launcher. The rocket shot up into the air, then Celona, who teaches pre-algebra and science at the Nea Community Learning Center charter school in Alameda, asked the audience, "What if you came out of a rocket ship and the only thing to drink was salt water?"
If capturing students' attention is the goal, Celona succeeded in providing the perfect entree for demonstrating the process of removing salt from water to make it drinkable.
The Iron Science Teacher competition began in 1998 as a spoof of the Japanese TV show "Iron Chef," where celebrated chefs must concoct an array of gourmet dishes based on one food ingredient that is kept secret until the last moment.
For Friday's competition, the secret ingredient was bay water, and the teachers had to quickly develop an exciting, engaging science lesson involving the salty liquid.
Physics teacher Zeke Kossover from the Jewish Community High School in San Francisco wowed the audience by using liquid nitrogen to demonstrate how San Francisco fog forms. But the winner was Stuart Kohlhagen, manager of research and development for the Questacon Technology Learning Center in Australia, who said he re-created the origins of life by combining water, salt and oil in a sort of "primordial sea."
Most of the competitors are involved with the Exploratorium's Teacher Institute, which challenges educators to find new ways to educate their students.
Centerville Junior High teacher Denise Torrisi-Nuno from Fremont teamed up with Foothill Middle School teacher Ariel Owen from Walnut Creek to show the audience differences in the density of salt water and fresh water. Davidson Middle School teacher Adam Singer from San Rafael asked volunteers to taste fresh water, lightly salted water and very salty water, then explained that these were like the water in rivers, the bay and ocean, all of which provide habitat for fish and other creatures.
Celona said he loved the competition and the Teacher Institute, where science teachers are re-exploring concepts such as light, color and optics with fresh eyes.
"One of the major themes is: assume nothing, question everything," he said. "As a new teacher, I'm always trying to improve my practice and there's no better place to improve your teaching than at the Exploratorium."
Owen, who teaches earth science and life science, has been involved in the Teacher Institute since 2006. She said it's the best professional development she's ever found.
"You have a bunch of grown-ups who know about science playing together and you bring back all of these amazing things for the kids," she said. "I'm having fun and I come back with lessons that are explicit and really help them learn about the world around them."
Kaitlyn said she likes learning science by doing experiments at Brentwood Elementary.
"I think it's more fun that just sitting in a classroom and hearing your teacher explain it," she said.
Kaitlyn and her family stuck around to talk to Celona, who enthusiastically explained how the rocket launcher worked. Then he surprised the family by taking it apart and giving it to Kaitlyn's 6-year-old brother, Kyler.
Grinning as he clutched the rocket launcher pieces, Kyler's assessment of the Iron Science Teacher competition was short and sweet.
"It's cool," he said.
To see the Iron Science Teacher competition online, go to www.wxploratorium.edu/iron_science;
the next competition will take place at noon July 12 at the Exploratorium, Pier 15, San Francisco.